May (week 4)
(Author’s Note: I realize it’s now June, but it took me awhile to actually get to finishing this post. Depending on how today goes, I may post a June Making Memories Monday post, too. 🙂 )
Though I know what Memorial Day is about, it’s something I’ve never really given much thought to previously. Since I worked in retail for over 10 years, Memorial Day meant a busy day at the mall. On the years I didn’t work on Memorial Day, it was about a barbecue with the family. Even though many men on both sides of my family–including my father and father-in-law–were in the military, I’m lucky to say that none of them lost their lives during a war. If that were the case, perhaps Memorial Day would hold more meaning for me. But I am decidedly and unwaveringly anti-war, and it’s hard for me to see so many lives being lost to defend our freedom. Even my father, who as I mentioned is retired military (he was in for the full 20+ years), quite adamantly and frequently exclaims, “I hate war.” So you can see why I may avoid traditional Memorial Day observances. To be surrounded by heartache and sadness isn’t the way I like to spend my weekend. While I do respect the fact that they gave their lives to protect this country, I hate the reality that LIVES are indeed the cost of freedom. And young lives, at that. And sometimes innocent lives.
Anyhow, off my soapbox.
On a related note, I am terrified…really, really terrified of cemeteries. As a little girl, I would always close my eyes when we were about a block away from the cemetery that we always passed on the way to church. I still do that on some road trips where I know cemeteries were located. Some of them have super-creepy vibes to them and I would want to pass them as quickly as possible. I’d often stay in the car and sing happy songs to myself while others would want to hop out and check them out. A friend once told me (or perhaps it was my husband) of a road not too far from where we lived that had one of the most haunted cemeteries in the U.S. Bad idea. So anytime we actually drove on that road, I’d scream, “Drive faster! Drive faster!” like a madwoman. Upon my husband’s inquiry as to why he should break the speed limit (I’m usually a stickler–nay, grandma driver–when it comes to speed limits), I replied in a panicked voice, “I don’t want to open my eyes and see an angry ghost. I won’t be able to sleep for months!” On a trip to Gettysburg one year, I stayed in the car while my history-loving husband went out and explored in awe of the battlegrounds and monuments. I, meanwhile, thought I was going to be sick, I was so frightened. I can’t say that the hubby put up with every single one of my unreasonable freakouts (I mean, really, who would?), but he has for most of them. For that, I’m incredibly grateful.
I don’t know exactly why I’m so terrified of cemeteries (and pretty much any landmark associated with death, if I’m to be honest with myself), but I have a few theories: it could be that I’m scared of ghosts, which I am. But even moreso, I think it’s that I don’t like being in a place where the only reason it’s there is a result of hate and violence. Being surrounded by that negativity, devastation, and sadness makes me want to hide. I’m not good with the subject of death in the first place (I’ve never been to a funeral in person; I’ve only either watched them on TV or attended wakes or memorial events). Couple that with bad juju, and it’s a toxic combination guaranteed to give me the heebie-jeebies. That would probably be why I wasn’t too keen on the Alamo, would hate to visit the Sendai region of Japan, and would cringe at the notion of visiting Mount Vesuvius. It’s probably also why I always avoid the mummy rooms of museums and curiosity shops.
But something pretty profound happened this Memorial Day weekend. Armed with the determination of checking off another thing on my “Pictures to Take” checklist, I purposefully sought out a cemetery that I could take pictures at. I’m still amazed that I made that decision on my own, with no prompting from anyone or anything else but the May checklist that I wanted to finish. Behold, the power of a to-do list! 🙂
So in the middle of the mini-road trip/vacation/camping trip at a small town, I asked the hubby to make a pit stop at the cemetery before going on with the rest of the day’s festivities (which did, by the way, include a barbecue). He didn’t question anything and just agreed.
