On Memorial Day mornings Dad loaded us into the station wagon and drove to Fort Snelling National Cemetery. We’d walk casually among the endless rows of gravestones and rarely speak. When Dad slowed or paused, so did we. I wondered if this private or sergeant or colonel had died in a battle. To pass the time I made up stories about that.
I know only one person who actually died in battle. He was two years ahead of me in high school. At most, we’d acknowledge each other with a quick “How’s it going?” in the hallway. I don’t remember whether he was drafted or enlisted, but one day in my senior year someone said Donny had been killed in a vague country we’d been sort of learning about in social studies — Vietnam. I haven’t thought about Donny in a very long time.
Next, we’d drive to the cemetery where our relatives and a lot of people from the old neighborhood are buried. This time we’d make a beeline to particular gravestones. Mom, Dad and my grandparents kibitzed about the lives of the deceased at their feet and sometimes quietly argued or chuckled about them while my sister and I tagged along behind. We placed stones on their gravestones. Then Dad herded us back into the car and that was that.
For the remainder of that Memorial Day we would welcome back summer with a pickup ballgame, shopping, a barbecue and the Twins game being broadcast in the background.
I don’t visit cemeteries much anymore. But I admit that nowadays, being older and all and, as Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan fame lyricized, closer to “the other side of no tomorrow,” I peruse the obits in the newspaper frequently. Not just to stay in the know about a bygone friend, acquaintance, co-worker, neighbor, or someone’s someone I should know about. I like the tidbits and stories that a well-written obit shares — beyond the sincere and touching but often clichéd accolades about the deceased.
Some of my friends think this is a morbid thing to do, but I don’t. I’m comforted, inspired, sometimes even entertained having a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people who seemed to have lived extraordinary lives — sometimes with fanfare and glitz, but not always — and joyful, but, of course, not always that either. I think we can assume there’s always heartbreak even if it’s not written about.
Craig L., who “ … once built a UFO detector and alarm under his bed, which the family cat soon set off in the middle of the night.”
The gentleman who died “ … after a long battle with cancer and a short battle with a black bear” and another grand man who “ … was taken from us in the prime of his life at 98.”
And Sandi E., who “ … casually ignored her maladies in order to give someone a ride to chemo, support a local restaurant or listen to a cassette tape while watching freight trains from her window.”
Jack B-C-T who, as his obit tells us, “… was pulled away from us, back into the infinite universe, to bring music, humor, movies … to at least 33 galaxies.”
The fellow who “was proud of his blueberries and adored his cat, Lily.”
And the lady whose obit life story I can’t recall right now, except for her name. But that’s OK, because when I think about her I smile and feel a little bit better. Her name was Mary Jester.
And Nicole, whose family shared their heartbreaking message to her with us: “… you cried your last tear, read the last of the nasty messages, posts … that no amount of blocking and deleting could remove the damage done. Instead, you decided enough was enough.”
Of course, I’m grateful and humbled when soldiers’ stories are included. Like Albert M., who we’re told survived the Battle of the Bulge and “ … slowly over time was able to tell his family stories of the men he fought with, the carnage, fear, bravery and death that surrounded them.”
Dad never articulated to us the purpose of our family excursions to those cemeteries on Memorial Days. He was the kind of dad who left it to us to figure out what he was thinking on our own.
Naturally, as the years passed and family members dispersed and died, those cemetery visits dwindled and eventually ended. I’m disappointed with myself for not jump-starting the tradition with my own family. I guess there were too many enticing sales, day trips and barbecues to fill the day off from work and school.
But the obit pages are right next to me now. So on to those. Come to think of it, those cemeteries are pretty close by, too. Maybe this Memorial Day we’ll squeeze in a visit.
Maybe I’ll look for Donny’s gravestone.
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.