Flags for the fallen

This past Memorial Day, J and I took a walk (and took lots of pictures) at Newton Cemetery, as we often do. Cemeteries are lovely places to walk, and Memorial Day is as good a day as any to visit your deceased neighbors.

Flags and flagpole

While J and I were respectfully examining some of the stones in one of the sections devoted to military graves, we struck up a random conversation with a man and woman who were trimming the grass around the marker of a man they referred to as Uncle Fred. Uncle Fred, they explained, was an MIT graduate who served as a Navy fighter pilot because he loved fast cars and wanted a job that satisfied his thrill-seeking nature. Although he quickly rose in the ranks and had the opportunity to train other pilots, he preferred flying combat missions. Uncle Fred’s military career was cut short when he was killed in an accident while landing his plane on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in 1944. He was 27 years old.

Uncle Fred, it turns out, grew up in a house just a few blocks from ours, living the length of his too-short life a generation or two before J and I were born. Due to the contingencies of time, in other words, Uncle Fred is a would-be neighbor whom we never had the chance to know. As we continued talking with the man and woman who were tidying Uncle Fred’s grave, J and I realized that they’d never had the chance to meet him, either. The woman had married into the family after Fred, her husband’s brother, had died, and the man, her son, was born years later. “I’m almost glad I wasn’t a member of the family then,” the woman confided. “I don’t think I could have handled that kind of loss.”

Memorial wreaths

I remembered this random conversation with two strangers about their Uncle Fred because it says so much about the power of memory. Neither this woman nor her son had met “Uncle Fred”; they’d simply heard the oft-repeated stories about him. And each Memorial Day, they kept these familial stories alive by visiting the cemetery where Uncle Fred and other family members are buried, bringing kitchen shears and garden tools to trim the grass around their graves.

Memorial Day is a holiday set aside to remember fallen soldiers, and November has its own share of remembrance days: All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days to remember the dead, and Veterans Day to honor living veterans and active servicemen and -women. Although a lot of folks dislike Veterans Day because of its association with war, in my mind today isn’t about anything so abstract.

Decorated and remembered

Veterans Day isn’t a holiday to advocate war or support the troops in an abstract sense; instead, it’s a day set aside for thanking the real-life men and women–our neighbors, relatives, friends, and friends of friends–who have served or currently are serving in the military. As Algernon noted recently, “[p]eople join the military for lots of reasons”: some are in the military because they support and want to serve in a particular war, others enlist because they’re looking for adventure, and others join the military because they see it as their best chance of getting an education and starting a career. Each and every “Fred,” in other words, has a story all his or her own, and today is the day we remember those stories with gratitude. Veterans Day is an annual opportunity not only to remember but also to thank our own “Uncle Freds.”