Grave Contemplation

Memorial DayThis weekend I was annoyed.

I listened to so many people – very educated people – thanking active duty servicemembers, the deployed, and our Veterans, all without mentioning the dead. And while it’s just peachy to honor everyone who serves, and to thank them for their continuing sacrifice, it always confounds me when it happens on Memorial Day without mention of the dead. Memorial Day is set aside to remember the dead. It’s like a nation afraid to say the word. Dead.

It bothers me that more people don’t observe that fact. It bothers me when people say “Happy Memorial Day.” It bothers me that it’s symptomatic of an American population that doesn’t understand the military. And so, I find myself annoyed on Memorial Day again.

I live in a rural area nowhere near a military base. Here the military is a distant ideal borne mostly by VFW and American Legion volunteers who stand near the coffee shop trying to pass out red tissue paper flowers. There are no active duty servicemembers walking about. The word “ma’am” is uttered mostly by polite older men to older women. There are no military uniforms. There are farmers in coveralls and a hardware store where you can still buy things “on account” and a high school team named after potatoes. It’s Americana and it’s quaint and it’s patriotic. Yet it’s getting harder and harder to find the military memory here, and in other American towns just like it across the country.

As the kids and I walked up the gravelly road into the cemetery for the Memorial Day ceremony, I noted the inscriptions on the moss-infected graves as we passed each one: WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. I was thankful there were no fresh graves, no visible connections to Iraq or Afghanistan. But I also understood that it was the reason for the widening gap between our military and civilian populations. Because for most of our nation the dead are not friends and brothers as much as they are cold headstones or sanitized news stories or touching Facebook photos. Even in a cemetery full of flags on a misty Memorial Day, the military sacrifice was conceptual. Theoretical. Second-hand.

We came to a stop in front of a tipsy podium rigged with extension cords, standing alone amidst the headstones. Men in blue covers gathered behind it, their pristine white gloves matching their hair. The moist flags hung heavily and as people gathered, we all stood motionless and stale. The ceremony began and my children clung to me for warmth, or maybe more. Their father was in the Middle East last Memorial Day. This year he was only on a business trip. But the lump in our throats was still very fresh.

I looked around. At 41 years of age, I was the youngest adult by many years. It was pathetic and embarrassing. I felt angry.

The speaker told the familiar story of a young man who didn’t come home after throwing himself onto a grenade. I was thinking of the young man’s mother when my seven year-old looked up at me and tugged on my shirt. I could see tears welling up in his eyes as he whispered, “what does ‘absorb the blast’ mean?”

My eyes glazed over as I realized that once again I was the only thing standing between him and a truth he already suspected. I replied quietly, “It means that he laid his body down on a grenade.” He looked at me, blinked, and waited for the confirmation. I felt like a surgeon who had just excised a tumor, trying carefully not to use the word “cancer.” I decided to be clear, because it was important. I leaned down so I could look him in the eyes and I whispered the truth. “It killed him. He did it knowing he would die. And it saved other people from dying. Do you understand?” My son nodded and turned away, but was soon squeezing my leg even tighter than before.

After the ceremony he stood staring quietly at the grave of a World War I veteran for a very long time. As I watched him it struck me how a story, some hushed words of truth, and something he could touch and see impacted him. In that moment, that dead man was a real person. And in that moment, that dead man in the ground stood in the gap between my son and the mere concept of sacrifice.

memorial day

Grave Contemplation

So on Memorial Day I will probably always be annoyed by the sales and the drunken barbeques and the well-wishers. But I will lessen the blow by always honoring the dead, and by teaching my children that it’s not just a theoretical, patriotic practice. It’s real. The dead are real. Like a mother answering an unwanted but inevitable question, the dead stand between us and a truth we already suspect – speaking plain and clear, even in their whispers.

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32 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lorrie
    May 29, 2012 @ 17:50:04

    So I am confused and in a very heated discussion about this very topic. I know understand that some active duty do not wish to be thanked/recognized on memorial day because it is for the dead. But then please answer me this….Is it ONLY for the ones killed in battle? Then why do we place flags and markers on graves like our grandfathers? My grandfather served in WWII, came home and died years later. Why is Memorial day appropriate to remember him then for his service but not thank someone STILL willing to go give that ultimate sacrifice for me? Why is it not ok to listen to my 90 year old neighbor tell his story about being a POW and honor him ALONG with those that didnt make it out. I am so confused and hurt and upset by the discussions I am hearing about this. If someone could please clear it up, please do so.

    Reply

    • Lori Volkman @ Witty Little Secret
      May 30, 2012 @ 10:44:31

      Lorrie, my understanding is that Memorial Day, which replaced the previous Civil War “Decoration Day,” was intended to honor those who died in battle. However, as a friend of mine so rightly pointed out, sometimes what we say to those who have served, those who came home, those who were willing but did not give up their lives, is “thanks for coming home.” So I think it’s OK. As long as we don’t forget to honor the dead. That’s all.

