On this Memorial Day weekend, a civic prayer for the living and the dead • Colorado Newsline

This commentary originally appeared in the Kansas Reflector.

By the Sunday before Memorial Day my father would already have the flowers set out on the family graves. He would have called the flowers “decorations,” because being an original Ozarker he knew the holiday by its old name. The relatives whose remains were held safe by these grassy plots had been gone for years, or in some cases decades, but they lived still in his memory.

As a kid, as an unwilling accomplice, during these annual rituals there wasn’t much for me to do except find the shade of a nearby tree and listen with the bored disinterest of a designated witness to his recitation of the names on the stones. I had known perhaps only one or two of them — my grandmothers, for example — but the rest were as distant to me as the sun overhead.

My father was not a devout man or much given to ceremony, but Memorial Day was the holiday he observed with a rigor that resembled a civil religion. For Carl McCoy, the year began not with the lengthening days after the winter solstice but with Memorial Day. The solemn remembrance of the dead typically concluded with a family meal (although seldom a picnic) and then the doors to summer were flung open, with its long days and baitcaster fishing and homegrown tomatoes by the Fourth of July.

His preparations for Decoration Day were careful to the point of obsessive. Perhaps it was because most of the men in our extended family had served in one branch of the military or another, or because he himself had been a sailor on the battleship Pennsylvania during World War II. Or it may have simply been an opportunity to remember all of the relative dead, whether veterans or not, in a way that didn’t require a recitation of words or setting foot in a church. He was an articulate man, a salesman who had the gift of persuasion, but was reticent about sharing his feelings and uncomfortable with institutionally approved displays of piety or patriotism.

He would honor the dead in his own way.

First, there was the matter of the container for the decorations.

As a child of the Great Depression, he observed the prime directive of all who have endured hard times: Waste nothing. So no store-bought pots or vases would do. Instead, for the previous year he would save up his empty one-pound coffee tins, and then spray-paint them in red or sometimes blue. The flowers weren’t purchased either, but came from his yard, or with permission, from the yards and gardens of friends and neighbors.

I don’t recall him favoring any particular variety, but peonies and hydrangeas and asters were represented. A little water was poured from the tap in each can, the cut flowers inserted, if not arranged, and then placed in cardboard pallets in the trunk of his bronze-colored Thunderbird, or later a blue Buick I never much liked, for the trip to the cemeteries. Both were in Joplin, Missouri, where he grew up and spent most of his life.

He would start at Osborne Memorial Cemetery on the southwest side of town and end at Forest Park, in the northeast. Osborne had been built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration and is an expanse of trees and grass-covered hills separated from an outer road by native stone wall.

Members of both sides of my family are buried there, people from both Kansas and Missouri, grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles. Most of the graves of the men were marked by flags, indicating they were veterans. My father would talk his way from one group of graves to the other, carrying his tin-can decorations in hand, remarking on the history of this or that person. By 1986 my mother would be buried there, dead of cancer, but my parents were separated by that time, and her grave was one he didn’t have much to say about. But her grave still got one of those painted cans.

The grave of the author’s paternal grandmother rests at Osborne Memorial Cemetery in Joplin, Missouri. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

My mother suffered greatly during her life and in the weeks leading up to the end, an existential suffering that in the end was relieved only by a morphine drip. When she finally slipped away, it seemed a kindness. The final cause of her suffering was breast cancer, but the other factors remain a mystery truly known only to herself, a mystery exacerbated by what clearly was a depression that had plagued most of her 59 years.

When I was a kid, death was as abstract to me as quantum mechanics. Most of the names on the headstones were cyphers and the dates seemed impossibly distant. The death of my mother changed that. At age 28, death had become not an abstraction but the end of a narrative — one lives and one dies, painfully or peacefully, and the story is done. My mother’s story made me angry, because it seemed to me she chose it. I was so angry that when I began to write novels I would kill off characters that were representative of her, trying to make sense of her narrative.

It would be years before I realized there was more to a life — and especially her life — than can be summed up as simply happy or tragic. In the fullness of time, joy and sorrow visit us all.

At Osborne there were often impromptu family reunions, when relatives we hadn’t seen in a year or three, and who lived in cities hours or sometimes days away, would park their cars and come with decorations in their arms. Much of the talk at graveside was naturally about the past, with a whisper of regret and sometimes resentment. My father recalled walking the surrounding hillsides barefoot, with only a shell or two for his .22 rifle with which to bring home a squirrel to eat. Sometimes he would talk about the time his sister hid a Hershey bar and nibbled on it at night, and my father regarded her refusal to share — even though they were both children, and his sister two years younger — as a betrayal he carried with him for life.

At the other cemetery, Forest Park, the visited interred were all on my father’s side, and buried in the old section on the north. This was not an open area like Osborne, but semi-wooded, with graves going back to at least the 1870s. My father always brought some clippers and other tools to cut back the weeds and vines that threatened to overgrow the graves of my grandfather and others, but he always left the wild strawberries on the grave of a former Confederate, Sgt. William. J. Leffew, a cavalryman from Tennessee, who had been a family friend in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I always wondered how that came about, because the men in my father’s family were all Union veterans.

