Love Our Heroes
Here it is again, the “unofficial” start of the summer. I did some research and found out that the summer solstice is not until 11:09 pm on June 20th, but by then, we will be deep into swimming pools, backyard picnics, family trips to the beach, and amusement parks. So let’s just leave science behind, and this weekend let’s enter into our summer mode!
Memorial Day is one of our national holidays which honors the men and women who died while serving in the United States military. Originally know as Decoration Day in the years that followed the American Civil War, the name change came in 1882 and by the mid 20th century it included the recognition of all Americans who had died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Moved from its original date of the 30th of May in 1971, we now celebrate it on the last Monday in the month of May.
“Decoration Day is the most beautiful of our national holidays…The grim have turned into palm branches, and the shell and shrapnel into peach blossom. (Thomas Bailey Aldrich)
Families often gather for barbecues, towns have patriotic parades, flags decorate homes and businesses, and some people use it as an occasion to visit the grave-sites of deceased relatives, whether they had served in the military or not.
I grew up in a small village in upstate New York and an old private cemetery was on the border of the back of our property. This small plot of land, the Morris family cemetary, was tucked behind a few white pines and its perimeter was protected by the remaining pieces of an ornate iron gate. Some of the simple white stone grave markers dated back to the 1700’s and the smallest head stones belonged to children. In spite of the moss and weathered engravings, we could actually read names, dates and other loving inscriptions on these simple tombstones. Incorporating their existence into our imaginary childhood play, on Memorial Day, my three sisters and I would re-enact a graveside visit by putting on our finest dress-up clothes, collected from church rummage sales and Mom’s cast off evening gowns, don a hat with a veil, and proceed to the cemetery, scuffing along in over-sized high heels with hand-picked wild flowers while pretending that we were paying our respects to our long lost loved ones. Television must have provided the background knowledge for my actions since I had been fortunate enough not to have attended any funerals since none of my own loved ones were yet lost. Imitating what I had seen, I solemnly processed to the back of the yard from The Barn, our play house, dragging my lengthy skirt through the freshly cut grass and respectfully entered the cemetery with my tiny wilted bouquet. I guess I acquired an introduction to grief through this re-enactment on a very elementary level. I knew that I was supposed to speak softly, not laugh, and wear fancy clothes and gloves and a hat if I had one. I was old enough to understand that a person named on the stone had lived and had died. But that was the extent of my interaction. I never actually saw the person and therefore they were never alive in my world. I didn’t feel a connection.
When I was in college, a high school friend of mine was killed in the Vietnam War and I remember feeling intense sadness as I heard the news over the phone from my father. I could not believe that my fun-loving friend John was gone and that his parents would never see their son again. Years later I sought out his inscription on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C . and I made a rubbing. I keep that paper in my desk to remind me of human bravery and the sacrifice that he, like so many others, made while serving our country.
“The brave die never, though they sleep in dust; their courage nerves a thousand living men.” (Minot J. Savage)
I learned about Taryn Davis when I was researching possible resource sites for my book. This incredible young woman was widowed in 2007 at the age of 21. Looking for comfort and a way to process her deep grief, she started a “non-profit organization dedicated to the new generation of those who have lost the heroes of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, with an emphasis on healing through sharing stories, tears, and laughter.” She was a 2011 Top 10 CNN Heroes Honoree. When I watched the ceremony on TV this past December, I felt proud to be aligned with this fantastic organization. I can’t wait to meet Taryn this summer in San Diego at Camp Widow. She has helped us to remember those who have sacrificed loved ones. She reminds us that hearts are broken and families are divided while our freedom is being protected.
“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” (Joseph Campbell)
In my early interpretation of grief, I had to use my imagination since as a child I had not experienced loss. I recall feeling a sense of seriousness as I bowed my small head when I knelt in front of the anonymous grave. It was a foreign sensation to me and slightly uncomfortable and I was glad when we went back in The Barn and I took off my funeral clothes.
My mother brought an outfit for me to wear for my husband’s funeral. Knowing that I was probably not focusing on my appearance, she shared one of her suits and even brought the jewelry to go with it. Just like the dress-up clothes when I was little, I was glad to take off that outfit when the service was over. I never wanted to see it again.
Perhaps you will make a graveside visit to remember a loved one this Memorial Day or maybe you will be making new memories with family and friends. All are worthwhile activities of the heart. They involve love. When we reduce the events of our lives to their simplest forms, love is the common denominator. We all love our family and friends. And our service men and women show their love for our country with their bravery and sometimes with their lives. This Memorial Day, find a little place in your hearts for our heroes too, if you haven’t already made a space for them.
Happy Memorial Day!
Morris Family Cemetery -Ames, New York August 2009