      Reply

  2. John Erickson
    May 29, 2012 @ 14:45:07

    Despite my long-time knowledge of what both Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day represent, I must plead guilty to thanking those online friends who are active or retired military. I guess it comes from seeing soldiers so horrifically “greeted” at O’Hare Airport as a kid. I think I make up for it, though, especially considering that, in our tiny VERY rural town of Fresno (Ohio), I am one of 3 buildings that fly a flag EVERY day (the Post Office and a former military member being the other), and the only house for 100s of miles that has a 48-star flag, for you traditionalists. :)

    Reply

  3. Lisa Wells
    May 29, 2012 @ 12:57:58

    Lori, I understand your frustration. Heck, as a military spouse – both active duty and reserves – I’ve even shared it. I too live in a rural community and have for decades, but I must add my two cents… Please, don’t discount those “red tissue paper flowers” or the VFW!

    I am not a VFW member nor is my husband, but I have always been a supporter through my donations and through the wearing of my Buddy Poppy every single year. http://www.vfw.org/Community/Buddy-Poppy/

    Too many people reduce their local VFW post as some ambiguous place where “a bunch of old guys” get together. The Veterans of Foreign Wars are so much more than that and deserve our respect and support. VFW members are US citizens who have served honorably in an overseas conflict – WWI through Iraq and Afghanistan – yes, all ages. And though the wars may be distant in both time and place, I’ll give you odds that the remembrances of those lost are never far away.

    And those flowers are Poppies, often called “Buddy Poppies.” They are given out every year in exchange for donations and those donations benefit both veterans as well as the widows and orphans of veterans.

    The correlation between veterans and the poppy began in World War I, where, to the amazement of all, war ravaged landscapes in Belgium were soon replaced with fields of wild poppies. I found this short slide show that briefly tells the story: http://www.slideshare.net/annecelestep/story-of-the-memorial-day-poppy

    As for all those who celebrate Memorial Day as a day off or a day to go shopping, I offer this… Your husband, mine, and scores of others over the last couple of hundred years, bravely made a conscious choice to serve in the U.S. Military. When they signed on the dotted line, they knew the risks. They also knew that a part of their job would be to serve so that others could live in this country and be free. Yes, we are all generally free to be, think, and do as we please, and that includes the freedom to celebrate Memorial Day any way we choose. Even if you and I feel it’s the “wrong” way… Do I wish they would all stop a moment to remember the men and women who fought and died so they could have that freedom? Of course, but as a realist, I turn it around. I just look at everyone and smile instead, happy to see people exercising their freedom. I know there are a few appreciative ones out there, remembering. You take what you can get.

    And besides, ultimately, my wish for all of us, is peace…

    Reply

    • Lori Volkman @ Witty Little Secret
      May 29, 2012 @ 14:45:53

      Well that was sarcasm. I wear my poppy. I pass them out. I just know thats how others see them. I’ve written about how great our local VFW was to me during my husband’s deployment. (Look up “Kindness Makes Me Want to Eat Pie.”) Sorry you took it that way. I have respect for those guys, big time.

      Reply

      • Lisa Wells
        May 29, 2012 @ 14:52:52

        Sorry, Lori, it wasn’t meant as a direct criticism, frankly it was more of a chance to sing the VFW’s praises. I wouldn’t question your patriotism… It’s my turn to say, “sorry you took it that way.”

        Reply

        • Lori Volkman @ Witty Little Secret
          May 29, 2012 @ 14:58:55

          I’ll try to be more sarcastic next time.

          BAH HA HAH HA HA ha ha ahhhhhh ….

          Reply

          • Lisa Wells
            May 29, 2012 @ 16:56:39

            I thought about letting this go, but for anyone who might read this later…
            The post you pointed me to, I read – very nice.
            I live also in the Pacific Northwest so I can relate to many of the sentiments of which you speak and I love how people reached out to you with such open hearts.
            And yet… the piece wasn’t about the VFW, it was about the American Legion. Similar organizations, but different…

            The American Legion is for anyone who serves or has served during wartime.
            The VFW is for those military members who actually served on foreign soil. This is a very marked distinction, especially since a debate has been instigated recently about whether to broaden their scope due to declining membership.

            By the way, Lori, thanks for putting up with me… Like you, I guard those I care about unreservedly and those who have served are on that list for me. I just wanted to set the record straight. :-)

          • Lori Volkman @ Witty Little Secret
            May 30, 2012 @ 10:48:41

            Ah, you are so right! It seems like so long ago when I wrote that piece that I forgot which organizaton it was. Here it’s the same group of actual people, but they wear different things sometimes. :) Small towns are like that. But you’re so right. And I’ve edited my story to reflect the correct affiliation. And the pictures are of our American Legion, FYI.

  4. Carol
    May 29, 2012 @ 12:03:13

    Lori, thank you for your thoughts.

    I also was irritated yesterday. My husband and I attended the WA State Memorial Service in Seattle at the Wall of Remembrance. During the ceremony we could not see the speaker (the 3 TV camera men were in our way) and then after the service when I was taking a picture of my husband recognizing his sons name on the wall, a camera man had the adacity to ask me to move. It was all that I could do to ignore him (not make a scene), take our pictures and then move so others could touch thier family memebers name.

