It wasn’t what I expected. While the sounds of cadences, marching bands, crowd applause and even a lone trumpet playing Taps often bring about this holiday’s most memorable moments, it was in the solitude and silence that I found my breath taken away this morning.
Living not far from the Veterans Home in a small city in Central Wisconsin I’d passed the cemetery there many times. I remembered driving by it decades ago on my trips home from college and seeing the rolling hills filled with identical white tombstones. I never gave it much thought really, and sort of figured it was our version of the big Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. But today, on Memorial Day, I decided to take a stroll there before the morning’s ceremony and after the thousands of American flags had been posted next to each headstone.
It was cloudy and cool, with a slight gusting wind that made the flags snap to attention and flutter in such unison that it sounded like a gentle applause. I made my way though the lines of graves, stopping to notice a few and to remember that each and every one was a person with a story, with a family left behind, and who had served during very scary times to keep what most of us take for granted–our freedom. Across the street, among the many buildings now home to veterans who needed nursing care, a crowd was gathered by the lake to honor those fallen in battle. No doubt many of the vets who’d been wheeled out by the water to take part were remembering in their own minds and hearts those who fought beside them and never came home.
As the daughter of a pastor in rural America, cemeteries were as much a part of my youth as ball diamonds or farms were for others. Tall steepled white churches sat next to my homes, and right next to those were cemeteries. Normally they had tombstones of many shapes, sizes and colors. But when one sees row after row of white identical stones, each one beside a flag, it somehow brings about a whole new set of emotions.
Some of the graves were so old they didn’t have dates on them. The first graves here were made in 1888 with Civil War veterans buried on these hills overlooking the lakes. That war took more American lives than any other since and therefore is so different than anything I’ve ever experienced it is almost hard to wrap my head around it. Other graves were quite new, barely covered with grass and having been visited by family members who just two months ago today were laying their loved one to rest among these others. The fresh roses laid beside the white marble stone was a stinging reminder of the family’s grief.
I’d written earlier this week on my Facebook profile that Memorial Day is a day for remembering those who gave the ultimate sacrifice of their own life to defend our freedom and that right for others for whom America has come to their aid. And a great part of that price is borne by the families and the comrades who continued to live in the absence of those heroes. While it is true that most those buried here were lucky enough to come home from their duties, they most certainly understood better than most what that price really was. Among their final resting place are graves of those who died in active duty as well.
As I continued my stroll, I noticed a young woman, sitting beside a grave. She had kicked off her shoes, and rested on ground near to the place were her loved one was buried. It may have been her husband, her boyfriend, her brother or her father. But in the quiet of this morning she spoke to him in the way that souls communicate–not with words but with the heart. That woman understood the reason for this holiday. She, too, never takes for granted the meaning of this holiday. It very well may be the first holiday of the summer season, but it means so much more than just a day off of work. It is a sacred time for remembering, for honoring and for loving as only those left behind can do, with their whole, broken heart.
I continued to climb the hill, row after row of white markers lined up as in formation. As I did, I wondered about the story each one had to tell. “Loved father, grandfather, Papa”, said one. “Dearly missed by all”, said another. One mentioned a person’s love of fishing. Most had Christian emblems engraved; I recognized Luther’s seal on one, and saw an infinity sign on another. No matter what the person’s faith, creed or race they laid in unity here under the fluttering flags today. Spouses are laid to rest next to their military veterans, forever remembering the price they paid to keep us all free.
As I reached the crest of the hill I imagined I’d turn and take a nice photo of it all, but my breath was taken away when I saw that there were still thousands and thousands of graves beyond that horizon. All in all there are 36 acres of burial sites here at the Central Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery. Nearly 7,000 are buried here now and there is room for more as the need arises. Just a drop in the bucket compared to other national cemeteries but for a small town girl, this was a site to behold. As overwhelmed as I was at this point, I was not prepared for the next sight I’d see and the depth of meaning it would have for me.
Off in the distance was an elderly man, dressed in his formal military attire and strolling though one particular part of the cemetery. His shoes where shined so well, they were like a mirror to the clouds above and he had more bars on his arms and colors on his chest than I could count. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what they all meant. What I could tell you is that these graves were more than just a symbol to him. He paused at several of them, reading the names and having his own private chat with friends he knew so well. Today was not simply another holiday to him. It was the one day of the year to join in with those across the country to remember together his dear friends.
He walked over to where I was and said hello, just like we friendly Midwesterners often do. He then added, “I know far too many of the people buried here.” We stood in front of a stone that read “Michael L Kowalski”, a Navy vet who served in the Korean War. “Tell me about him,” I asked and the old man’s face lit up with a smile. He told me of how they were good friends, and how they went golfing often on Friday afternoons. “Mikey”, as he called him was a funny guy who used to always carry around a cigarette lighter that had a dent in it. He used to tell everyone how when he was in the Navy he dove into the water and a torpedo was headed right for the ship. Luckily, as he recounted the details, that torpedo hit his lighter, denting it, and went off in another direction. We both laughed at that story, and I’m pretty sure Mikey also had a few other tall tales up his sleeve. The old veteran said Mikey came in after mowing the lawn one summer, sat down, and was gone. He went on to tell me about others who were buried nearby, how one died of cancer, how another grew up near him, and how he missed them all.
“I’ll be buried here someday too,” said my new friend. “It’s a pretty good place to end up.” Before I left him, I thanked him for everything he had done for our country and for sharing the stories of his friends. He pulled out a white handkerchief and commented that the wind made his eyes water. I knew that the wind had nothing to do with the tears rolling down my cheek, nor the big lump in my throat. Regrettably, Veterans Day in the fall doesn’t have the same level of recognition as does Memorial Day, which most seem to consider as the heralding of summer proper. But it seems to me that it’s pretty important to tell the people around us how much they mean to us when they are still alive, than to wait for the silent conversations had at gravesides. So I told him thank you, and I joined him in remembering his friends who were buried nearby.
To me this Memorial Day experience meant more than the many I’ve attended in the past. Although the crowd gathered soon thereafter at the base of the hill, the high school marching band entering to drum cadences and the uniformed veterans paraded in presenting the colors and a speaker no doubt delivered a great speech, I quietly left the cemetery and felt mighty blessed. Incredibly lucky to have my family safe and well, fortunate to have grown up in relative peace, and honored to have witnessed the love which still lives for family and friends who served our country. This Memorial Day I remembered. I understood the value of my freedom and of that which we fight for others. There is no better way to be reminded of what all those American flags are for.
– Memorial Day. 2017