Back in the 1940s, it seemed like a long way from Windham to Boothbay Harbor – especially if you were a kid. But for many years, my family traveled to Boothbay Harbor. We didn’t know it was a resort or famous for anything. This was a trip with a purpose and it happened every Memorial Day.
Reluctantly, four of us squeezed in the back of the car, with the youngest in the front with my parents. We fidgeted and argued about who would sit by the window, but once underway, we were silent for the rest of the trip down old Route One. An occasional comment from my father to look at something, like the hulking rotting ship bones sticking out of the water, or seal pups laying around on rocks in a cove, was all that broke the silence.
We didn’t realize we were part of a Memorial Day tradition, that of going back to hometowns to pay respect to those who had passed away.
My father was born in Boothbay Harbor. His father was a fisherman and his mother sold the catch, door to door. She, like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, caught the flu in 1918 and died that year when my father was only three years old. Even though he had no recollection of his mother, most years around Memorial Day, he went to Boothbay Harbor to visit her grave and those of other relatives from the Brewer and Kelley families.
We children did not visit the cemetery. Our mother had a rule – kids didn’t go to funerals or cemeteries. “Plenty of time for that later,” she’d say, so while the grown-ups went to the graveyards, we stayed with our father’s grandparents, Emerson and Annie Brewer, at their house in the area called Spruce Point (today an exclusive section ruled over by the Spruce Point Inn.
The Brewers were all fishermen. On Memorial Day, after the adults had come back from the cemetery, we had a big dinner of lobsters, clams, corn on the cob and potato salad. We watched the tide come in and the seagulls shrieking about, and played croquet and wondered how much longer we had to stay.
While we were there, we visited several older relatives who all lived in the Harbor or nearby Newcastle. Their old fashioned names – Aunt Grace, Aunt Sarah, Uncle Luther, twin uncles named Collis and Hollis – remind me today of their life in tidy little houses next to the ocean, with a short lawn dropping off to the sea and a dock where a boat was always tied up. Piles of lobster traps and bright colored buoys were great places to clamber around and play and the smell of salt and the ocean pervaded everything.
When we went inside, were treated to cool glasses of lemonade in dark rooms, long tables covered with lacy or embroidered tablecloths. The elderly relatives talked quietly about those who had “passed.”
As the years went by, and the demands of a large family increased, the Kelley family trips downeast became fewer. Here in Windham, we had two or three parades every Memorial Day – North Windham, in the Center and in the village of South Windham. We had to get ready for the doll carriage or decorated bike participation.
Neighbors and relatives visited. Gardens had to be planted. There were cookouts and picnics to attend to, and each year, more graves in nearby cemeteries to get ready for Memorial Day. The adults pestered “the town” about getting the cemeteries mowed. The kids didn’t know what the fuss was all about.
As we got older, my mother eased the ban on children going to cemeteries, and soon, we were enthusiastically picking bunches of lilacs, long stems of pussywillows, branches of forsythia and crumpled up bunches of violets, and taking them to the old Chase Cemetery. We piled them up against our grandmother’s gravestone, and our grandfather Sawyer’s, and even by the tiny little stone where our mother’s baby brother was buried. Trips to the cemetery were lessons in family history. Little did we know then that, no matter what else life brought us, we’d be doing this every year, at many other gravestones and in other cemeteries, as well, right through 2005. That’s how traditions are made.
Some years ago, one of my sisters and I visited the old haunts in Boothbay Harbor – or tried to. One relative’s house had become a $300 a night B&B, and the road to the cove where our great-grandparents lived, was roped off and marked “Private.” We never did find the cemetery. Those long ago Memorial Day journeys became Memorial Day memories.
Back when my grandfather, Arthur Kelley died here in Windham, it was just an unspoken understanding that he would go back to Boothbay Harbor, even after decades of living in Little Falls. Home is home and some things never change. Just the other day, I got an email from a relative I’ve never met, who lives way up the coast in Washington County, a second or third cousin. She had made her annual trip, she said, “over to the old cemetery and someone had put flowers on Arthur’s grave.”
Memorial Day traditions in Maine have an everlasting life.