Upon approaching the gate, I counted my lucky stars that the cemetery wasn’t one of those old, creepy ones with huge, dilapidated stone pillars and trees with skeletal branches. It was quite verdant and pleasant and peaceful and well-maintained. I walked from gravestone to gravestone with a purpose, trying to find some indication that it was decorated for Memorial Day. I was feeling okay and didn’t feel the suffocating need to flee, so I counted that as a victory right away. My husband was quick to call me over to a grave of someone who served in the military:
I moved on quickly, in search of a grave that looked decorated for Memorial Day, as decreed by the Almighty Picture Taking List. But then something weird happened. I felt the need to stop and take pictures of all those I found that served in the military, even if–especially if–they were not decorated. These people deserved just as much, if not more, respect than those who had flags galore on their graves. I didn’t want these undecorated graves of soldiers to remain forgotten, so I took some time to say hi to these people, too:
This last one’s my personal favorite, even with my shadow:
What I love so much about it is the story it portrays (which may or may not actually be true, but I don’t care. I’m going to pretend it is until someone tells me otherwise, so there.) Albert served in the military during World War II, so Phyllis had the heartbreaking yet proud job of being a military wife. Ever since 2006, Phyllis would go to Albert’s grave on Memorial Day to pay respects to her soldier. They led a long and happy life together, and will lead one after her death, too (as you can see, Phyllis is still alive).
We walked around for a little bit longer, but my brave reserve started to run out after we ran across old infant graves, unmarked graves, and the grave of a recently-deceased 19-year-old man. My mind started winning out over my determination as I remembered the sad parts of cemeteries, the parts where the deceased didn’t live long lives, or they didn’t have a living relative or friend to even know who they were. I realized that when I was strolling around on the grass, I was sometimes walking about six feet above dead bodies. Then I heard a few owl hoots and that’s all it took to promptly squeeze hubby’s hand and beg him as calmly as I could to make a quick exit. As we drove away and I reviewed the pictures I took, I half-jokingly told him that I would probably burn the camera if I happened to spy a ghostly image in any of them.
He told me he was quite proud of what I did, and that I decided to put aside my fears of cemeteries to pay my respects, and I suddenly felt much better about my decision to go. Indeed, I had very real fears of what I just did, but it was nothing compared to the fear those soldiers must have felt leaving behind their families to put themselves in the crossfires of war. For that, I think the least I could do is pay them respects.
A couple of other things happened that weekend that made the title “Memorial Day” quite appropriate. First, the town we stayed at for Memorial Day has property that my husband and I camp at about twice a year. We get together with friends and family, and it’s been a tradition for at least 30 years (I think it’s actually more like 40). My husband invited me to partake in this tradition when we first started dating. It’s where I first met my parents-in-law. Suffice it to say, this property has many great memories attached. Almost four years ago, the owner of the property–and a friend of both of ours–passed away. This August will be the last official get-together at this property, and I’m sure it will be a bittersweet one. So as we hung out in town, I remembered our friend and said a silent hello. The cabin we were staying at had some creaks and odd sounds like cabins do during the night. Normally, this would keep me up because I’d be so scared, but that night, I pictured our friend putzing around the cabin and felt safe instead.
The other thing is that a high school classmate of mine was tragically killed last Memorial Day weekend. She was on my mind as we started the trip, and she entered my mind again as we passed her little memorial on the way home. They had since added a sign with her name on the memorial, and her death was made more real. I was saddened for awhile, and the weight of all the death I experienced and thought about over the weekend finally caught up with me.
When I got home, I went online and found Memorial Day pictures of Arlington Cemetery, the War Memorials at D.C., and various other cemeteries around the U.S. They were of families weeping at gravestones. There were two that especially captured my heart: one of a young woman weeping and holding her young infant tightly with one arm, the other arm draped around (what I assume is) her recently-deceased-from-war husband’s grave; the other of a young boy of about five sitting next to (what I assume is) his father’s grave, arms around his knees, openly crying. These pictures made me tear up, and I remembered that a friend of mine’s sister’s husband was killed in the war a few years ago. My heart broke for the devastation that war causes once again.
But something changed in me that weekend. I didn’t think of sales. And although there was a barbecue, I thought more of those who gave their lives for us. For once, I embraced it and didn’t shy away from the real meaning of the holiday.
The ironic thing is that I realized I didn’t really take “significant” Memorial Day gravesite pictures, because the graves I took pictures of weren’t of ones who died in war. Also, with how determined I was to finish my Pictures to Take List for May, there were actually a few pictures that I still missed (BBQs, prom happenings, and students moving out of the college dorm, if you must know). But I was strangely okay with that. I’m proud of what I did on Memorial Day, and I’m even prouder of the fact that a to-do list led me to it. It reinforces the notion that these life to-do lists and this subsequent blog is helping to enrich my life in ways that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. For that, I stand in amazement and gratitude…of myself, of my life, but most especially for the ones who have passed away.