Leora Goff Wilson’s soft white hair glows as she stoops beside a headstone to arrange flowers from her own garden – pink peonies, blue iris, red coral bells, and what she called “little yellow buttons.” She has made sure her two daughters, with her for this Memorial Day ritual, have red crepe paper poppies to wear – for remembrance.
A small silver bell dangles from her watch. All five of her sons served in World War II. The bell from Capri was sent home from Italy after its owner was declared MIA.
Fallen loved ones. Flowers. Women.
During the Civil War women placed flowers on the graves of family members lost in war. Not long after that war, May 30 was chosen “for the purpose of strewing with flowers the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”
Decoration, or Memorial, Day was born.
When Leora Goff was a girl, Decoration Day included a solemn ceremony attended by the whole town. When she was nine years old, she was one of about twenty girls who took party in the ritual at Guthrie Center, Iowa
Veterans of the Civil and Spanish-American Wars decorated a hay rack wagon for the 1900 procession, she later remembered. A team of Palomino horses pulled the wagon to the cemetery. The girls, dressed with white – with red, white, and blue sashes over their shoulders – rode on the wagon. Veterans marched behind.
At the cemetery, a young girl in white accompanied by an old man in uniform to lay flowers on soldiers’ graves. It was a ceremony Leora never forgot.
By the time three of her brothers had been drafted and sent to France in 1918, Leora was married and had two small children. He daughter Doris was born that August.
A decade later, Doris took part in Decoration Day ceremonies in Dexter, Iowa. Two by two, girls in white dresses with red and blue sashes marched the mile to the cemetery southwest of town. The reverent procession included the town band and uniformed veterans.
At the cemetery each was handed a cluster of pale blue iris for each arm. As a name was called out the first girl placed flowers on the grave. Another name, her other bouquet. Her partner was next. These two returned to the end of the line for more flowers. The crowd followed through the rows of stones, men holding their hats in respect. A lone trumpet sounded Taps.
After losing three sons during World War II, Leora and her daughters, Doris and Darlene, grandchildren and even great grandchildren made the trip to Violet Hill Cemetery in Perry, to remember those young sons.
One stone commemorates Dale and Daniel, young pilots lost in combat in the war. Danny is buried in France. Only God knows where Dale’s remains lie.
The middle stone marks the grave of Junior, her youngest. Barely twenty, he was killed at the very end of the war when his plane exploded during training. Junior was the first of the family buried at Perry, in August of 1945.
The last bouquet is for Leora’s husband Clabe, who died the next year of a stroke. . . and a broken heart, surely another casualty of the war.
Who remembers the sacrifice of these young men, now that Leora Goff Wilson also lies in Violet Hill, and her daughters can no longer honor them with peonies and iris?
Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II is available from Amazon in paperback and ebook, also as an audiobook, narrated by Paul Berge.
It’s also the story behind the Wilson brothers featured on the Dallas County Freedom Rock at Minburn, Iowa. All five served. Only two came home.