Edith Marie McCurdy was born in Kansas on July 7, 1906. When she was just a young girl, her father tragically passed away. Edith was forced to leave school to care of her younger brothers and sisters while her mother worked three jobs to support the family. My great grandmother McCurdy was a unique and interesting character. She was a strong, colorful woman who was known for beating the neighborhood men in rounds of poker while smoking cigars and enjoying endless shots of whiskey. An independent role model, great grandmother McCurdy raised her three daughters to be as strong and tough as she was. The three McCurdy sisters—Edith, Alma, and Lil—were smart, beautiful women who were constantly compared to Katherine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, and Audrey Hepburn.
In 1922, at the age of sixteen, Edith eloped with Ralph LeRoy Burgess. A year into the marriage, Edith gave birth to her first child, Ralph, Jr. Over the next ten years, the family grew with the addition of three more children—Jimmy, Nancy, and Leslee (my mother). Though the Burgess family is directly descended from the House of Burgess (the ruling royal family during the founding of America before the Revolutionary War) in the 1930s, Ralph LeRoy struggled to support his family. During the Great Depression, he worked as a plumber and handyman, taking any odd jobs he could find in order to support his growing family. The Burgess family never had much of anything—money, food, or possessions–and they continually struggled for survival.
Every morning during the cold Kansas winters of the 1930s, the two young sons, Ralph and Jimmy, would wake up very early, put on their tattered coats, and walk outside into the cold, dark morning. The sons would join other young boys who walked along the railroad tracks and picked up lumps of coal that had fallen off the trains. Coal was the only source of heat for all of the families in Kansas, but no one could afford it. Grabbing the coal off of the snow-covered train tracks was the only way most families could survive. Technically, however, the coal belonged to the railroad companies, so even picking it up off the ground was considered stealing. The young boys walking along the tracks were constantly looking out for policemen as they slipped the black, dirty, hard clumps into the torn pockets of their coats. However, the threat of an arrest was unfounded. Many of the officers chose to look the other way when they saw the boys walking the tracks. Some officers even helped the younger boys gather up the coal before escorting them back home to their mothers and issuing a stern warning. However, the next day the officers would look the other way when the young boys once again arrived at the railroad yards.
According to Grandma, the Great Depression was a time when people pulled together and shared what little they had. “People were kind to each other then,” she would say. “Everyone was always offering what little food and coal they had to each other. We had no choice. We were all suffering.”
And things were about to get worse. World War II took many of the young men far from home and far from their families. But once again, people rallied, Grandma claimed, and continued working together. Young, brave men were eager to enlist and fight for America’s freedom, especially after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Young courageous women went to work in factories where they helped build equipment needed for the war effort. Families would gather together in the afternoons for activities such as writing letters to the troops or rolling old material into bandages. People spent what little money they had buying war bonds and contributing to care packages sent overseas to the troops. Women would use dark liner to draw straight lines down the back of their legs. The lines resembled the seams that usually were found in the back of nylon stockings. The women were disguising the fact that they were now bare-legged. The nylon was being used to create parachutes for the men overseas. Other small luxuries, like chocolate, were no longer available to the general public. The precious items were being sent to the troops overseas. The American people gladly sacrificed their material goods and simple pleasures for the war effort.
Many American homes began to resemble caves. The houses were shrouded with blackout curtains, which blocked any light coming in or out of their homes. The houses were plunged into darkness to make them invisible to foreign planes that might fly over America and drop bombs, which was currently happening in England and across Europe. Due to the bomb scare, many homes had bomb shelters and underground bunkers. Public places held weekly bomb raid drills and school children were taught how to duck and cover. According to Grandma, all Americans participated in the war effort.
Roman Senate Seneca once stated, “Great men rejoice in adversity, just as brave soldiers triumph in war.” The stressful situations of World War II brought Americans together as they overcame adversity and triumphed in their battles. At that time, our troops were considered heroes and were gratefully supported by American citizens who had also sacrificed to keep America strong and free.
So Memorial Day was always very special to my grandmother. Every year, on the last Monday of May, my family would go with Grandma Edith to the local florist to buy exquisite wreaths and bouquets of lilies and roses. Not understanding the significance of the flowers when we were younger, my sisters and I loved to play with them. For instance, we would pretend we were brides carrying the huge bouquets down the aisle. We would sit in the back seat of the car holding the wreaths and bouquets on our laps and become intoxicated by the sweet, natural aroma that filled the car.
As my mother drove around town to various cemeteries, Grandma Edie would tell us stories about the Great Depression and World War II. She would tell us about the way people supported and loved each other. She would talk about the families that would gather together to cry over their losses and rejoice over the return of their sons. At each of the cemeteries, Grandma would lovingly clean off the headstones and place flowers on the graves of her family and friends. Many of the people Grandma honored had served in the war but many others were family members or friends who had shown love and support during the most trying times in America’s history. Grandma believed that all people who stood up to adversity and fought for the rights of others bravely served our country. The soldiers on the battle field, the young women in the factories, the families rolling bandages, the people giving up chocolate and nylons, the teachers who instructed in bomb drill techniques, the souls crying over losses that were not even their own. All had served and all should be honored.
So for Grandma Edith, Memorial Day was a day to respect all people who had lived, loved, served, gave of themselves, and took care of each other when America faced great adversity. My family never celebrated Memorial Day in any other way. We never went to barbeques or had parties. We didn’t go to the opening of swimming pools and celebrate the coming of summer. Thanks to my grandmother, the holiday always held a traditional meaning for my family. We spent the day honoring all who served…at home and abroad. And although I admit that as an adult, I no longer spend the day visiting gravesides, Memorial Day remains a day of quiet reflection and in appreciation for all who serve America…
….just as my wonderful grandma Edie had taught me.