Over Memorial Day weekend we visited my husband’s family in New York state. Early on Saturday morning, when we woke up in Spencerport, a picturesque village on the Eerie Canal, Kiko and I headed out for our first walk. My little dog was even more headstrong than usual. If I attempted to turn left, he was determined to go right. When I preferred right, he insisted on left. Occasionally his obstinance resulted in a dead stop, as he splayed his legs and I tugged, to no avail, on the leash. Our progress was slow and laborious. The constant battle of wills made it difficult to properly appreciate the gracious old homes of Spencerport. I was annoyed with Kiko, who clearly cares nothing for architecture, or for beauty in general. How disappointing. I tend, however irrationally, to expect more from him. And because I’d given in to his choices, we were heading in a direction that I didn’t intend. But up ahead, on South Union Street, I began to see the entrance to Fairfield Cemetery. We’d passed it yesterday driving in. To me, it looked inviting. Kiko evidently felt the same way. For the first time that morning, we were in agreement.
Except for the exuberant chirping of a great variety of birds, all was quiet. No sounds of mowing, cutting or leaf-blowing disturbed the serenity.
Many of the graves were marked with small American flags. I realized, with some chagrin, that I’d almost forgotten, at least momentarily, the significance of the long holiday weekend.
As Kiko and I wandered the shaded, grassy pathways between the rows of gravestones, I noticed that we now walked together in easy step. My stubborn dog had managed to bring me here, against my will, to this peaceful spot, to contemplate the cost of peace. I thought of the old poem of achingly sad remembrance, of poppies waving in Flanders fields, between the crosses, row on row. And of the vast and ever-growing expanse of white markers in Arlington Cemetery. Not long ago, passing by that hallowed ground on the way to Reagan Airport, we saw the solemn spectacle of a horse-drawn caisson bearing a flag-draped coffin.
Memorial Day reminds us to remember and honor the many lives lost in service to our country. Consider the teenagers, who, like my Uncle Bill, traded the drudgery of 1940s farm work for the unknown adventure of World War II. My Uncle returned from the war. Too many others did not. Think of the young people who drew a final breath in the swampy fields of Vietnam. Be grateful to those whose civic duty cost them their lives in the Gulf War, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in exotic locales most Americans would be hard-pressed to pronounce or locate on a map. Acknowledge the sacrifice of those who died fighting a shape-shifting, ill-defined enemy in our war on terror.
And may we give some thought to those who managed to evade death on far-flung battlefields, only to return home to find the challenge of readapting to civilian life unsurmountable. The deep wounds of war, mental, emotional, and physical, are near-impossible to comprehend for those who haven’t served. Some who fought in Vietnam returned to a society that seemed to regard them as the enemy. Let’s pray for those who survived the war but could not survive the trials of day-to-day life in the very towns they had once called home.
As Kiko and I walked back from the cemetery, we were reminded that the service and the sacrifice continue today. Along Union Street, every lamp post was decorated with a banner bearing the image and name of a current member of our armed forces. Let us not forget the dedication and bravery of such hometown heroes, whether we know them personally, or not. Every day, our brothers and sisters risk their lives in harsh conditions so that we may enjoy the day-to-day comforts of home and the fundamental, essential freedoms we often take for granted. May we recognize the human cost of war and elect representatives who truly comprehend it, as well. May our military men and women feel strongly supported during their deployment.
That morning, I imagined the military men and women of Spencerport engaged in difficult, dangerous, uncomfortable work in a hostile environment. I wondered if their families would gather soon in nearby back yards on this holiday weekend, keenly missing a son, a daughter, a father, mother, brother or sister. I pray that our hometown heroes will be warmly welcomed back again in the near future, by a country that respects their service and provides the restorative care they need. May we honor in memory those who paid the ultimate price in battle, and may we treat with compassion and dignity our soldiers who make it home.
. . . Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by thy might, great God, our King.
—America, words: Samuel F. Smith, 1832; Music: Thesaurus Musicus, 1744