In Memory: Reflections on Memorial Day from a Marine Corps Brat
memorialize, memorialise [mɪˈmɔːrɪəˌlaɪz]vb (tr)
1. to honour or commemorate
2. to present or address a memorial to
I am seven, or perhaps six. We are driving home with American flags on plastic sticks, the sharpened ends threatening eyes and cheeks as we wave them at one another. The day has been cold, overcast, filled with greasy hotdogs and soda pop and crowds of families just like ours: mothers herding children through throngs of revelers, fathers huddled together, laughing the nervous laughs of people meeting one another for the first time at a wake. The details of that day escape me, I remember isolated snips: my fingers and toes were cold, my nose stuffed and runny; I remember feeling puffed up with the joy of running, stomach bursting with junk food; I remember the not-knowing why we were at a place, the blur of emotions and actions acceptable to children who operate moment-to-moment with no anticipation for the shape of a thing, the day, the people around you.
My father drives in front of me, I lower the window and furl my hand around my puckered lips, blow my trumpet into the air rushing passed. He glares at me in the sideview mirror. His commands for me to stop turn to something like pleas. My mother pinches me until I put my hand back in my lap, gripping the end of my flag. She tells my father to pull the car over. When he does, she takes me and my sisters to the bathroom.
We leave my father alone in the car.
Memorial Day exists in two planes for me, and I’ll venture to say for everyone associated with the military. On the one hand, it’s joyful: an extra day out of the work week, a day for BBQ, water sports, the beginning of summer vacations, hot weather, friends and family time. On the other, especially if you grew up with a vet or active service member, today is a lodestone for all the values you’ve been taught: honor, trust, fidelity, loyalty, sacrifice, duty, selflessness, perseverance, love. This day for me is foil on metal fillings, sugar on my tongue, all at once.
Personally, I avoid all the jingoistic flag wavers crowing about “freedom isn’t free”–the cost of military service on those serving, their families, and loved ones, isn’t reciprocated in thank yous or acknowledgments, or free beers at the end of May–living the values that our country was founded on, that military service aspires to, is what the lives of our service men and women are laid down for, not admonitions that other countries don’t enjoy our rights, privileges and entitlements. Those who died in service did so hoping that their deaths, and therefore their lives, that their sacrifice, has meaning and import. That it changes things. Matters. These lives cut short for country carry with them the obligation that we remember them through our lives, with our lives. That we serve their memories by enacting the highest ideals that lead to their deaths. Every. Day.
Bigotry, hate, discrimination, lack of charity, refusing to fight for and defend equality… I could go on, but our society, however much “freedom” we lay claim to, is far from meeting the ideals I was raised with, the work we do to honor our dead is very much ahead of us. I chose not to serve, and I don’t encourage or discourage service to others, I believe that choosing military life is something that is incredibly personal, and requires a great deal of commitment and sacrifice, and I wouldn’t want to get any threatening calls from Boot Camp, cursing my name. I do, however, strive to always live the values I was taught as a child, the ones that were shown, spoken, lived for me through my father’s example. He is no saint. Far from it. I am proud of him for the work he’s done wrestling with the demons his service in Vietnam brought him, and I have compassion for those challenges he hasn’t overcome. That’s part of what I remember on Memorial Day, too: the man my father became as a result of his service in the Marine Corps.
Because I’m a military brat, Taps is one of my favorite songs. The long drawn out notes of the opening, the lone bugler. I remember it playing late at night as the local TV stations ran it under images of a sun-spangled American flag flapping in a high wind; I remember it at Memorial Day commemorations as that solemn moment when hats were doffed, heads were lowered, and fists covered hearts; I remember it as forbidden notes not to be sounded in my father’s presence. The emotions that it brings out in me have evolved over the years. When I was a kid, those 24 bars gave me a strong sense of connection to my father, to the values that he always spoke of to us, to this notion that we belonged, by virtue of his service, to a tradition that was bigger, nobler, and grander than other families. As an adult, the sound of them fills me with sadness, regret, loss, pride, and duty: remembering is the work of the living, and it must be done.
The song itself was meant to let soldiers know that the day was ended, watch was set, and it was lights out. It came to be used for funeral services in place of cannon fire because the Civil War battle lines were drawn so closely, commanders didn’t want to risk breaking a ceasefire when honoring their dead. It’s known as Taps, but also as Day Is Done. Either one is fitting for a service member whose final duty has ended.
On this Memorial Day, I hope the families of those who’ve given their lives in service know that, at least this Marine’s daughter, is remembering their fallen and sharing their grief, pride and duty through my memories, life and prayers.
Day is done, gone the sun,
From the hills, from the lake,
From the sky.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.
Go to sleep, peaceful sleep,
May the soldier or sailor,
On the land or the deep,
Safe in sleep.
Love, good night, Must thou go,
When the day, And the night
Need thee so?
All is well. Speedeth all
To their rest.
Fades the light; And afar
Goeth day, And the stars
Fare thee well; Day has gone,
Night is on.
Thanks and praise, For our days,
‘Neath the sun, Neath the stars,
‘Neath the sky,
As we go, This we know,
God is nigh.