When I was a child Memorial Day was one of those holiday gatherings that had little expectation or preparation. It was meant for spending time together and hearing stories. The elders of my family bothered to get flowers and visit the grave sites of our loved ones. I found this to be a very interesting tradition because it connected the web of our complete family. Making the time to connect and reflect with those who came and went before fleshed out characteristics that defined our family.
This holiday is traditionally about honoring those who served all of us through their military and other service institutions. In my family, it was about everyone who served the family in all the ways a family needs service.
Some of my family’s stories were quite fantastic and others we’re out of the ordinary but all of them described a thread that wove the fabric of our family.
My father served in WWII and while he NEVER talked about his active service years and what he had to do during the war, in my own research I discovered that he fought in several very nasty battles in and around the Ardennes Forest. I’m sure he had many memories both good and bad but he chose instead to teach that war was that was a means to an end and something to fight very hard to avoid. He served in the army as an officer for almost 30 years, and he cared greatly about the service men he trained to go into battle, especially during Viet Nam. He was deeply disturbed by the manner in which the service personnel were cared for, and appalled they were shipped in and out of active battle returning to civility with merely a few hours between. Without time to decompress he predicted the damage to our soldiers would be devastating. He died before the conflict ended, and sadly we now know he was right about the needs of our soldiers. I remember his silent and anonymous honor. He did kind things for people he barely knew. Often in secret he paid their bills, bought food, and one Christmas he bought bags of food and gifts for a destitute family of five kids whose father just died after a long illness. At his funeral numerous people I never met came up and shared stories of his quiet kindness’s that truly made a difference in their lives. His legacy is one of taking action to live kind and fight in all ways for freedom.
His father served in WWI and while he shared stories of the camaraderie of the fine men he served with and the people he met along the way, he also never discussed the battles or the horrors.; He too, believed that war was a sad and desperate means to an end that should never ever be glorified. It was about the duty of freedom. One of his oft repeated stories became known as The Black Snake Story. While he was training in Texas a member of his patrol didn’t join in the morning muster. When they went to check on him he was still in his bed motionless. During the night a large snake had crawled into his cot with him. There were lots of poisonous snakes around and these Northern boys had been warned to steer clear of them. They decided if they rolled up the side of his tent eventually the heat from the rising sun would warm the snake and it could slither away leaving him unharmed. My Grandfather spoke at a napping pace and if you could stay alert while he talked you’d learned that it worked. I always found it remarkable that during his slow cadence he rarely changed any words, and through the years of listening I had the story memorized. That story and the time spent listening to my grandfather was magical because it taught me that bonds are important and can’t be rushed.
Memorials are an important part of understanding who came before us and what we’re made of. It’s not the genealogy that makes a legacy, it’s the stories from the people you know that manifests the character of your family. What are those little snapshots of the people you know?
At bigger family gatherings the women prepared, served and cleaned up the meal. As the youngest I floated between the living room listening to the men talk between dozing off with a full belly, and the kitchen a beehive of activity I remember lots of squawking about Aunt Tilly who always ran to the bathroom after the meal and was gone long enough to miss doing the dishes. I had an Aunt Bernice who laughed. “HA!” so loud she could wake her deaf husband. Uncle Norm was a diabetic and a very bad driver. Once he drove my sister and I mostly on the wrong side of the road while doing his errands. He had malt balls in his glove compartment which we devoured. He and his wife had a ball and chain and used it as a doorstop joke. Aunt Mae wore red lipstick that ran way over her natural lips and painted on black eyebrows. I always thought she was lucky and when I grew up I could dress for Halloween, too. These relatives had quirks, they were kind and loving and remarkably endearing.
We can do goofy things, dress oddly, say the wrong thing at the wrong time or give love when it is needed, but whatever our quirks they make us who we are and we will be remembered for them. These little things make us unique. When I paint pictures I look for the unusual, the small details that tell the story and create a pictorial impression of a memory.
All those wonderful service men and women fought honorably so you could have your memories. Remember them as you draw in a breath of peace, and celebrate their legacy by discovering your own. What are the little stories that will memorialize your legacy?
I’m thankful to my father, grandfather, to my aunts, uncles who served our country in military service and to my greater family for serving our small tribe. Happy Memorial Day to all those honorable people who helped make my life possible so I could freely remember and celebrate today.
(Artwork by artzsamui courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)