Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The title “Graveyard Day” refers to the time set aside each year for cleaning and maintenance of a family cemetery. While many contemporary families break apart, this activity demonstrates Joe McClain’s dedication to his kin and his close connection even with those who are no longer alive. As he carefully tends the graves of his dead relatives, he convinces Waldeen that she can build a new relationship with him.
Throughout the story Mason presents several unconventional families. After Waldeen’s divorce, she and her daughter Holly constitute a family, but the roles of parent and child are reversed as Holly frequently reprimands her mother. Joe spends most evenings with Waldeen and Holly, and these three try to form another family configuration. In still another variation, C. W. Redmon and Betty Mathis live together but avoid marriage because Betty does not want children. To satisfy his own need for a more extensive family, C. W. borrows Holly and takes her fishing. In all these situations, the family unit is more temporary than abiding. Indeed, a reference to television emphasizes the constantly shifting nature of family relationships. As Holly and her pseudo-father Joe play cards, they laugh like contestants on Let’s Make a Deal. The game show analogy suggests that their merriment may be transient and that family arrangements are always subject to renegotiation.
At the graveyard, Waldeen realizes that if she marries Joe (and stays married long enough) they will both be buried there with his family. As she imagines their common headstone, she begins to feel that the promise of marriage is symbolized not by a diamond ring but by a burial plot. Thus, in the middle of a cemetery, she finds hope for a new life. If she pursues a fuller relationship with Joe, she can perhaps forge new family links that will endure.
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
For less than a year Waldeen has been divorced from Joe Murdock, a wild and irresponsible construction worker whom she married when she was too young to choose wisely. Another construction worker named Joe McClain has now proposed to her, but she does not yet feel ready to marry again. She cannot forget about the first Joe, the failure of her marriage, or her former husband’s continuing need for adventure. Although she feels love for Joe McClain, she distrusts her emotions and worries about the future—including the danger of losing her daughter Holly to her former husband.
Waldeen feels that she is only playing family when she, Holly, and Joe McClain eat together, watch television, play cards, and spend weekends at each other’s houses. In truth, she believes that family is permanent and its membership cannot change—even though it has. Joe McClain brings Waldeen and Holly food and gifts almost every day, he cuts Waldeen’s hair for her, and he tends to his family plot on his “graveyard day” each spring and fall. Although he seems to be a caring person, Waldeen fears that he may become irresponsible like her former husband, Joe Murdock. She tells McClain that she needs time to think about his marriage proposal. She resists marriage as has her best friend, Betty Mathis, who has told her live-in companion, C. W. Redmon, that she does not want to have his child—the condition that he has placed on their getting married.
(The entire section is 555 words.)