By the summer of 1997, my father would take his place on one of those hills at Osborne, and on Memorial Days would get one of those little American flags over his grave.

Death no longer seemed so abstract to me. It also didn’t feel like the end of a story, but part of a continuing narrative.

The aneurism had happened fast, starting with a literally blinding headache, but when he could still speak he directed his neighbors to call me. By the time I arrived at the hospital, little more than an hour later, he was unconscious and the doctors said there was little they could do. Death was certain. His bare feet poked from beneath the covers at the end of the hospital bed and I touched his toes, thinking how young they looked for a man of 73.

Death no longer seemed so abstract to me. It also didn’t feel like the end of a story, but part of a continuing narrative. But I didn’t know if the tale had a meaning or was just cold fact — here one is born, there another dies, and if your chronology overlaps with the deceased you’re likely to feel a sense of loss.

Then, later in my life, I made an unexpected friendship.

Phil was a fellow author and journalist, a free thinker, sometimes a pain in the ass, but always an advocate. We had so many shared interests — books, photography, science, philosophy, scuba diving — that it felt as if we’d known each other all our lives. He told me I was in love with my wife, Kim, before I knew it myself, and he bought the champagne for our wedding.

For five years, Phil was my best friend. You might remember me writing about him before, in this 2021 Kansas Reflector piece.

In the fall of 2011, Phil bowed out of a writing conference with me because of a stomachache. He said he was sure it was nothing but a touch of the stomach flu. But it was colon cancer, and he would be dead in three months.

As the end neared, he never complained and even managed jokes about his coming passing. Kim and I brought him food, of which he could eat only a few bites. He was not depressed, accepted his quickening demise and remained skeptical of any kind of afterlife. As he became weaker and the days grew short, I was seized by the desire to be with him at the end and clutch his body to mine. Far from being abstract or part of a narrative thread, Phil’s impending death was material, visceral, the cold and unyielding stone of reality. It was outrageously unfair, not just to him but to all those who loved him, especially his children. In the end, he was taken away by a sister and died in the mountains of Colorado. When he was gone, the grief washed over me and Kim like ever-deepening waves. The swells have now lessened, but 12 years after they still come.

A simple reading is that I was grieving my own mortality. Perhaps. But there was more to the pain, I think. My reaction was an existential cry to the inevitable loss of all we hold dear to time and random misfortune. That we must die is certain. To really live, and not just survive, is the challenge. My grief was deep at Phil’s death precisely because he had lived so deeply and in so doing had touched my life and that of many others.

I experienced something deeper when my brother died not so long ago. He was many years my senior, and like my father was a veteran. His death was a normal one, being stricken at home by a heart attack after a full life. If Phil’s death was coming up against stone, then my brother’s was a stone lodged beneath my ribs.

I am not afraid of my own death, but of the loss of those I love.

A decoration adorns a grave at an Emporia cemetery. (Kim Horner McCoy)

Monday will conclude a long weekend’s worth of honoring our war dead. The tradition that began during the Civil War continues as a national day of remembrance of the men and women who have died in service to our country in all conflicts. We do not need to force a heroic narrative, or judge the conflicts in which they were lost, to honor them. I am reminded of Tennyson’sCharge of the Light Brigade,possibly the most famous war poem ever written, which celebrated the valor of Crimean War soldiers cut down because of an administrative “blunder.”

The massive slaughter of the Civil War, in which more than 600,000 soldiers died, changed the way in which Americans viewed death. It’s why embalming became common, starting with the very first Union officer to be killed, Col. Elmer Ellsworth. He was shot dead in May 1861 after cutting down a rebel flag from a rooftop in Alexandria, Virginia. A friend of Abraham Lincoln’s, he had sought to remove the flag because it was visible from the White House. Ellsworth’s body was embalmed and lay in state for several days at the White House and then was taken to New York, where thousands viewed it.

After the war, local tributes to war dead became common in both the north and the south, and soon became regular springtime events. From 1868 to 1970, Memorial Day was May 30; in 1971, it became a federal holiday, observed on the last Monday in May.

While the Civil War shaped our concept of the modern funeral, its grim aftermath — with nearly every family experiencing a death — led to a surge in spiritualism, with seances promising communication with the departed.

I don’t know if there is an afterlife. Shakespeare’s “secret house of death” remains beyond earthly experience. The mystery might be revealed at the moment of our passing, or it might be forever locked in oblivion. Our cemeteries and our monuments are not tributes to glory so much as they are question marks made of stone.

What has emerged from these questions is a collective narrative of sacrifice in service to good. While I think the term hero is used too loosely today, I agree with Joseph Campbell’s definition: “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”

On this Memorial Day weekend, pay your respects to the dead. But make time to remember the living. Share in the joys and sorrows of others. Be brave enough to love, even though it risks a stone in the heart. Think about what is bigger than yourself. And to the power and mystery of our collective national memory offer an act of civic prayer, even if it’s just a painted coffee can filled with borrowed flowers.

Source link

Related Posts