    I do have hope for the future however. When we went to Andrews grave yesterday afternoon, thier sat his friend, in a chair just visiting…he was honoring the dead.

    I do have hope.

    Carol

    Reply

  5. Bethanne
    May 29, 2012 @ 11:04:55

    Remembering the dead brings to mind the ones next in line. I thank my husband, knowing he is willing to give his life for this country. The two themes are not far from each other. Most people who are touched by death turn to something life-giving. We celebrate the dead by living.

    Anyhoo, i don’t disagree with you. The sales, the parties can definitely be overboard. But set those aside… close your eyes and mind to the media hype. Allow yourself to find peace and shed the annoyance of this world. And pray for the souls who have made the sacrifice. [next year, anyway. :D]

    Reply

  6. Carolyn
    May 29, 2012 @ 08:19:26

    Lori, this is very well written. War has changed so much and we are so lucky that fewer and fewer soldiers are killed in today’s wars versus the wars of the past. Today, the number of surviving WWII vets is shrinking as many of them reach their 90s. It is impossible to find a mother or father of those that served in Korea or WWII. Difficult to find many parents of those that served in Vietnam but not impossible. Other family member, wives, sisters, brothers, husbands of those that served can also be difficult to find. I think many of us take the opportunity to reflect on what we could have lost when our family members served in the military in combat, we also realize that our soldiers that came home lost friends in the war. Every opportunity to remind the living, who have served our country by direct service or by being a family member of a serviceman, should be seized. We should thank them and acknowledge all that the war they fought in took from them; both physical and emotional.

    My most memorable Memorial Days were spent in Hawaii, at the Arizona listening to name after name after name of the lives lost on December 7th. It is also my most memorable December 7th, since we took more than a few opportunites to visit the Arizona.

    Freedom is not free and every chance to honor those that have served should be seized. Good for you for being honest and teaching your children the reason for Memorial Day. I’m sure yesterday will stay with them and be something they reflect on every Memorial Day.

    Reply

  7. Jo Falkner
    May 29, 2012 @ 07:56:03

    Lori, I want to thank you from my heart for this blog. We spent yesterday at the cemetery with the Reinkings remembering family members. Your great, great, great Grandfather, Rev. Eli Rammel was a Union Chaplain in the Ciivil War. My father, Frank Owen, was in WWII, my Uncle Bob was shot down over Italy in a B-17 Flying Fortress and never found. His mother, my Nana, waited everyday for him to come home. Mom was a junior in high school and had 6 brothers and sisters serving in WWII. My grandfather, on Daddy’s side, served in WWI. My Daddy, also, had four other siblings serve in WWII. I remember as a child going to the cemetery and decorating their graves and thanking God for their sacrifice. I remember coming home as a little girl, crying all the way home. I, too, am afraid the next generation will not remember them and continue to honor their lives. They only knew my Dad and one of my Grandfathers. They don’t have to go to the cemetery to remember them, “they know them in their hearts” is usually the response we get from all the neices and nephews. We use to take them with us, and now we can’t get them to go. Maybe, if they had a husband in the service, or were closer to someone who was in the service, it might make a difference. We cannot take our freedom for granted. It came with a price. Thank you for keeping it alive with Oliva and Cooper. I always have said, I am an American and wear red, white, and blue and am proud of my freedom and the lives that won it for us. It was popular once, but people forget so quickly, unless it hits us in the face again. God Bless you, and we love you all. Give Coop and Livie a huge hug from GranMa Jo and Papa.

    Reply

  8. Mel
    May 29, 2012 @ 07:25:26

    Thank you for this! I am constantly frustrated by this very same fact – from military spouses and parents, even. This article, though, shows that we can change that view, by educating our young and bringing up our children (once again) in a world of honor, patriotism and true reverence for those who gave us our tomorrows. You put tears in my eyes and hope in my heart.

    Reply

  9. gh
    May 29, 2012 @ 07:12:20

    Yes- thank you. Veteran’s Day is for honoring the living, Memorial day is to remember those who have paid the ultimate price.

    Reply

  10. John Morris Benson
    May 29, 2012 @ 06:50:40

    I honor my uncle in WWII, HS Classmate in Nam and a comrade in arms (a man without family) still under foreign soil who’s death or having been in Nam has never been acknowledged as far as I know.

    Reply

  11. Chantal
    May 29, 2012 @ 05:30:03

    A very touching post and a good reminder about what the day truly is about.

    Reply

  12. Trinity River
    May 29, 2012 @ 05:08:02

    It is sad. This holiday has become another excuse to have a 3 day weekend and drink to excess. :(

    Reply

  13. jenschwab
    May 29, 2012 @ 03:29:09

    I had a hard time with yesterday too. Memorial Day used to be about stories – other people’s stories, of people who lived and died long before I was born. This year it really hit me — that now it’s about Ben, who I was privileged to do push-ups next to. And it’s about Scott, who stood next to my husband while they both received their commission. I’m still struggling with it this morning.

    Reply

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