It was a perfect Maine spring day for the Memorial Day parades in town. Drizzly, gray, a bit of bite in the air. A perfect day to remember what we are here to do, a perfect day to hold all we have been through these past fifteen months.
The last time I spoke at a Memorial Day celebration, I was ten years old. A Prisoner of War, a Vietnam Veteran, had returned home to my hometown that year and I’d been asked to speak to the gathering on the town common that Memorial Day. Its decades later now, and I feel a bit like that ten year old boy as I stand here on the library lawn, the stone memorial to the war dead in Boothbay Harbor beside me, the community band in their red blazers and white pants behind.
It’s been a long time since I’ve taken part in any Memorial Day celebration and unlike communities that mark Memorial Day with community picnics and races, here the formal solemnity of the day is still carried on. Six two-block long parades scattered around the Peninsula led by a color guard and twenty slowly marching veterans. A trolley car of other vets too feeble to walk, a sharing of words by a local pastor or church leader, the laying of a wreath at the memorial marker. Not quite understanding what was required of me today, I’d gone to watch the little parade and ceremony in Newagen earlier this morning. Introduced myself to Carl who told me of when the parade was twice as long, the band twice as big. He remembered how many veterans, dear friends, have died in the past years, how many of their stories lost.
My conversation with Carl reminded me of a short piece I’d read earlier this morning from Heather Cox Richardson, a historian who lives on the peninsula just to the east of us here in Boothbay Harbor. She wrote, “I cannot think of those who died in our wars without thinking of the terrible holes their deaths tore in the fabric of our lives” — the wonder of who they would have become, what the world has lost by never knowing their children.
Looking out at the children, women and men gathered along the sidewalks and edges of the green lawn in bright rain jackets and ball caps, I think of all the stories this crowd and so many like it could tell of this past year. How COVID-19 has touched, disrupted, upended, taken and torn from our lives. The plans we abandoned, the expectations we let go. I wonder if perhaps we all understand a bit more about what “tattered fabric” is like and what we have come to mark and do today as we remember those who have died in our wars.
As we whisper the names we know or have been told about, relatives, friends, neighbors who have died in past wars, I’m reminded of standing in church yesterday, our first Sunday for in-person worship in over 14 months. During the service, some of us came forward to write down the names of relatives and loved ones that had died in war.
I remember too how yesterday at church, Mike, a Vietnam War veteran, stood and shared that yes, we must remember those who have died but we must also not forget those who have come home from war. The way war wounds everyone touched by it. To remember veterans who lived through the war only to have lives ravished by addiction, mental and physical illness, psychological trauma. The tattered fabric of their lives. I think of the eighteen Veterans today who will take their own lives as eighteen Veterans every day in our country take their own lives. Invite us again, to pause, remember.
Today thanks to the words I have heard and this marking I am part of, I get it in a way I haven’t before, that this Memorial Day to not only a day to remember the tattered fabric of loss and grief but also a call to repair. A day to come together, to bind together the fabric of who we are and who we have become as a people and nation. A day to recommit to tend and mend the tattered fabric that is our common life.
Yes, to repair the fabric in the marking and memory. Yes, to do it by finding our way to advocate and create a community of care and support for our veterans, for all, wounded by the ravage of war. Yes, to repair the fabric, by remembering the stories so they are not forgotten.
As I stood here outside the library I thought of all the stories that have been forgotten, the stories that we never learned and must. The story of people like Isaac Woodard that I learned last week. Woodard, a decorated African-American World War II Veteran, who on February 12, 1946, hours after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, was attacked while still in uniform by White police in South Carolina as he was taking a bus home. Beaten and blinded for being an African-American war hero.
I look around the crowd and long to see, must see, have to see, the possibility of what is here in us together. All we might do, of who we might become together. Perhaps, no, not too late. Not too late to relearn sacrifice for the sake of healing. To work together for our common good in not only word but deed. To remember and tell the stories and so live a more authentic and true story of who we are and might become. To create, yes, a more perfect union and live into the ideals of which we proclaim and sing, for which so many have hoped and striven, so many wounded and continue to die, a country, tattered and torn yes, but where there will at last be true liberty and justice for all.
The band strikes up, the parade moves on.