My step-dad never talked about his service in World War II. He was a quiet man with an easy laugh. He was the kind of man who always could do anything. That’s how it seemed to me. He hardly ever cried, hardly ever got mad. He liked fishing and building. He liked coffee and cigarettes and steamers. He loved his family and his friends and his boat.
He wasn’t the kind of man who cried.
I saw him do it twice. The first time was when his brother died. The second time was on Memorial Day.
We were at a parade. The veterans were marching. He never marched with them. I don’t know why. A high school band was playing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I was holding my dad’s hand and all of a sudden he let go. My hand dangled empty. He turned away, took three steps back from the crowd of the road, and faced the buildings.
He pressed his fingers into his eyelids. He nodded once. “What sweetie?”
“Are you okay?”
He wiped his eyes just once with the back of his hand. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
“Are you sad?”
He half-shrugged. “A little bit.”
I’d only just really learned what the Memorial Day parade was about. From school I knew it was about soldiers who died in war. I knew my dad had been in a war, a big war. I made the connection.
“Did you have soldier friends who died?” I asked.
“A lot, baby. A lot.”
Our fingers found each other. We walked back to the crowd.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Memorial Day is more than the beginning of the summer vacation season. It’s more than a day off of work and school. Memorial Day is about the friends, husbands, wives, lovers, children, brothers and sisters who didn’t make it home.
We all know that.
We need to know that for more than just today.
I met a great guy from Otis back in 2008. He had a cane. He had a dog. I am a sucker for dogs. We talked about how on the Otis Town Report there are pictures of soldiers from Otis who are currently serving. His son served. He’s an Air Force recruiter now and his dad, the man I talked to, the nice man with the sweet smile, the can, and the beautiful dog, he served in Vietnam.
“It’s better for the soldiers coming home now,” he said. “I think people are finally getting it.”
I’m glad for that. I’m really glad but should it have taken 30 years for people to get it?
Men and women have died in service to our country. Men and women continue to die in service to our country. Those deaths mean more than a parade, more than a work-free/school-free day. Those deaths mean a lot. Not all those soldiers were perfect or saints, but all of them gave their lives for something bigger. All of them sacrificed.
For years I’ve watched the veterans throw a wreath off of the bridge in downtown Ellsworth. When I was a reporter, I even took pictures of it. The wreath? It floats away, down the Union River. It makes me remember the parade with my step-dad and how suddenly my dad let go. There I was, fingers dangling, hand empty, wondering.
But that wreath floating down the river is not really gone. None of those soldiers are gone. My dad, who died of a heart attack when I was in sixth grade, isn’t gone either, nor are his friends. Every one of them has touched our lives somehow. Every sacrifice has to keep being remembered. There are so many heroes from Hancock County, Maine, and from all over this country.
There are more and more all the time.
It’s important to notice the bad that happens, the evil that people do, but it’s just as important to celebrate the good that people are capable, the sacrifices (small and large) that we are also capable of. The empathy. The love. The selflessness.
When you are a military mom, like I am, Memorial Day becomes even more poignant. It’s a day where Americans are meant to remember military members that we lost in war, the people who sacrificed their lives for the ideals and Constitution of this country.
At Emily’s basic training graduation at Fort Jackson last year, the speaker, talked about how that made a difference, how in the United States the military isn’t about serving the leader of the country, but about the Constitution of the country and the people of the country. And for me, Memorial Day, is a reminder of those we’ve lost, those we might soon lose, but also about the ability of people to put others above their own selves, to come together as a country, and to serve the ideals of that country, so incredibly selflessly.