Memorial Day and lilacs blooming always go together in my mind. When I was a kid, little girls like me carried armloads of lilacs and small American flags and marched in a parade. Anybody who wanted to could jump into the line; kids had bikes stuck pieces of cardboard in the spokes to make an engine sound; veterans who had made it back home marched in uniform.
The parade stopped on the bridge to the cemetery and we all sang “Anchors Aweigh My Boys” while a delegation of local ministers tossed a wreath into the river in honor of those who were lost serving in the Navy. Farther down the road we put our flowers and flags on the graves and sang “Off We Go, into the Wild Blue Yonder” and “The Marine Hymn.” Then we said a prayer for all those who were serving in the military.
After the parade we had a picnic.
This year there is Robert.
Robert is my brother’s step grandson and he’s spending Memorial Day in Iraq and it’s no picnic. He’s on his second tour of duty and says conditions are much better than the first time he was there.
Robert is a full-blooded Tlingit Indian, born and raised in Alaska. He’s visited us here a few times when we would stage one of our massive family get-togethers up in the Northeast Kingdom. He’s very much a part of our family. I can just see him, a long and lanky teenager, with straight black hair falling over his eyes, tearing around the yard in some hectic game of sort-of soccer that included anyone aged between two and 65, plus several dogs.
He joined the Army a few years ago as an opportunity to find some direction in his life. He has a red-haired girlfriend in Alaska and he writes to her frequently. I’ve emailed him occasionally with the stipulation that he need not feel obligated to answer. And he doesn’t. But he knows that I think about him.
I think about him when I hear the news each night and some anchorperson gives the daily statistics, but with no names. Just statistics. On Sundays George Stephanopoulis’ program has a segment called “In Memoriam” where the screen is filled with the names and home states of those who have died that past week. I know that I would be notified before his name appeared on TV, but I watch it anyway, looking at the age and home state of each of the casualties. It gives me a chance to mourn these strangers whose families have actually received the dreaded call.
My daughter in Cincinnati recently said, “Hey, what’s Robert’s address; we want to send him some Girl Scout cookies.”
Maybe next year Robert will be safely home and he and his red-haired girlfriend will celebrate Memorial Day by watching a parade and perhaps going to a picnic.
The state flower of Alaska is the forget-me-not and they’re blooming around my house right now. They make me think again about Robert.