When I was a kid, some of the old timers still called Memorial Day "Decoration Day," and in our family we took it seriously. On Memorial Day, we went out and decorated family graves.
There weren't all that many to decorate. My grandfather. My great-grandparents (Rogers and Trainor). My sister Margaret who'd died in infancy. But it required a long drive out to Barre, Massachusetts, where my grandfather and the Rogers great-grandparents were buried. The wrought-iron gates at the cemetery in Barre were lettered with the words "Joyce Memorial", which always made us proud, because my great-grandmother Rogers, born Margaret Joyce, was one of those Joyces. So the gates were in some way "ours." (Last year, when I was out in Barre, the gates were down. I found them rusting in back of a gardening shed. I wonder what it would cost to have them restored.)
Fast forward a few years. Nobody says Decoration Day anymore. It's now Memorial Day, and it's no longer May 30th. Now it's part of a long weekend.
Somewhere along the line, I started going with my mother and my aunt Margaret (named, indeed, for Margaret Joyce) to visit the graves. There were more, now that my father, uncles, and grandmother had died.
There are more now, still, and my cousin Barbara and I do the honors somewhere around Memorial Day, visiting three cemeteries and making a day of it.
For us, it's a time to remember the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins - and one tiny sister - who have died. Even the ones we never really knew, except through the stories we heard. (Our family has always had many great story-tellers.)
Neither one of us plans to rest in peace in any of the cemeteries we visit, although I may have my ashes surreptitiously scattered at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Leicester, where my parents and sister are, and where I'm related to half the people buried there. What the hell. The ashes have to go somewhere.
But Memorial Day is a day to think about those who've died during war.
I actually don't personally know anyone who was killed during a war. I had friends who'd lost an uncle during World War II. Plenty of my friends had fathers who'd been in The War: at Omaha Beach, in Bastogne, at Guadalcanal. There was a man in the neighborhood who'd had his jaw shot off in Korea. I had classmates who'd lost a brother in Vietnam. A second cousin died of a drug overdose shortly after he got back from Vietnam. And indirect casualty of war, surely, but not killed in action. And he was a second cousin, someone I'd see around occasionally but barely knew. He lived in our parish, but in the farther reaches. He didn't go to the parish school. He was a litle older. Johnny, I hardly knew ye. (He's buried near my parents, so I actually see more of Johnny now than I ever did when he was alive.)
So I've actually never lost anybody.
Yet my existence is the result of both World War I and World War II.
My mother's father, Jacob Wolf, was in the Austro-Hungarian army during the first world war. Which meant that he was fighting on the "wrong" side. And fight he did. I have no memory of my grandfather - he died when I was a baby - but I do know the stories. Eating rats in the trenches to survive. Riding home after the war ended, strapped with his big army belt to the undercarriage of a troop train. And my favorite story of my grandfather, who was the World War I version of a "communications specialist", putting a call through from his outpost to another further down the line. He recognized the voice at the other end as that of his brother. "Is that you, Nick?" "Is that you, Jake?"
Neither had known the other was serving in the area.
In any case, my grandfather - unlike many of the men and boys of his town, including two of his brothers, I think - survived. I have a copy of a memorial poster that was made of "the dead and living of the war from Neue Banat". The poster includes small oval portraits of thirty-three "toten" and 89 "lebenden". Neue Banat, a farm town in the backass of nowhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was pretty small. They pretty much sent all of their young - and, from the portraits, many of their not-so-young - men off to the Welt Krieg. And a lot of them didn't come back.
Strapped to the undercarriage of that train, my grandfather did get back. He got married. Started a family (starting with my mother). And started planning their emigration to America. He had had enough of the hardscrabble life, the welt krieg, of peasant Europe. He did not want the sons he intended to have eating rats in trenches and recognizing each others' voices on trench phones. He was getting out. (The sons Jake had were both too young for World War II. Jack was a Korean-era vet, Bob a pre-Vietnam, peace-time era soldier.)
Jacob Wolf and most of his surviving brothers ended up in Chicago, where life was a whole lot better than in Neue Banat, which after the borders changed and it became part of Rumania had it's name changed to Panat Nul. The Germans in town - and there were only Germans in town until after WWII when they were all kicked out and repatriated back to Germany, where none of them had actually lived since the 1700's - continued to call the town Neue Banat.
Chicago is where my father end up stationed for a couple of years during World War II.
When people think of veterans, they think of those who served in combat.
I don't know what the ratio is of support troops to combat troops, but it's high.
For four years, from 1942-194, my father was support.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, my father tried to join the Army, but he was rejected because of his flat feet.
Maybe because they didn't march as much, or maybe, as my father told us, because he convinced the doctor that he had something called "Indian feet", which meant that he had flat arches but that they didn't bother him, the Navy let my father in.
Because my father had scored so well on the intelligence test they gave you when you joined the service, he was invited to attend Officer Candidate School. True to form, my father decided that he didn't want to be a stuck up, silver-spoon, candy-ass officer, so he stayed a non-com. (He did go as high as a non-com can go, and became a Chief Petty Officer.)
In any case, there was a war on, and (other than a polite refusal to go to OCS), you went where they told you to go.
The first place they told my father to go was Virginia. Then they told him to go to Trinidad, which was an important supply staging area, especially during a period when it was thought that the main invasion point for the European Theater was going to be Africa/Italy.
Then my father was transferred to downtown Chicago.
He met my mother on a fix-up date through one of his Navy friends.
On August 6th, when the news of the first atomic bomb was announced, my father proposed to my mother. At this point, he knew that the war in the Pacific would soon be over and that he wouldn't be sent there.
The rest is our family history.
Decoration Day. Memorial Day. May 30th. Last Monday in May.
Tomorrow I will go with Barbara to decorate our family graves.
Today I will think of those who were not as lucky as Jake Wolf and Al Rogers, those who did not make it home to build their lives.