Old glory

Today is the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth, a centennial commemorated locally with a public radio series about Kennedy’s impact here in Massachusetts. It’s fitting, I think, that JFK’s centennial falls on Memorial Day. Kennedy served but didn’t die in war, but he did die in service to his country. Of war veterans it is often said that all gave some and some gave all, and the latter is true of Kennedy’s legacy of public service.

Pavilion with flag

“Ask not what your country can do for you,” Kennedy famously urged, “but what you can do for your country.” Veterans know full well what they can do for their country, and they do (and did) it. Kennedy, too, knew what he could do for his country, exhorting and encouraging his fellow Americans through oratory and example, urging Americans to reach for the moon and beyond.

I sometimes worry that this ideal of public service–of putting one’s country before oneself–is fading away, at least among politicians. Our current president’s most memorable contributions to American oratory are the phrases “Build the wall” and “Lock her up,” and I doubt he has ever asked anything more than what profit he could make from his country.

Looking up

Last night, J and I watched a television documentary about Kennedy’s assassination, and I was struck by the spontaneous reaction of the assembled crowds in Dallas when Kennedy’s death was announced. Ordinary citizens stood in the streets, weeping, and loose throngs of strangers gathered around parked cars, listening in shock to radio reports. There were no partisan divides, no divisions on account of race, class, or gender. For one day in Dallas, everyone was united in grief, Kennedy becoming in an instance everyone’s president.

Kennedy wasn’t a perfect president, nor was he a perfect man: no man or president is. But JFK is still revered as an American icon a century after his birth for one simple reason. In an era when it seems that everyone is out for himself, Kennedy embodied the noble ideal of giving oneself entirely in service to one’s country.

Memorial Day 2013

For the past five years, J and I have observed a simple ritual on Memorial Day. We walk somewhere for lunch, then we walk to Newton Cemetery to visit the decorated graves of the military dead. We don’t personally know anyone buried at Newton Cemetery, but it’s a lovely place to walk in the springtime, and Memorial Day offers as good an excuse as any to pay our respects to strangers we never had the chance to meet.

Muskrat - May 27 / Day 147

On last year’s Memorial Day walk, J and I saw so many frogs, turtles, rabbits, geese, ducks, and muskrats at Newton Cemetery, I posted an album solely devoted to the the cemetery creatures we saw. In the springtime, when everything is fresh, green, and young, it’s easy to forget the harsh winter reality that everything eventually dies. That’s why we need a holiday to remind us to remember.

Memorial Day 2013

Sometimes people die at the end of a long and full life, and other times young people are cut down too soon. In either case, the loss is tragic. Cemeteries exist as a final resting place for the dead, but they also exist as a reminder to the oblivious living. It’s too easy in the hubbub of living to forget how lucky we are simply to be able to walk the earth in springtime.

You can view past Memorial Day photo sets at the following links: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Enjoy!

Decorated veterans

It’s become something of an informal tradition. For the past three years, J and I have walked to Newton Cemetery on Memorial Day to visit the decorated military graves there. Although we don’t personally “know” anyone buried at Newton Cemetery, we read the markers, set aright floral arrangements that have fallen over, and remember the stories we’ve heard on previous visits. It just feels right to “visit the neighbors” on this day devoted to remembrance.

Click here for photos from last year’s Memorial Day walk, or here for photos from 2010, or here for photos from 2009. Enjoy, and happy Memorial Day.

The people of Massachusetts will always remember

Earlier this month, on a rainy walk through Boston’s Public Garden, J and I took a moment to visit the Garden of Remembrance, a memorial to the Massachusetts citizens who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was the weekend after Osama bin Laden had been killed, so the memorial was decorated with 206 white roses that had been placed on the monument the day after bin Laden’s death: 206 roses for 206 victims, a visual symbol that the people of Massachusetts will always remember those who died.

Dearly departed

Visiting a rainy memorial strewn with wilted flowers felt entirely appropriate. The Public Garden was largely deserted, so J and I had time to ponder the monument and read the chiseled names without the distraction of passing tourists. Almost immediately, I searched for the name of Patrick J. Quigley, IV, whose grave J and I first encountered on a walk through Newton Cemetery several years ago. J and I never met Patrick Quigley, but somehow he’s become the face of 9/11 for me: one name whose death personalizes the passing of all the other names. And sure enough, as soon as I saw Quigley’s name, I felt my eyes misting with something other than raindrops. Just like that, the memories of that terrible day came back, and with them a flood of sympathy for the families of the victims. This memorial is a visible symbol that we won’t forget the ones who were lost: how can we forget, when the families of the victims live on, their lives forever punctuated?

Flowers

In her book Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell describes the first time she visited the World War II memorial in Washington, DC, which I visited in 2005. Initially, Vowell finds the monument cumbersome with its ring of pillars for the 50 states…but upon seeing the “Oklahoma” pillar, she breaks into tears thinking about an uncle’s story about spending a month in wet socks fighting the Japanese for control of a hill.

Suddenly and forever the World War II memorial stopped being clunky architecture and turned into the sound of my uncle’s voice telling me that story. Now I don’t care what it looks like. They could have carved it out of chewed bubble gum and I would think of it fondly.

This, I think, is the power of memorials, both the stone monuments we erect for the dead and this holiday, Memorial Day: a day set aside for remembrance. It’s easy to forget our uncle’s stories, or the stories of other folks’ uncles. Stone memorials are designed to remind us of some stone-cold truths: people die, and our memories are simultaneously tenuous and as strong as death. It’s easy to forget the touch of a now-gone hand, but easy to remember a story that touched us. All we need to resurrect the past is a reminder–a marker, a monument, a memorial. The simple sight of a name carved on stone is enough to bring us to tears, raindrops erasing the fragile line between then and now.

Click here for more photos from the Garden of Remembrance in Boston’s Public Garden, and happy Memorial Day.