Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

Thoreau had a pond. Annie Dillard had a creek. I have a cemetery.

Some may find that unnatural, or, at the least, morbid. I find it neither. The cemetery sits atop a hill overlooking the village and the river and the bridge down below. A winding road takes you up through sylvan forests, full of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, and deer. The seasons are broadcast fully, from vivid green in summer to a snowy wonderland in winter; autumn is magnificent with all the changing colors and falling leaves. It is quiet, peaceful, beautiful, a place to get away from it all, simply by walking out my front door and up the hill.

This is an older cemetery, for the United States, dating back to the mid-1800s. A large, recently rebuilt statue of Fame creates a memorial to all those locals who died in the Civil War. It sits at the very top of the hill, behind the large American flag, where an opening has been cut in the woods. From here, you can easily see the river and the bridge below, and from the bridge, you can see the opening in the trees and the flag and a glimpse of the white statue above.

Normally, I walk around the winding roads in any number of permutations, thinking, thinking, thinking. Walking, walking, walking. Writing, writing, writing. Taking note of the changing seasons, absent-mindedly acknowledging the names on the gray and white and pink headstones. They are like old friends.

This past weekend I left the paved road and ventured amongst the headstones, examining graves that had been marked with American flags. Wherever there was a veteran’s marker, groups of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts had carefully slipped a small American flag. I found veterans from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. I did not see any markers for veterans of Desert Storm or the more recent Iraq/Afghanistan wars, but I may have missed them. As I said, this is an older cemetery; most of the veterans were from WWII. I was surprised by how many Spanish/American War markers I saw. This is not a military cemetery; it is simply a local town cemetery. Full of local townspeople. Many of whom served their country. Most of whom then went on to lead long, productive (or short, perhaps contentious?) lives back in their communities. I saw very few gravestones where the person had been killed in war. It was a cemetery full of veterans, full of survivors.

I recognize many of the names on the headstones, from families who were famous in my town’s history or in the rise of industrial Pittsburgh. Many of these families still live here. I do not tend to think of cemeteries as sad places or places of death; rather as places of history and families and lives led. I see people, spirits, moving in the distance, just out of sight, walking back and forth amongst the headstones, wearing clothes from all different time periods. I hear the murmur of their talking and their laughter and their sighs. The cemetery is humming, buzzing, with generations of lives led, most very ordinary, but in their own ways extraordinary. I imagine their stories, their loves, their heartaches, their hopes and dreams. The cemetery is full of stories. The cemetery is full of life.

My father is buried in this cemetery. I remember well his funeral and the humid heat of the day when he was buried. The folded American flag that was given to my mother because he was a veteran. I don’t really think of his being there, in the ground. Visiting his grave has little real meaning to me, but occasionally I pass by and take a look. To make sure his gravestone is still there. To ensure the wreath is placed there at Christmas time, the geraniums planted in spring. Things that my mother has arranged to have done.

By his grave there is a marker designating him as a World War II veteran; a crisp new American flag, probably made in China, flutters in the late afternoon breeze. My mother had worried earlier if there were enough geraniums planted at his grave; she was thinking of driving up in the heat of the day to plant an extra flower. I had reassured her that there were plenty. I counted them today: four red geraniums and three white flowers whose name I do not know. That seemed like plenty to me.

I think a small town cemetery can tell you a lot about a place and its people and its history. About those who served in uniform in any number of conflicts. This cemetery has massive stones and obelisks and mausoleums from very wealthy families, next to very ordinary stones and the occasional quixotic stone with dueling guitars or a bowling ball and pins carved into it. American flags dot the hills with fairly regular precision, regardless of the stone or its size. And then there is the section where veterans are buried with government-issued bronze plaques or simple stone markers. That section is a sea of American flags, lined up symmetrically, in row after row. The cemetery is as different and varied as the town. Yet, on this day, Memorial Day, you can tell easily all of those who served their country proudly, in uniform, for reasons they felt right. So, those of us now can walk amiably through the cemetery or watch the Memorial Day parade, where the Korean War veterans are now the “old fogies.” I remember them as being young; it was the World War I veterans who were old! And today there are only a few World War II veterans left, riding in cars, many too old or too crippled to walk. The people lining the sidewalks in their array of red, white, and blue clothes and waving small flags or clutching red, white, and blue balloons clap for all the veterans. Of every war. And for any active duty soldiers as well. They do this once a year, before they head off for the swimming pool or their barbecues or picnics and welcome the beginning of summer.


Post a Comment

<< Home