PERSPECTIVES: An Early Birthday Perspective on Memorial Day
By James C. Johnston Jr., born May 29, 1944
I remember most of my birthdays going back to when I was about four or so. My birthday is the day before the real Memorial Day which is May 30. There was always a lot going on around that holiday that sent all sorts of mixed messages to me. I knew that my birthday was being celebrated by a lot of adults, and therefore, this day must be important. The fact that the whole community was staging a parade to mark the event, obviously of my birth, also contributed to my feeling of importance in the world. Some of the adults even told me that this May 30th parade was just for me. Now that confirmed a lot of foolish notions I held to be true which of course were not. The world’s attention really did not center on me about late May when I was an adorable infant, and therefore, as my mini-reality of an adoring family would influence me to see it.
First of all, there was always birthday cake and ice cream to celebrate the anniversary of my natality. Then there were presents. After I was six or so, I got the gifts that I really wanted. My favorite gifts were: money, lumber, books, money, stamps, coins, nails and screws, money, antique objects, money, and then more money with which to buy good stuff. You have to remember that twenty-five cents, fifty cents, and a dollar was considered pretty big money almost eighty years ago, so, five or ten dollars was a really big deal as a gift.
The question now came, “Was I really now becoming a little crass materialist?” I like to think of myself as a materialist with at least some modicum of taste and a social conscience along with the good old “American Sense” to be appropriately crass just at the right time. As we all know, timing is everything after all. Knowing just when to be appropriately crass is the essence of good taste. Not knowing when to be crass is concomitantly the essence of bad taste. I think that I became a “Collector of all things good” around my fourth birthday on May 29, 1948.
One of the reasons I wanted lumber as a gift was so that I could make things I could not get in any other way like bookcases, cupboards, and benches so that I would have a place to put the treasured things I had collected or received as gifts on my birthday in my favorite month of May when everybody seemed to want to celebrate my birthday with parades, parties, large cakes, gifts, and such.
Once in a while I “screwed up”, and I was told by my very tolerant parents that was O. K., because “screwing-up” was just ''being human''. I guess that I've ''been human'' a lot. And that's not always a bad thing as long as you don’t hurt anybody or yourself in the process. Personal growth should be the result of the aforesaid “screwing-up”, or at least I hope so.
Being human has had its place in the scheme of things, I guess. Up to this point in a pretty long life, I've had 79 years to practice my “being human”. One of these days, I might even get it right. The important thing is to keep trying.
Unlike a lot of people these days of great mobility, I've lived in the same town, Franklin, for my whole life.so far that is. In fact, I've lived in the same house my whole life as well, and since I decided to take it off the market and do some period restoration work, I guess that I’ll be living there a bit longer.
Only recently, I had decided that I might move to a larger place. After all as one gets older, one
needs more room for all our life-time gathering of “Stuff’, and consequently, we need to “Up-Size” right? To me, that all seems very logical. I always intended to end my days in my home comfortably surrounded by the souvenirs of a lifetime. The idea of actually moving the mountain of ''Stuff''’ I've collected over the years is now almost unthinkable.
So, when my allotted time is up, I intend to be well-planted here in Franklin in the little family plot in the Ray Memorial Cemetery which is better known as The Union Street Cemetery. I suppose that Memorial Day is just about the time to think about those things. I remember that as a small child my parents and I would visit the grave yards where our ancestors were lovingly interred and placed flowering plants over the ancestors to give the place a park-like appearance. During the ensuing summer season, we would return to water them.
Initially the cemetery looked like a lush garden, but with the passing of time, most of the plants and bouquets of flowers turned brown and dead. A day would come when we showed up, and all of the brown and desiccated leavings of Memorial Day would be gone as if by magic. To me it seemed as if an eternal calmness and peace had descended on this great park-like memorial space. I knew that someday, many years distant I hoped, I too would lay here resting under the sod until the sounding of the “Last Trumpet”.
So after I am gone, please feel free to just drop by and visit sometime if you feel so inclined and, at the same time, want to make sure that I’m still under the sod and hadn’t escaped for the purpose of causing any more trouble. Of course, considering all available options, I'd really rather say ''hi'' and pass the time of day with you now while I'm still topside, but if that doesn't happen, I'll be just hanging out at the corner of West Central St. and Union St. for the foreseeable future, that is, after I've crossed the River Styx and paid the boatman his fee for the ride. I have always been known as a big tipper when I've liked the service rendered.
I don't think as many people ''Decorate'' the family graves as they once did years ago. In fact, I can remember the old timers of my youth calling Memorial Day ''Decoration Day''. This designation of the day goes back to a time just after the Civil War when this holiday of commemoration began.
Now we had a few high-toned relatives, planted here and there, who really did not want to be buried in the beautiful cemetery in Upton, Mass. They craved the glories of the more aristocratic Mount Auburn Cemetery as a much more appropriate address for the after-life. But no lesser a figure than Broadway's great and famed Gertrude Lawrence, my cousin theater-owner and Broadway Producer Richard Aldrich’s , and the original star of The King and I, loved Upton's wonderfully situate “place of eternal rest” which is located not far from the center of that pretty and sleepy little town. Gertie won over her mother-in-law to the idea that this cemetery was both very pretty and desirable post mortal bit of rather select real-estate. Gertie expressed the opinion that she would be quite happy to rest in Upton on this pretty drumlin with its fine view of the water in that attractive and peaceful little place. Alas, she went there far too soon much to the sorrow of her family and millions of fans on both sides of the Atlantic while still headlining in The King and I on Broadway.
As my folks and grandmother were tending to family graves nearby, as a small child I'd walk over to Gertie's love seat shaped monument, which serves as her principal memorial, and wondered who was buried here with so much obvious love and attention. Slowly over the years as I matured, I learned about Gertrude Lawrence’s story which was later dramatized in the movie Star with the lovely Julie Andrews playing the role of my cousin Gertie. I think that about the age of six or seven I fell in love with Gertrude Lawrence when I heard stories of her great generosity and kindness.
Today I have a collection of her envelopes which she saved for her much-loved stepson. She gave stepson. She gave him thousands of mail sent to her and of the people who lived in her West 54th Street Apartment building whom she asked to save their envelopes they received from all over the world. Later on a lot of this material was gives to me when relatives learned that I too was a stamp collector.
It was strange that the proximity of my birthday to Memorial Day made me very comfortable with the idea of death as a final rest, reality, and as a reward for a life well and fully lived. Endless sleep beyond pain and trouble in the dignity of a lovely place, which is more like a well-kept garden, was comforting and an almost cheerful concept. May is a beautiful time of year. Everything is new, and Clean, and reborn. Spring flowers, like lilacs, perfume the air and birdsong enchants the ear. After the planting of the Memorial Day flowers, my elders would take me from family plot to family plot and introduce me to generations of Martins, Nixons, Aldridges, Prentices, Allans, Johnstons, Melins, Fosses, and many other folks I could never know in life who all had their own stories that made them live forever after. So, Happy Birthday to me and a Memory laden special day to you gentle readers as I enter my 80th year.
James C. Johnston Jr. is a former Franklin selectman, Franklin High School history teacher, and author of "The African Son," a novel , as well as "The Yankee Fleet" and "Odyssey in the Wilderness," (a history of Franklin, Massachusetts). Article copyright James C. Johnston, Jr. 2023, used with permission.