Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day remembered

Growing up the son of a florist meant that holidays took on a different meaning. For weeks before a flower holiday, things got tense at home as my dad would be getting the store ready and then the week of, wouldn’t see him until late at night. Unlike other retail stores where you could buy your gift or card well in advance and hold onto them until the holiday, flowers being perishable meant that everything got crammed into the last few days before date that was bolded or otherwise highlight on the calendar.

Memorial Day was unique among the flower holidays. Instead of grabbing a single bloom, bunches of flowers, a plant or small arrangements, dad was making these huge arrangements. You been to a funeral? Those kinds of arrangements. Big ones. Ones that were heavy and took up lots of space.

When I was in grade school, my dad’s flower shop was in the downtown corridor of my little home town. Maynard, Massachusetts - small town America with a big stripe of hometown pride. There was my dad’s shop sandwiched between Firestones on the left and The Outdoor Store on the right, right there on Nason Street. The place was narrow but long-ish with most of the floor taken up by the glass display refrigerator and selling space in the front, a smaller work space in the back and storage space in the basement that you got to via a narrow staircase.

As a kid, when I would visit dad at the flower shop during the Memorial Day week I remember these HUGE arrangements being created and shuttled around. My dad and his brother John would be making the arrangements on these two benches. The would grab a special papier mâché type of vase. Sometimes it would get stuffed with shredded sytrofoam and sometimes they would put in a product called Oasis both used to hold the flower in place. They would grab ferns and leather leaf to create a background. Elastics holding the bunches together were either pulled or snapped off in order to get to the individual pieces. Then would come the big background flowers like gladiolas or pompom chrysanthemums. They would grab the stem and then break it to the appropriate height then discard the broken, unused stem at their feet. Other flowers like carnations, daisies or mini carnations were used for the middle. Occasionally a dozen roses would be wired up to keep the heads from drooping and then inserted into the arrangement. Finally, baby’s breath or statice was interspersed among the blooms to give the final touches to fill out the creation. The entire process, start to finish, taking 15-25 minutes to complete.

Each was unique. Between placement, type and color of flowers, each was its own master piece of creative artisanship. Each was special.

Now it had to be stored. That was the tough part. The front of the store didn’t have much space to start with as it was stuffed with geraniums and other plants but some were squeezed up there. Many were taken down the stairs to the basement and put on the floor or on shelves that were hanging from the walls. Eventually this location was filled. Once or twice a day they were brought up from the basement through the bulkhead into the van in the alley that separated my dad’s store from The Outdoor Store and transported to a secondary storage location. My parents had bought the house next to my childhood home. During the front end of Memorial Day week, the place would be stuffed with these large arrangements. The van would head there and fill up the living room, dining room, den and basement with these floral displays.

Behind our house was a greenhouse and that was chock filled with geraniums and mum plants. After dropping off the arrangements, the back of the van was loaded with the plants to bring back to the flower shop to replace those that had been sold. Towards the end of the week the van would be picking up and not dropping off anything as the house once again became empty and the stock level of the green house dropped down.

This routine changed while in was in Junior High School. My dad remodeled the house next door so that the first floor living space sans an enclosed porch area and the kitchen became the retail selling space and a new 20X40 addition with full basement on the back of the building became the work and storage area. The old green house had been torn down and a new larger one was placed further back.

The Sunday late afternoon and night before the holiday I can remember walking the 20 steps between the house to the flower shop and watching dad. The front door was locked and he was in the back room at the bench where he always worked. On the bench were circular styrofoam rings. He was taking gilded or coated magnolia leafs and special U-shaped pins and stick the leaves to the ring overlapping the pins with the leaves so the pin would be hidden. He would take a red white and blue stripped ribbon and hand make a bow with long tails. The bow was attached to the top and the tails attached towards the bottom side. He would also make a couple of small flower bouquets with the bases of the stems held together with string. When it was done, it was wrapped in waxy green tissue paper.

Early on Memorial Day my dad would get up early and load the van with all of the wreaths and bouquets to deliver them. Maynard wouldn’t exist with the Assabet River. In the downtown area there are three bridges that cross it at Main Street, Walnut Street and Waltham Street. He would head to these bridges and manage to attach a wreath to each as well as leave a bouquet. During the Memorial Day events the bouquets were thrown into the river as a tribute to those who had lost their lives in service to the country. At the memorial park area on Summer Street he would set up a stand and place one wreath there.

I think dad loved and was privileged for doing it for several reasons. One, he was a vet himself after serving in Korea. Two, Maynard is a tight knit community with veteran’s organizations like the VFW and American Legion in town. Although, I’m not sure if they still exist there today. Even as I checked my Facebook this morning, someone from Maynard posted pictures of the parade going down Main Street with a color guard, veterans, a band and boy and girl scouts, with stops on the Main Street bridge and the memorial park. Lastly, I think dad did it to honor an uncle I never knew, his brother Stanley who was killed in action and is buried over in the Philippines. Didn’t know anything about him because dad barely ever mentioned anything about Stanley or what he himself did while in the military.

Later in the day the family would head to the cemetery to visit my brother Scott’s grave. I never knew him. As we’d enter Glenwood Cemetery there would be many graves with flowers, plants, bouquets or arrangements on them. Some of my dad’s flowers were there. I’d handed out some of them within the few previous days. We’d go over and mom and dad would clean around the marker and dig out the dirt and debris that had gotten into the engraved letters.  Mom’s there now laid to rest next to her first son. After a few years we’d head over to Grammy Tomyl’s grave. She passed during the summer between finishing junior high school and starting high school. She was buried in a different part of the cemetery. Being one of the two florists in town my dad knew the guys who worked for the cemetery. Sometimes they’d be there and they’d come over and talk to the family giving dad the low down of what was happening.

That’s what I remember. As a kid I ended up helping at the flower shop through high school and college and the few years after until I left to move to Hawaii to go to school. Even in those few years I can remember the number of geraniums sold going down and all that space that was originally built into the new flower shop not being fully utilized as an older generation passed away and the meaning of the weekend shifting from that of remembrance to that of being a three day weekend, a chance to get away. When I would talk to dad and ask about the holidays were going with sales he’d say something along the lines of “It isn’t like it used to be.” I think being a florist’s son gave me a different perspective because flowers tie into people and events in a much deeper, more personal level. So I sit here, recalling, reminiscing and reflecting about part of what Memorial Day means to me.

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