I awoke this morning with the sobering thought that, as important as we feel our own lives to be, the specificity of us, our personal identity, the “me” stuff, doesn’t survive us for very long. I tried to remember the lives of my ancestors that I have known and realize that my memory peters out with my dad’s parents, my grandparents, and my mom’s aunts and uncles. Even though I did some personal genealogy when I was in college, I can’t put any personal traits to any of the names I know. Just checked the records and the earliest birth among all of them was in 1870 and most of them lived long lives. I remember when I was a kid I’d stop to talk with an old man who sat on his porch down the street. I have always remembered that he told me that he had fought in the Civil War, but I just did the math and that can’t be right. Maybe I didn’t know the difference between WW I and the Civil War, or he didn’t remember, or I manufactured the whole thing. That’s remembering for you. It turns into fiction and I suppose it does so sooner than later. That makes the presence of the remembered dead even more tenuous in one sense, yet as Scott Momaday told us to make something into a story is a way to endure it, but to also give it lasting meaning. Suppose the best we can hope for is to become a story, one that entertains enough to be remembered. Better yet to become a story turned into a song.
On Memorial Day I feel a responsibility to remember my ancestors, my parents, my grandparents, my great aunts and uncles, and all the others who are now gone. And every year I feel I’ve let them all down. Oddly when I went to Wichita Kansas recently to do a lecture at WSU I discovered that as a student there in the ‘60s I personally knew a number of people—Carnot Brennan, Harry Corbin, Josephine Fugate, Laura Cross, Ev Fletcher and many others—whose names are now on buildings and memorials, yet none of the faculty I met while I was there knew any of them and I realized that the names meant nothing to any of them beyond architectural labels or unread names on ignored plaques by unseen sculptures.
In an odd half hour while I was on the Wichita State campus I took a walk to remember. I found a plaque remembering those who served in student leadership positions. Suarprisingly my name was on that plaque. Standing there looking at my name the appreciation in being “remembered” was tempered by my realization that in the nearly half century of my name being among others on that plaque, I doubt that, despite it being a high traffic area in the student union, a single person had ever stopped to even read the names. Why should they? How could the names of unknown people etched on brass tags mean anything to anyone? Why do we do this?
When I was a kid Memorial Day was a special occasion, a holiday that had a feel quite different from all the others. This was the holiday my Uncle Sam Avey, my mother’s uncle for whom I was named, always drove up from Tulsa in his Lincoln Town Car to Cherryvale Kansas where we lived. It was our practice to save up tin cans before Memorial Day and early in the morning we’d go out in the back yard and cut roses and peonies (which my grandma always pronounced “pinies”) to fill the cans. Well-to-do Uncle Sam always sent money ahead to purchase potted geraniums. Uncle Sam would arrive by mid-morning, sometimes with his daughter Pat and her husband Raymond (who had become wealthy through his association with Uncle Sam) and their daughters Terri and Sherri. Then we would all go to the cemetery, only a couple blocks from my house, and place the flowers on the graves of our dead relatives. This was an act of remembering as much as memorializing them. To see and say the names etched in marble was to remember and to again fix the relationships among spouses and generations. Then we would go back to “our” house and have a huge meal with Raymond sneaking off now and then to listen to the progress of the Indianapolis 500 on the radio. All the Tulsa relatives would then leave late afternoon and Memorial Day would be done.
There was little if any military connection with my family although I’m rather sure that some of the uncles on one side or the other served in the military. It seems to me that today Memorial Day is focused largely on remembering and memorializing those in the military, especially those who died while serving their country. When I was in high school I had a very small connection with the military aspect of the day. I played the trumpet and the VFW who did brief ceremonies at both the Protestant and the Catholic Cemeteries hired me to play taps after the 21 gun salute to end the service. I remember hiding out behind some gravestone on the edge of the cemeteries awaiting the unmistakable signal to do my part. I had a rather melancholy sense about this duty and endeavored to play taps as sweetly mournful as possible.
My kids grew up here in Boulder and for years, sometime during the Memorial Day weekend, we’d take them up into the mountains to find a cemetery for an old mining town. We’d walk around in the disheveled brambles to find the often homemade grave markers and talk about, making up stories about, the person who lay beneath our feet. We brought big sheets of paper and peeled crayons so the kids could make rubbings of the markers they found particularly interesting. I was surprised the other day when Jenny, my daughter, was telling me about her plans for Fatu’s, my granddaughter, summer educational program. Seems they are going to do weekly Friday field trips. One of those planned, I was told, is to visit mining ghost towns in the nearby mountains including doing some grave stone rubbings.
Last year I visited the cemeteries above Central City and spent an hour or two walking among the graves in several cemeteries. Pausing to read the names and relationships and dates is a way of remembering those one never knew, but remembering the human condition they reveal. I finally had to leave when I was overcome with the grief I experienced when I found cluster after cluster of family graves dating mostly in the early years of the twentieth century where all the little markers lined in a row each named a child in the same family all younger than 10 and all dying within a couple years time. The unimaginable grief from this loss remains palpable a century later … seems fitting.
As my chronology seems to be increasing so also grows my reluctance to be in the past and soon forgotten. It seems somehow inevitable however hard I try to ignore it, yet I often feel that I don’t understand why we simply accept this. Why don’t we declare this plan unacceptable and just simply reject it? I won’t go along with this! Who set it up this way anyhow? And why the long slide into the grave? Just yesterday I read that Johns Hopkins’ research shows that memory “inevitably” declines starting at age 40! I reject this as should everyone. Why can’t we be like trees whose death often leaves their own beautiful bodily memorials in the graceful process of returning to soil? Why does our demise have to burden our children often just at the point when they should be most enjoying their lives? After developing a close relationship with our grandchildren, why do we abandon them often just when they begin their adult lives? None of this makes sense to me. It doesn’t seem like a very good plan.
Of course, we’d gladly give up our lives that those who follow us might live. My father’s clear understanding was that we need to leave our children better off than we have been. I think he was thinking primarily in terms of wealth and education which he understood as inseparable. That too is acceptable and honorable, yet why do we so often have to burden our children so much in the process? Why can’t we stay useful and helpful to them until we come, like Burning Man, to some sudden celebrating blazing grand ending?