When I was a little girl the last weekends in May leading up to Memorial Day were filled with red poppies and chicken bar-b-que. Yes, in Pennsylvania that is how I was taught to spell barbeque. Our grilled chicken did not have red or tomato based sauce instead it was slathered with a butter and vinegar mixture and grilled in wire frames over coals or flames. The smells were amazing. The chicken skin was dried but the rest was moist and delicious. Paired with homemade pepper cabbage and mustard potato salad the meal was topped off with a square of chocolate iced butter cake. Every church and school and family gathering had a chicken bar-b-que in May, raising money for causes or just the easiest food to make for a large gathering.
At the stores or market, old men would be standing with arms or baskets full of red poppy pins. For a donation, and my grandmother always thought a nickel was enough, you got a red poppy to wear on your dress or shirt. My grandmother would mutter and fuss but she always bought a poppy for all of us and tell us to be sure to wear it to church on Sunday. Little did I understand her perverseness when I was a child. For our church, a Mennonite one, was staunchly anti-war. The red poppy was the symbol of battlefields in Europe. Wearing a red poppy pin to church was tantamount to declaring a war of sorts. That was my grandmother, full of pepper.
She also grew a patch of red poppies in her garden. One of the first flowers to grow each summer, after all the spring flowers and bulbs had faded, the straggly plant my mother called a weed if it grew anywhere except in grandmother’s garden, was a harbinger of summer. The flame red flower lasted for a week or two and was followed swiftly by strawberries. Not many other gardens had poppy plants or if they did, the flowers were coral or pink, but grandmother’s were only red, a bright red. After my grandmother died, her poppy patch faded away as well.
After I moved south I learned about other traditions celebrated in May. What are your memories of Memorial Day?