When I was a child, Memorial Day meant a trip to my grandparents’ house. It meant my uncles also returned home, my aunt came over, and the whole family was together. It meant badminton games in the backyard, shopping for my “summer sneakers,” going to Lupo’s for speidies, and Pat Mitchell’s ice cream dripping down my hands while I sat on the cemetery wall next to the ice cream shop, feet swinging far above the sidewalk. The evening would be topped off by my grandfather setting off fireworks. We wore red, white, and blue and at some point during the weekend we left flowers on the graves of family members who had passed. Over the years, those visits grew fewer and farther between, while the visits to gravesites only increased. Yes, it was a kick-off to summer, but we also used it as a weekend to be with family and to remember those who had gone before us.
I was fortunate that all my family members who’d been in the military made it home. One grandfather returned with a Purple Heart, but they both had the opportunity to marry and raise families. My father was in college during the last years of the Vietnam War, so he never served, and my uncles were all too young.
My father-in-law, however, served in the Marines, right in the thick of things. He was there only a few months before he was sent home with his own Purple Heart. Thank goodness for that, because he had the chance to marry his sweetheart, raise two great sons, and be an excellent grandfather. One of the lucky ones.
But for a long time, he couldn’t talk about it. His battle, as for so many of his brothers, didn’t end when he was back stateside. It’s only been in the last few years that he’s been able to talk about his time over there and reunite with the other men in his company. In fact, most recently he served on a committee to construct a monument to those who didn’t make it home. This past weekend, we all attended the unveiling and dedication of the monument. We also toured the US Marine Corps Museum.
Let me tell you, there was no more fitting way to celebrate the reason for Memorial Day than to see these men gather, now fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and remember their time in the war as if it were yesterday. To see the tears in their eyes as they read the names of each of the fallen but also recalled the few good times they had over there.
The museum itself brought home to me the distance we have today from such conflict. Walking through the galleries, seeing how the technology of warfare has changed the nature of battle over the years, made me realize how it’s all just “history.” All just stuff that happened in the past. Until we arrived at the last display, the September 11 monument, where we were confronted with the reminder that it’s all been too real.
For all our tuning in, for all our connectedness, for all the 24/7 coverage we have of our military heroes’ activity today, we are still far enough removed that it’s lost its impact. We saw the events of the Arab Spring beginning to unfold live on Twitter, we see images on the news and online every day. My Facebook feed was filled with sentimental memes this weekend: photos of today’s young war widows sprawled in front of their husband’s gravestones, photos of sons gifted with American flags at their fathers’ funerals, with the accompanying caption reminding us the reason for the holiday was not picnics and barbecues and three-day furniture sales.
All lip service. All abstract concepts to our jaded media-saturated brains. Sure, you take a moment to ponder it. You may think, “Huh, that’s right,” and then return to your cookout. You want to remember our fallen heroes? Next year, I recommend planning a trip. Visit Arlington. Visit the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall. Visit Gettysburg, or any of the Civil War battlefields. Pearl Harbor. Any one of the many September 11 memorials in communities all around our country. The ghosts are there. They’ll help you remember.