This is why we decorate.
The worn old man pictured here in the sagging jacket is my great-great-grandfather, Aquilla France.
The photograph was taken at a studio in Marshalltown. Shortly before his death, he boarded a train accompanied by his two sons on his way to the Old Soldier’s Home in Marshalltown where the infirmities of old age forced him to reside as a widower, alone and away from family and friends, during the closing chapter of his life.
The other portrait here is also him.
He served as a private for the Union Army in the Civil War in two different companies of the Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. He was taken prisoner at Murfreesborough, Tennessee, and returned home during one of the prisoner exchanges that predated the horrific Andersonville Confederate prisoner of war camp. He re-enlisted and subsequently served the Union Army in Virginia.
Aquilla France suffered his entire adult life from consequences of the typhoid fever he contracted during his Civil War service.
The younger portrait was taken at a studio in Washington, D.C., when what would become of his life was still a mystery.
In the first photo, the one in which it is clear those mysteries have been spent, Aquilla William France, 1832-1911, is wearing his Grand Army of the Republic uniform. A few months after it was taken, he died and his body was returned to Hamilton County for interment at the rural Cass Center Cemetery.
Since then, our family has honored him with flowers on Memorial Day.
Back in 1911 it was called Decoration Day. I remember my grandmother still calling it that years later. My oldest memories of Decoration Day summon the turn into her driveway that was bordered on one side by an explosion of pink and white peonies. Peonies were essential to Decoration Day. Their heavy, heavenly-scented heads made the very best bouquets. We tucked them into 3-pound Folger’s cans covered in aluminum foil and placed them at family graves.
Decoration Day was established by a fraternal organization comprised of war veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic — or GAR. The GAR credited with anchoring the last Monday in May as Decoration Day.
The third photo here is of GAR members. It is probably taken in Webster City, but our family can’t tell you the men’s names. We have assumed that they all belonged to the Winfield Scott Chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, which was the Webster City chapter. It was a group that included Aquilla France until his death.
But this photo was taken after he died, we believe. Because most of the men are wearing a GAR uniform with a special ribbon, we think they must have been attending an event commemorating an important aspect of the Civil War, perhaps the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, which would date the photo to 1915.
As our family aged, Aquilla France’s grave brought us together again and again in the modest country cemetery where he was laid to rest.
We go there on Memorial Day weekend, rain or shine, bearing peonies.
He is why we decorate.
Because he gave.