Wednesday, June 1, 2016

... a memorable Memorial Day in cemeteries & listening...

is supporting your country all the time,
and your government when it deserves it.
                                                           ~Mark Twain

I had a rather memorable Memorial Day weekend. On Saturday morning, I headed to Shockoe Hill Cemetery (the burial spot of Poe’s first and last love; as well as the Allan’s, the family who raised him) and spent the morning placing flags on the graves of soldiers from nearly every US war except Korea. 


I learned various state flags and some of the different Confederate battle flags during the Flags Across Shockoe Hill event, which was sponsored by the Friends of Shockoe Hill Cemetery. I also learned what a “flagger” is and worked side by side with some members of their group. Around here, I only hear about folks in organizations such as the flaggers through the news, and it’s never in a favorable light. Usually, the news story is about folks raising a Confederate flag in an area where it is especially upsetting to others. Flaggers will say that it’s “Heritage Not Hate”, as one of their badges read, while others will see this as a symbol of hate.

I joke that I’m from a mixed marriage—Mom is a Southerner; Dad is a Yankee. I code switch whenever I speak with my parents. You can always tell who answers the phone.

Me: (when Mom answers I sound something like this) Mumma, is Diddy there?
Me: (when Dad answers I sound like this). Hi Dad! May I speak with Mom please?
The meanings are exactly the same; I want to speak to the parent who did not answer the phone. How I pronounce ‘aunt’, ‘envelope’, and even the state where I reside (‘Virginia’), all sounds drastically different.

My father jokes that Monument Avenue, a street in Richmond, VA that includes numerous monuments of Confederate generals is made up of “second place trophies.” He isn’t being offensive. He just thinks the South needs to move on from the 1860s.

My mother doesn’t say much about the Confederate flag or the South. But then, on her side of the family my great, great, great grandfather, William Conrad Hensley fought for the South. I also know that he was peanut farmer, dirt poor, and it was a job not an honor. He needed to feed his family and it was a paying job. It paid enough so that he could afford to have his picture taken during the war.  In the picture (right), I am at the Virginia War Memorial for their Artifacts Roadshow event. An expert was way too excited when I brought in my ambrotype of my great, great, great grandfather (below). Hensley fought in the Battle of Petersburg but got sick and died of Typhoid.
One of the aspects that I adore about the United States is how we are a nation of diverse individuals. With that often comes struggle to accept that which is different. In my life and in my job, I often discuss White Privilege, and issues associated with diversity. While I sometimes feel *Southern*, I deeply understand what it means to be a Virginian and how difficult it must have been for many Virginians, who have ended up in the history books as Confederates, who had to choose. For example, Robert E. Lee was incredibly torn when Virginia declared its secession from the Union in April 1861 but he followed his home state even though he wanted the country to remain intact, and despite being offered a high ranking position in the Union army.

On Saturday, I had the choice whether or not to speak or to listen. Considering no one from my Meet-Up group showed up (I actually think some joined a tour group that was going on) and I was clearly noted for my clothing as having an interest in the macabre, I decided that I should listen.

I'm sure that our politics are different; I am certain that there is a great deal that we do not agree upon. I’m not going to disrespect any flag; my parents have taught me better. However, on Saturday, I carried the American flags, instead of the Confederate battle flags, and placed them from grave to grave.

It was such a rewarding experience—meeting and learning from people who are different; and, meeting and learning from those who are not that different.

On Saturday night, my fella and I met up with Connie from Hartwood Roses and her fella. We had dinner and then headed to Fredericksburg National Cemetery for the luminaria. They lit 15,300 candles in the cemetery to represent each of the soldiers buried there. “Taps” was played every 30 minutes and National Park Service staff shared information throughout in the form of a guided tour. It was overwhelming and beautiful. The one thing that struck me while we were standing among the soldiers was how the American Civil War was mentioned. They were careful to explain that the Confederate dead were buried in another cemetery after being left behind in the fields. We disrespected one another. I guess that is war. 

But, while standing on the hill at Fredericksburg National Cemetery, I could not help but think the only way we ever have a chance to learn anything is when we take some time to listen.


  1. Oh, so interesting! Civil war is probably the most fascinating time in US history after witch hunts in colonial America.

    1. I was all perky when I wrote, "I would much read about witch hunts" and then realized how very wrong all of this sounds :p

  2. At dinner with you and the fellas last week, as I listened to your tale of flagging the veterans' graves, I was fascinated by how much care and attention went into the task. I have never been to Shockoe Hill Cemetery, but I hope to see it one day soon. So many cemeteries, so little time.

    I'm really glad that you were overwhelmed by the Luminaria ... I think that's what the originators hoped would happen to visitors. I have been there many times, listened to the tales of people who are buried there, and I always cry. Folks forget that a cemetery is more than stones and flags and, in this case, candles. Each stone represents a person, who had (has) a story and a family. When the bugler plays Taps, it gets me EVERY time.

    1. I've told so many folks about the Luminaria. It was something else!