Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day--Bigger Than We Think

"As I sit here

in my little boat

tied to the shore

of the passing river

in a time of ruin,

I think of you,

old ancestor,

and wish you well.

--Wendell Berry, from

(As we approach this Memorial Day  I think we should tip our hats to all those brave soldiers of all walks of life that have paved the way for us all. Let us think of all the blessings that none of us really deserve. Someone cared and loved and picked us up and wiped us off--and held us close. Let us remember.)

In the state of New Mexico there is a place called Inscription Rock. It is part of a great rock formation. In the springtime, great torrents of water eat away at the base of this huge rock wall. Great piles of gravel and sand are deposited at its base. The gravel and sand formed a pass which became the old route from East to West. It led to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and the Great Plains of the Northwest.

 History books say that by the sixteenth century the Spaniards were already using this route. When some trapper or prospector passed Inscription Rock, he would do a strange thing. He would stop, take a knife and cut his name and the date and always the same phrase: “Paso por aqui” (passed through here) into the rock.  Those words furnished a last change of address for men who would never return. Inscription Rock was a special place because it bore witness to a journey that a man had made. Juan Hernandez, in person, had “passed through here” in 1587.

 On this Memorial Sunday we are given the gift of a weekend to pause before our own Inscription Rock. We are challenged to think of all the brave soldiers who have left a mark on the wall of our lives. This holiday originated in the South shortly after the Civil War. Memorial Day became a time for honoring those who had fallen in all the wars. Through the years the day has evolved into an occasion for decorating with flowers the graves of all our honored dead. The practice remains in many places in Alabama and other states. One Sunday a year people drive back to a place where someone they loved is buried. They clean off the old graves, they lovingly place flowers. They remember and then they make their way back home.

 Whose name is carved on your Inscription Rock? My Mother’s name is written on my rock for many reasons.  She entered me in the ”Pretty Baby” Contest and was furious because I did not even place in the event. Such blind love one does not forget. On my wall are two old maid sisters who taught school was I was a little boy. For some reason they took a shine to me and kept on their dresser the picture of a little boy with curly hair named Roger. I was told that old photograph was there until the day they died. One does not forget such affection. There was our maid, Nancy who was my first counselor. She was hardly able to read or write but she listened and cared and helped enormously. How could I ever forget her? There was a Journalism teacher in High School who listened to my teen-age problems. She asked me if I had ever thought about writing. She was the first person who challenged me to go to college. On the wall of my heart there is the name of Miss Byrdie. Her eyes were hopelessly scarred because of a fire she fell into when she was eighteen months old. She saved nickels and dimes and dollars from working in a knitting mill and gave me tuition money to go to Howard College. Who could forget such a sacrifice?  Later there was a counselor who held my hand until I really did cross the choppy waters to safety. These, and a great many more, are all inscribed on the walls of my heart.

Sir Isaac Newton, the great scientist, one day said, “I could not do what I have done unless I had stood on the shoulders of giants.” There are no self-made men and women. Whatever success we have known is because of all the people who have carved their names on the walls of our lives. They diapered us and taught us to read and sing and dance and play ball and drive a car and find our way. We would never have made it through the winding path of our lives without all those who affirmed and believed in us.

Memorial Day reminds me of a scene in Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel, In Country. It is the story of Dwayne who married a girl in his hometown of Hopewell, Kentucky and then went off to the Viet Nam war. He never came back—but he left his wife pregnant. After he died a daughter was born. Her mother named her Sam. The novel is about Sam’s and her family’s grief in trying to deal with the loss of a father and the loss of a son to her Grandmother.

 Sam and that Grandmother and a friend leave the little Kentucky town where they live to visit the Vietnam Memorial for the first time. The Grandmother had hardly been out of the county. Finally they got to Washington, found the Memorial and just looked at that black mountain of marble that seemed to grow from out of the ground. They stood there, that daughter and Mother and just looked and looked at the 58 thousand names of all the men and women who had died in that war. Each name was inscribed on that monument. They went to the directory and found the name they were looking for: Dwayne E. Hughes. And then they found the section where his name was etched into the marble. The old mother couldn’t see it very well and she wanted to touch the name before she left. So one of the workers brought a ladder and with the help of her granddaughter and a friend this little old lady climbed, ever so slowly up the ladder until she found the name of her boy. She reached out and ran her fingers over the name. She stood there for a long time—and then, wiping away the tears, she said: “Help me down.”

 This is the day of touching some name and remembering some face.  We all have some Inscription Rock. And we pause to remember all those, who in passing, have made our lives forever different.

(This piece first appeared in my blog in May 2010. I wanted to share it with those who perhaps might like to read it.)

(Want to read a great Memorial Day tribute? Read Lily Burana's, "At War", published in the New York Times. It is great.)

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