It is Memorial Day, a day of remembrance, and I am remembering.
It used to be when our kids were small, we would put on our best red-white-and-blue clothes and stand, tippy-toed, watching the parade pass through our town. Anxiously we’d peer down the street to spot the first firetruck
“It’s coming, it’s coming. I see it! I see it!” the kids would inform us falsely several times.
What a tease to hear the faraway sound of drums and sirens and old-fashion car horns “ahh-oooing, ahh-ooing” but not yet behold the bright and gleaming ribbon that is a parade: the flashing police-car lights; the white-gloved waves; the pretty girls, in sparkles. tossing up silvery batons, spinning high in the air, like fireworks.
My parents would have saved us a spot on the parade route, having set their picnic blankets out early: “Can you believe it was 7 o’clock and spots were already being saved?” my mom would tell us every year.
I’d sip coffee from a travel mug, the kids poke straws in their juice boxes, and we’d slather on sunblock if the sun was feeling hot and was rising high in the sky.
When the veterans and soldiers would pass, all of us would stand and clap. I always felt like crying. I was remembering my grandfather, my mother’s father, and how much he would have loved to have marched in such a parade. How proud he would have been to wear his uniform again, to have people clap and stand, and salute, and be honored in such a magnanimous way. I hadn’t known this about him, however, until after he died.
My grandfather served in World War II and was in the Army Air Corp. He flew on B-17 missions and was a technical sergeant and waist gunner. The stories he told us as children seemed like romantic movies, and we loved hearing him tell them. But they were just the stories about war and combat you could tell people, you know? There was so much more he never spoke of, protecting us still, as soldiers are taught to do.
My grandfather died of emphysema the night before my 30th birthday. He died in the VA hospital he trusted and was so loyal to. That night, someone at the VA made a mistake and didn’t read the instructions we’d left not to call my grandmother. Someone called her in the middle of the night and my grandmother answered that ugly green phone in her bedroom and the nightmare she’d been dreading for decades came true and she fell on the floor and my uncle found her and she was rushed to the Somerville Hospital and then transferred to Mass General and she could not speak or walk because she had had a massive stroke.
Life changes in moments like this one.
The day after, there was to have been a surprise birthday party for me, which my now ex-husband reluctantly, though lovingly, chose to tell me about. We went through the motions of the party, but no one knew how to be, or to act, and I felt so guilty about having ruined everyone’s good time, especially given how much planning and expense had gone into it.
Maybe this is why I told my ex-husband it was okay for him not to travel to Massachusetts for my grandfather’s wake and funeral and to visit my grandmother in the hospital, when we still had hope she would recover and be herself again (she never was). I told him that I could do this on my own, that I didn’t need him there. How adept I was at keeping him on the periphery, of putting on a brave face, of not allowing him opportunities to be a loving husband.
After my grandfather’s funeral mass at his beloved St. Anne’s, we were driven in limos, behind the hearse, on city streets and highways that were at first dirty and crowded and then slowly became open and soft, framed on both sides by forests of scotch pines.
I opened a window for air and let it blow on my face, eyes closed.
I remember the journey itself feeling exciting and special, which is a strange emotion to have travelling to a cemetery. We drove for a little more than an hour to Bourne, with its high grey-white suspension bridge and the rotary with the manicured hedges that welcome you to Cape Cod.
Before following the signs completely around the traffic circle, my uncle’s family, who were travelling in their own limo ahead of us, stopped for doughnuts and coffee, which is something my family recollects aloud and laughs about whenever we drive through Bourne on our way to Falmouth, where my parents live now.
I didn’t have any idea how important it was to my grandfather that he be buried in a military cemetery. To me, he was a pharmacist and a tailor, and a grand & long-winded story teller, who had trouble knowing when to end a story no matter how grand. (God help the poor soul at my grandparent’s kitchen table at midnight trying gracefully to exit one of my grandfather’s stories!)
The afternoon at the cemetery was a sunny one, but still cold, and we were gathered in a small, sacred-feeling, outdoor place, at some precise-to-the-minute time that the funeral home had arranged for us. The space felt like a garden in a convent with stone walls and old shade trees and ivy growing. Birds were singing and you could hear the wind and it smelled sweet like honeysuckle in rain. I remember there were comforting words spoken by someone official, then startling rifle shots, then, “Taps” was played, on a lone trumpet, from some faraway place I couldn’t see.
I stood reverently and tall, and I cried.
Written in honor of my grandfather William Joseph Meehan, who looked like Ronald Reagan and believed him to be our best president ever, and who thought I might be a communist when I was in “that liberal woman’s college”, but who still showed off my high school graduation photo to any one who would stop long enough for him to pull out his wallet “Isn’t she beautiful? That’s my grand-daughter” I miss his teasing, smiling “Meehan eyes” the most and of course, hearing his stories.
Today I hold the tranquil peace of that place in Bourne, where he, and 62,789 fellow soldiers, ‘safely rest’ and are mourned and remembered on this day, and on other days, the more ordinary ones, the days without parades.