Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

Shipwrecked on a desert isle, such is the plight of the average modern man. Of course, included in this modern man is modern woman and, to some degree, modern child. Shipwrecked often though within the family, or the family though together still shipwrecked on that lonely isle, lonely though that isle is crowded with others just as lonely and shipwrecked.

An immensely popular television series, Gilligan’s Island, which debuted in 1964 and ran for three or so seasons, centered on the adventures of a group of people of mixed backgrounds who had embarked together on a pleasure cruise. A storm whipped up and got their boat into uncharted waters where it ran aground on a desert isle, where they had to rough it.

It’s curious to me that it debuted in 1964. That was the year after the assassination of President Kennedy, an event that seemed to herald the end of America’s innocence, the more so the more years have intervened. I remember thinking as a thirteen year old kid, ‘I can’t imagine the world getting any older than 1964.’ Starting with the following year, my life and the world around me seemed to be turning into a science fiction movie, getting stranger and stranger.

Along with a few others I know, I had the same odd feeling that ‘the world can’t get any older’ as we approached the end of the twentieth century. My wife, driven to anxiety by the paranoid things she heard while watching ‘Christian’ television, insisted I buy clapboard cupboards and stockpile food and water and even oil lamps, since she was convinced the infrastructure was going to collapse on the last night of the year nineteen hundred and ninety-nine.

And there we sat, oblivious to the end of the world, as the clock ticked toward midnight. Where were we? Sitting together at a table in the parish hall, where families were enjoying a traditional New Year’s Eve party. The Greek dancing was the best we’d ever seen, especially when mothers and daughters took to the dance floor and improvised beautifully to their ancient, traditional music. If the infrastructure, or the world, was about to end, no one seemed to give it a thought.

‘Here,’ I thought to myself, ‘is the meaning of life, and the reason for civilization,’ as I watched the subtle dancers, ordinary women, mothers and daughters, their bodies chastely but artistically balancing and describing in their movements the whole history of their race. These were not people shipwrecked on any desert isle, to bring back the metaphor, but people who were so convinced of their unbreakable continuity with their ancestors, they could dance on their graves.

Why am I having these thoughts? Finally, after many years, Memorial Day is finally, on its legalized Monday observance, falling on its original date, the thirtieth of May. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. Now that America’s innocence was over, convenience, not faith, could move mountains.

And what did we do with our convenient three day weekend? Even when I was a child, and my family stilled lived within a short distance from our ancestors’ graves, I scarcely remember us visiting them more than once or twice, and I don’t believe it was on this weekend. Quickly people forgot, if they ever knew, that Memorial Day came out of the Civil War to honor its victims. As a very young child, I used to visit an old man who himself was a child during that war, and remembered it.

What I feel now, remembering on this day not my Civil War ancestors as I haven’t any, but the two generations gone before me in my own family in this country, is a kind of sadness, a kind of loneliness. I can’t go to grandma and grandpa’s graves and tidy them and bring flowers, in faraway Illinois. Nor can I visit my mother’s grave in that state of my birth, nor my father’s in distant, alien Florida where he lived in retirement, and died. Not one of our ancestors lies buried anywhere near.

The remembrance of them is faint, a patchwork of dreams on a pillow where I sometimes lay my head when the loneliness becomes more than I can bear. I will just lie there, listening to a recording of Chopin’s nocturnes, remembering the sunlight filtering through lace curtains in my grandmother’s tiny dining room, where I was seated with her having a light lunch. Afterwards she would let me run loose or ride the bench swing in her garden, as she tended her roses.

Our ancestors are alive, yes, in the paradise of God, but also in us, in our living bodies, not only in our memories. We are them, we are the substance of their hopes, the living buds and flowers of the ageless tree whose roots they are, cradled in the dark earth, still drinking in the cool moisture and sending it up to nurture us who still see the sun. They cannot but be faithful to us, though we forget them. Heedless but for our own advantage or pleasure, we took ship and leave of them.

And our ships have been wrecked, and for a very long time now, we have been living on our desert isles, but unlike Gilligan and the crew and passengers on the S. S. Minnow, who make the best of their exile while they want to be rescued, we haven’t given ‘rescue’ a thought for years, even decades. The isle we’re on affords the best this world has to offer, so who cares if we’re shipwrecked here? If we’re lonely, alone in the midst of this crowd, who cares, we’re happy, aren’t we?

Modern life on a continent shaped by extreme mobility has cast many if not most of us adrift in a sea of strangers, and we now must find even family wherever we can, adopting fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins, children and grandchildren from the ranks of other strangers, castaways like ourselves. This isn’t absolutely bad, but an expedient, and if nothing else, it forces us to be Christian toward our neighbors, making the whole world one big family, and yet, we are alone.

With a loneliness that can only be dissolved by touching our ancestors, remembering them, even talking to them, forgiving them if we feel they have mistreated us, asking their forgiveness if we have knowingly neglected them, honoring them, if we cannot come near their graves with tokens of love, with moments of reflection, taking pause with them, hearing their words spoken to us while they were alive on earth, and sensing their silent presence in us in our heartbeat and breath.

After the rush toward our projects and pleasures has exhausted us, but before we too are ready to slumber, to sleep our last sleep, even if we have eluded rescue and still pine (when we come to our senses) for our loneliness under the stars, let’s remember why we are here, who it was that cared enough for us to give us part, or even all, of their lives, and who continue invisibly from above and below to protect, to provide for, and to nurture us. Yes, for today is Memorial Day.

1 comment:

Sasha said...

> Even when I was a child, and my family stilled lived within a short distance from our ancestors’ graves, I scarcely remember us visiting them more than once or twice, and I don’t believe it was on this weekend.

It's interesting, I noticed a kind of... separation from, ignoring of the death in this, American, culture. Our loved ones's bodies are taken care of and buried by other people. That's now how it was and is in the Slavic lands. And I remember many, many visits to the graves, multiple per year - on the birth-days and repose-days, and (for Christians) on those special Saturdays, and on other days - just to visit, like one would visit a person because of missing him/her.

But now this mobility is also catching up with me. The first 2 graves of my dear ones are in a different state. We still go there though, as my parents live there. But when my parents move out of that area... it's sad to even think about that.