A cousin of mine was getting married and some of us relatives were sitting over the remains of breakfast at our out-of-town hotel, the wedding party having been long since whisked away to endure the final lacquer-and-buff-job deemed necessary before such a momentous event. The rest of us didn’t have to worry as mere guests; people who, if we appeared at all in the day’s pictures, would appear from behind, or shuffling though the receiving line, or shot from the side in mid-step on the dance floor.
Thus, we were killing time and lingering over our toast crusts when an older relative said something I have never forgotten
His remark came out of the blue, it seemed, as we spoke in a casual way about the news of the world.
“I’m glad my time here is nearly done!” he declared hotly. “It’s all falling apart now – anyone can see that. I hate to think what’s coming!” Then he ducked his head and took a loud sip of coffee.
I was shocked that he spoke this bleak sentiment aloud, all the more so because he spoke it within earshot of our young people at an adjacent table.
I wanted to suggest suicide to the guy if things looked so bad to him. I wanted to help him commit it, I was so mad – because nothing seems more destructive to me than for an adult to speak despairingly of the future.
We adults have many tasks, one being what custom calls the Maintenance of the World. This means it is up to us to safeguard and protect what was built by those living before us. If we think of what we are maintaining as a graceful structure, erected over many decades as the great cathedrals were erected, then our job becomes one of standing guard over it. Ensuring its soundness. Lovingly restoring it as necessary. Our job is certainly not to declare it condemned and scuttle away, predicting imminent collapse.
We approach this Memorial Day as a nation still at war, as at war we may well remain if global acts of terrorism continues to be committed.
Thus the easy if less imaginative outlook to take is the dark one.
But I am encouraged by something Joel Meyerowitz said five years after the events of September 11, 2001.
Joel is the man who shot thousands of pictures at Ground Zero; who was there all through the discovery of the body parts that in the end accounted for less than half of the day’s victims on that site. Joel in fact was the only photographer allowed unrestricted access to Ground Zero immediately following the attack.
I heard him say in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, let’s rebuild on that awful site, sure. But let’s plant trees there too, one for each victim, set in the earth in the same clusters where the remains were discovered.
Trees, he said. Sources of oxygen, as he put it.
Memorial Day is here again and we have many to mourn, God knows; many on whose graves we might lay wreaths.
It’s the custom in this country to bring flowering plants to the graves of the people we have lost, though most of them are soon cleared away by the cemeteries’ grounds crews.
So let’s now try what Joel suggested. Like Noah after the Flood, let’s plant anew.
Trees, yes. Trees at every site of devastation. New trees at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, for example. But let’s plant seeds of hope too, and weed out all despair even as we honor all our fallen.