Brandon’s flower girl tradition continues despite pandemic on Memorial Day
By LEE J. KAHRS
BRANDON — Every Memorial Day for the last 120 years or so, a line of first grade girls in white dresses and carrying fresh flowers walks up to the Civil War monument in Central Park. The girls circle the monument and lay their flowers at the foot of the statue. It is a uniquely Brandon tradition beloved by everyone who witnesses it. The flower girls were even the focus of a 2016 film by Civil War historian and Brandon resident Kevin Thornton called “Death in the Wilderness.”
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented public gatherings in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus and the usual Memorial Day parade and ceremony in Central Park was not possible. However, two girls donned white dresses and kept the tradition alive.
Monday morning came early for Neshobe School Principal Judi Pulsifer, kindergarten teacher Ellen Knapp and retired Neshobe teacher Jeanine Griffin. The three woman visited the Civil War monument just before 7 a.m. to lay flowers on Memorial Day.
Then, around 10 a.m., seven year-old Marion LaPorte walked to the monument in a white dress with her mother Gwen, then walked alone around the statue and laid fresh flowers in a solemn and singular act of remembrance, carrying on the flower girl legacy.
Just before 11 a.m., Emily Mendiola, 7, appeared in a white dress and laid her flowers at the foot of the monument. Then American Legion Post 55 held a short ceremony featuring WWII Veteran Burt Reynolds reciting the Gettysburg address, and Post Commander Aaron Tucker played “Taps” on the trumpet.
It was Thornton who contacted Knapp to see if the flower girl tradition would continue in some way. He was as taken with the ceremony as anyone when he first moved here, so much so that he researched the history of the tradition and wrote and produced a historical film. “Death in the Wilderness” is about Brandon, the Civil War, and a young widow who traveled to a Virginia battlefield to retrieve the body of her husband.
As far as he knows, Thornton said the tradition has happened every year for over a century.
“Well, I can’t prove it, but it’s a tradition that is very important to Brandon, so I don’t see a year where it wouldn’t have happened.”
Knapp said in an interview Tuesday that she had been troubled for weeks about the possibility of not having flower girls this year. She said the parents of the two girls contacted Pulsifer about being flower girls in an abbreviated ceremony.
“The tradition was carried on,” she said. “The flowers were place and we remembered. The ceremony was just continued in a different way.”
Knapp said the school is working with the Legion to figure out a date to have the full flower girl ceremony when social distancing rules are lifted on public events.
“When the time comes when we can have a ceremony with the first grade girls, that’s what we’ll do,” she said. “We just don’t know when that will be.”
Her voice broke a bit.
“It’s something that’s been a part of our town for a long, long time,” Knapp said quietly.