RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On Fridays, we hear from StoryCorps. Americans across the country tell their stories as part of this project. They visit a recording booth with a friend or a loved one and interview them.
Today we hear a Memorial Day story. It comes from Butte, Montana. David Shea's mother died in the early 1980s, and he decided to move back home to help out his father, Denny Shea. It wasn't long before David learned there were some things he didn't know about his dad.
Mr. DAVID SHEA (Butte, Montana): One of the things I noticed early on was that he had all these small coffee cans lined up in their garage. And I said to him one day: Dad, you know, wouldn't it be cheaper to buy a larger can of coffee and have less garbage? And he'd say, oh, leave me alone, and just never you mind. It's my house, I do what I want.
Anyway, they kept stacking up in the garage. And the day before Memorial Day, he said I want you to go to Wal-Mart or Kmart and buy a bag of sand, some rolls of colored aluminum foil and as many silk flowers as you can get. And just don't ask me. Just go do it for me. Would you please?
So I said sure, no problem. So I went, and I loaded up the garage with all the stuff he'd asked me to get, and then on Memorial Day, he said to me: Would you mind helping me with the graves today?
And I thought well, sure, I'd love to do that because, you know, I thought it was my mom's grave and my grandparents' grave. And we get out to the garage, and he's got shovels and rakes and coffee cans full of bouquets. And I said what are we doing? And he goes: We're doing the graves. Just be quiet, and let's go.
So we get in the car, and he'd packed a lunch, and we started driving around the cemetery looking for graves. And I said well, who are these people? And he said: well, these are the people that helped me through my life, and they don't have any relatives, and they don't have any survivors, and every year I do their graves.
So we stopped at a grave, and it was the Torpeys, Mr. and Mrs. Torpey. And I said: So who are these people? I've never heard of them.
And he said: Well, we were poor, we didn't have anything, and when I needed to learn how to drive a car, Mr. Torpey taught me how to drive a car. And when I had to have a car to go on a date or something, Mr. Torpey would loan me his Buick.
That's pretty much how the day went. I heard my dad's whole life through the process of paying tribute to the people that helped him out.
You know, my dad never spoke about his past. We never talked about where he came from. What a way to learn about your personal history, you know, that it's typically you think you're going to sit down and have a conversation with somebody. But this was actually just the process of doing what had been a ritual for years that I didn't even know about.
MONTAGNE: David Shea at StoryCorps in Butte, Montana. His father, Denny Shea, died in 1995, and David decorates his grave each Memorial Day.
All StoryCorps interviews are archived at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. You can subscribe to the Podcast at NPR.org.