This is only memory, no more

I missed Memorial Day.  I knew it was Monday, of course, and that my US friends were enjoying BBQs and long weekends and the beginning of summer.  That’s not what I mean.

I missed it because I missed the ritual – picking iris and peonies, piling family members into a car, and going to cemeteries.  Remembering our dead.   In my family, Memorial Day has never been so much about BBQs or a day off from work as it has been about remembering.  And because my family has lived in the same area for several generations now, there are a lot of cemeteries, and a lot to remember.  We go to a family cemetery, high on a Ringgold county hill.  The view is breathtaking, and all the stones bear a common last name.  We go to municipal cemeteries in all of the surrounding towns, laying flowers for great aunts and uncles and grandparents – mostly people who I never met, or don’t remember if I did.  And yet, it feels solemn and quiet and right.  It reminds me of a line from Adrienne Rich’s “Seven Skins”:

And this is only memory, no more/so this is how you remember

Last year was one of the first times I wasn’t home for Memorial Day.  (In most previous years, I have at least been passing through southwest Iowa at the end of May.)  Last year I was in DC, and though I thoroughly enjoyed my brunch in the park and long weekend, something was missing.  So I went to Arlington National Cemetery.  I took my camera, and I walked its paths, passing graves of many who died younger than I am now.  Even though it was Memorial Day weekend, things were surprisingly quiet; tourists go to see the Tomb of the Unknown Solider and the Kennedy graves, not the acres and acres of stones bearing the names of common men and women.

I’m not close to many people serving in the military, honestly – I have no close family members and only a few close friends in the service, most of whom are still safely on US soil.  I was surprised, then, to find how quiet and dignified and right to visit felt – to honor, if not my own dead, then my country’s.

Maira Kalman’s blog this month is about the military and Memorial Day, and it reminded me of what I’m thankful for and what I miss.  Though I’m not generally a fan of recent US military interventions, I do admire the brave people who have made and continue to make my own freedom possible, and the spouses who have one wall clock set to central time, and next to it,  a clock set to Iraq time.

And these lines of granite headstones and flags in the May afternoon still leave me a little unable to breathe.

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