Holidays are a time for establishing and maintaining rituals. This last weekend in May is generally harkened as the first weekend of “summer”, play time, fun time, get-outside-in-the-sun time. We think of beaches and blankets, the smell of sunscreen and water and how there really is sand in sandwiches. The boat goes in the water, the tent gets popped up, someone gets too drunk and spoils the whole affair. Memorial Day!
Holiday rituals connect us to family gone before us. Some rituals we keep, some we let go, some adapt in collaboration with a lover or mate who brings their own with them. My father kept holidays well, though I didn’t always appreciate that. With Christmas, of course, the better kept the happier the children are, and my dad could keep Christmas very, very well! Memorial Day was harder for me as a child. While friends would be camping or playing and enjoying the three day weekend, and he loaded us up and drove to a town I was unfamiliar with, spent time talking to people 5 decades my senior (oh how I wish I had that time back now!) and took flowers to his parents’ gravesites. I recognize now that like Christmas traditions, my father also kept Memorial Day… very well.
My father passed away 36 years ago. He’d be 99 this year (so if he’d survived the heart attack at 63, he’d still be gone by now). Memories don’t do “time” though. He is as alive for me this Memorial Sunday as he ever was, and I get to go visit him today. My 21 year old daughter will be with me to hear the stories, see the place, walk through old neighborhoods, clean the headstone, admire the cherry tree and with love and attention, place flowers and a flag. It took thinking I couldn’t go this year (and I’ve missed 25 due to relocating far from my home town and his resting place) for me to realize how imperative it was that I go. Through all the automotive travails we have had in the last three days I thought it impractical to make the 3 hour trip “home”. I tried to console myself with setting up a small Memorial Day alter for my parents, but the thought of this man — who voluntarily served in two wars — having an empty headstone struck my heart and I realized that…. I had to go. I had to make my love and respect for him made visible on this Memorial Day.
Through the ritual my father taught me all those uncomfortable childhood Memorial Day weekends ago, I have a cellular imperative to honor him the same way, to take my own daughter, who never knew this wonderful man, and make him real to her. My mother, whose ashes remain above ground as yet, will one day rest with him, and a more complete family reunion will take place, at least this one day a year. Hopefully, there will always be a child there to hear the stories, for it is in our rituals of remembering that we share our oral histories with our offspring. Through ritual, we teach those that come after us the values we cherish.
I never knew my grandparents, both died before I was born. I understand better the love and respect my father had for them, demonstrated by honoring them, publicly, at least this one weekend a year. They made him the man he became and through him, helped craft me into the woman that I am today and the man I see my own son becoming.
We are not disconnected from our family histories. They live in us and through us, are passed to our children whether we attend to their memories or not. Similarly, while our families are living, whether we ignore their needs, put off the phone calls, imagine that everything is “alright, or they’d call me”, we are not disconnected from them and their influence upon us.
The Post War (that would be WWII) cultural shift away from extended family and to the ‘burbs has been an interesting social experiment in fracturing the family, and it hasn’t worked out so well. When denied the comfort and company of multiple generations, aging has become isolating and demeaning, where too often Elders feel they are “less than” if they require assistance from others. By ignoring rituals and connectedness (my mother made Sunday dinner for us for years, that became “our time”), we forget to teach our own children the importance of family connection, those generational bonds that sustain us when the world shakes beneath our feet. Cooperation and collaboration support multiple generations of family so knowledge is saved and wealth is condensed. I hope that as a unique American culture, we will come again to defy the idea that we are all independent, autonomous islands, sustainable on our own. This Memorial Day, I call you to remember, and then to share.
Blessings to you and yours,