Many families are visiting area cemeteries this weekend to mark Memorial Day. For some, it’s a family celebration of the lives of loved ones. For others, a quiet moment to remember. For still others, it’s a patriotic duty to honor veterans.
On Sunday, some two dozen members of the Robinson family were planting flowers on the graves of loved ones at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island.
“We have parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, so when we come out here, we put flowers on 25 graves,” said Howard Robinson, whose grandmother was the first in the family to be buried in the cemetery, back in March of 1960. They’ve come back every Memorial Day weekend since.
“This was a tradition from our parents,” said Sharlay Robinson, Howard’s sister. “My mother and father did this for years, so we look forward to it every year.”
The family always comes the Sunday before Memorial Day — the actual holiday is the rain date — and spends hours planting flowers, from petunias to chrysanthemums to marigolds.
Sunday, a 3-year-old niece walked amidst the graves in the noontime sun, holding a stuffed toy. Teenage cousins caught up. Most of the family lives across the south suburbs and South Side of Chicago.
“I’ve been coming here since I was born,” said Ryan Miggins, in his 30s. “As I get older, and as the young ones get older, we need to carry this tradition on to our kids.”
The family’s most recent loss was Howard and Sharlay’s brother-in-law. He’d been married for 30 years to their sister Sacotta and “died of a broken heart” after she passed away, said Howard.
“All the years of marriage they had, they would go grocery shopping holding hands like teenagers, they still did that,” he said. “When she passed, he no longer wanted to live.”
Josie Ojeda was visiting her family’s grave Sunday at Beverly Cemetery, also in Blue Island. A large black marble headstone is engraved with her family name, Garcia.
“I like to honor my mom … Trinidad Garcia,” said Ojeda. Her brother Hector and younger sister Ruby are also here. Buried on the other side of the marker are her father and two nephews.
“I’m so thankful that God allowed them into my life,” said Ojeda. “Yeah, and I miss them. So I just want to honor them for being in my life, for bringing joy and happiness and a lot of good memories.”
Ojeda comes here often. “On birthdays, Mother’s Day and other holidays — if it’s not myself it’s other sisters and brothers that come and bring flowers and just make everything look nice,” she said. On this day she brought red silk flowers, her mom’s favorite color. She has set out a blue fold-up chair.
She usually sits for a while after tidying the grave. “And if other family members come, then we’re here longer. So it turns into an afternoon gathering here.”
Toward the edge of Lincoln Cemetery, Margo Wright has come by herself. She’s remembering her son.
“My oldest son. He passed away — well, he was killed … He’s here, Earl Wright, Junior.”
He was just 17 when he died, said Wright. That was more than 30 years ago, and it still hurts.
“I still still think about, still think about. Like it was yesterday,” she said. Visiting his grave on Memorial Day is not a tradition for her, but today, “I just felt like I needed to come. So here I am.”
Scott and Christine Randall raked and clipped grass around grave markers Sunday in the area of Beverly Cemetery where their family is buried — parents, aunts, uncles.
“We brought some flags for the holiday, remembrance for these guys,” Scott said of his uncles. “They were all veterans. My uncle, he served in Italy. My other one was Navy in the Pacific.”
The couple also tidy up a nearby grave.
“We always take care of the old soldier next to his mother,” said Christine. “Because nobody seems to come out, so we take care of him.” Robert Peterson was born in 1894, died 1953.
“I would say this has a lot of meaning to us,” Scott said of their tradition of coming out on Memorial Day weekend. “Because of the veterans, you know, for what they did. So I just [feel] for these guys— how young they were and what they saw and what they had to do.”
The Randalls say they wouldn’t feel right if they didn’t mark this holiday. Before they leave, they plant small American flags at the graves of Robert Peterson, and each of their veteran relatives.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.