When we were kids, my sister and I went to the cemetery with our mother and aunt every Memorial Day, though it didn’t mean much to us, young as we were. We mostly danced among the graves, and dashed happily off to fill the dented metal watering can at the leaky old faucet. And anyway our dead had been dead for so long, the mother of our mom only 31 when she was buried there in 1910, her unborn baby in her arms.
Then time passed as time will do and I guess I was almost grown when I noticed that we weren’t going to the cemetery so much anymore, even though our mother and aunt’s own dad now also lay beside his dead young wife. “Is it because we moved an hour north of Boston and Holyhood is too hard to get to?” I asked Aunt Grace one day as we stood in the dining room of our childhood home.
“That’s not it,” she replied. “It’s because they aren’t there,” she said, and then repeated the declaration with a strange passion I had never before seen in her: “They aren’t THERE!” she said again, as if to suggest that any fool knows the dead travel to a place infinitely farther than we humans can conceive of in our poor imaginings.
Was that why we weren’t going to the graves so much anymore? Because nothing was really down there but clay? Or dust? Or whatever remains behind aside from the metal hasps of the coffin? And if that is the case, then why, all these years later, do I still stand again at that grave and picture them all just a few feet below me?
I see my mother and aunt in their favorite Sunday outfits. I see my grandfather with his dark eyebrows. I see the young woman whom I should have known as my grandmother lying in the high-necked Gibson-Girl-style dress they would have chosen for her back at the start of the last century. But what good comes of these vigils? I wondered at the time.
And then one day I saw a young woman sitting on the grass of a soldier’s fresh and flag-decked grave. She was there when I came by at noon and she was there when I came again at 6:00. This was one month after we buried our last remaining elder who over the last six years of his life became in many ways my closest friend. In the long quiet days since that passing I studied countless snapshots of him – as a schoolboy in the 1920s, as a young man starting out in life and then suddenly in the South Pacific during the worst of the fighting there in World War II. I hadn’t even understood his part in that war until the day, almost 70 years later when he shyly handed me a notebook of poems and sketches he wrote from the front.
Then another day, which was a day just last week, I visited the place here pictured overlooking Omaha Beach where lie 9,387 of the fallen, almost all of whom died on June 6, 1944 and in the 100 days after as part of the Allied invasion of Normandy:
I was with a group of about 80 people. In the impromptu ceremony held for us, an offcial of the park asked any veterans among us to come up front and join her. About 15 people did and when she then read the poem written by a young man in combat just before his own death in Lebanon, one of our veterans wept openly.
That might have been the moment I first really understood what Memorial Day is and why we mark it.
Here then to “the lost” as they were called in that first awful World War, and to the man with the tears running down his face and to my own family’s veteran, gone now too under the earth young as he once was and full of life.