ST. PETERSBURG — Kimberly Grawcock has lived through plenty of Memorial Days.
Until Monday, the federal holiday was just about the barbecues and the beach. She hoped for nice weather and good company. She had never been to a ceremony on the holiday or stood in front of the rows and rows of perfectly aligned graves to give her thanks.
But last year, her cousin, a private first class in the U.S. Army, was killed in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device.
Now she pledges to remember him each year.
"I never understood the true meaning of Memorial Day until this year," said Grawcock, who lives in Seminole.
On Monday morning she stood with thousands of others at a ceremony at the Bay Pines National Cemetery. It was the Tampa Bay area's largest Memorial Day observance and possibly the largest ever at the cemetery.
Even after the ceremony — after the Pledge of Allegiance, the invocation, the stories of war and horror, the firing salute, the playing of taps — her voice quivered as she tried to describe the day.
"It was so awesome," she said, standing next to a row of graves. She pledged to return next year.
All throughout Monday morning, people walked about Bay Pines cemetery, standing solemnly next to graves and leaving bouquets for loved ones. The skies were blue and the winds mercifully cool.
Before the 10 a.m. ceremony, Gloria Belmont, an 84-year-old from Seminole, brought flowers to her husband's grave. She has done so at Bay Pines every week since he died of cancer in 2000.
But Memorial Day always holds special meaning to her.
"It's a wonderful thing to come here and (commemorate) the death of so many people, especially the young ones who are dying today," Belmont said.
Belmont left the bouquet of red, white and blue flowers for her husband of 11 years, Alexander Belmont, who served in the Navy in World War II.
"He was such a wonderful husband," she said, holding back tears. "The best anybody could have."
What struck Larry Karisny the most, as he walked the grounds just before the ceremony, were the 30,432 American flags. One for every grave.
"You can kind of feel the presence here," the Madeira Beach resident said. "There's certainly a spiritual presence here."
The Bay Pines ceremony was one of several across the Tampa Bay area on the federal holiday.
The High Point community marked the holiday in Hernando County with a late-morning ceremony that included a call to colors on trumpet by Mike Tranchida and a rifle salute by the American Legion Post 186 color guard.
Members of the High Point Fire Department presented military service banners.
The Joint Services Committee presented its annual Memorial Day ceremony at Florida National Cemetery, near Bushnell, with several hundred people in attendance. The Hernando High School Band performed patriotic music, and the Florida National Guard provided a gun salute.