A Reflection by Zoltan James — May 31, 2011
Like me, on this Memorial Day, I’d guess many of you will be relaxin’ and rememberin’. Maybe you’re out playing golf, fishing, shopping, waxing the car, having friends over for burgers on the grill, or maybe you’re on your hands and knees getting the yard and garden ready for summer. Or, maybe you’re lounging on the back porch reading a good book.
If it weren’t for holidays like today, I would most likely go about my day doing what I usually do, not thinking of things or people past, but focused on looming deadlines of business and the daily chores around the house. But, an amalgamation of emotions floods my heart and mind this Memorial Day of 2011. Emotions stirred up by thoughts of war and the loss of parents and loved ones.
Perhaps my emotions are rawer today because my mother passed away about a year ago in Kansas. She lived to be 90. And, so I hold a little envy for those who still live in the hometowns of their youth where they can still visit the graves of elders and loved ones. I live an entire state away from my hometown and must be content with letting my mind transport me to the foot of the graves of my parents and grandparents to pay my respects.
As cemeteries go, this one is not outstanding in terms of beauty of where one would think to park for an hour of respite and reflection. I’ve attended more funerals there than I would like and stopped by often on visits home. The grounds carry a gentle slope with a few trees. At the top of the hill, near the entrance, stands a memorial to James Naismith, the inventor of the game of basketball. I can see it from my parents’ graves. Behind mom and dad lie Maurice and Eda Tate, good friends who taught them how to speak and read English after we emigrated from Hungary by way of Germany in 1949. There’s something poetically appropriate that they should rest here together. And, down the lane and around the bend lies my good friend Roger, who passed away suddenly at the age of 50 from a massive stroke. He was a beloved high school counselor, brother, son and recent husband, just hitting his stride. Many other folks that I knew are buried there, too. Over the years, these hallowed few acres have become, for me, the final garden for a few good souls.
Whenever I visited my mother, she would cajole me to drive her out to the cemetery. This was always a half-hearted venture for me. Part of me felt obligated to go and pay my respects, but the other part wanted nothing to do with hanging around dead people. What I really wanted to do was go downtown and revisit old haunts, meet old friends, and have a few beers. But, I always gave in to the part that felt obligated.
Mom would bring along with her a basket of flowers, twine, grass clippers and a hand broom. I’d watch as she lovingly cleaned the headstones of my father and grandparents, clipping the edges to clear away the encroaching crabgrass. We would collect water from the nearby spigot to water her fresh flowers. Then, satisfied with the result, mom would stand back, bow her head, and fold her hands where dirt had etched dark lines into her wrinkled and gnarled fingers. I would stand a few feet behind and watched solemnly as she said a silent prayer. Her face grim and lips held tight. Sometimes she would get teary, and sometimes not. Later on, the flowers became bouquets of silk because she feared if she left real flowers they would be robbed. Then, as she got older and frailer, mom would stand by leaning on her walker as I knelt and did the work and she watched, or more truthfully, gave directions on how to properly perform the task.
On these last few visits as I helped her back to the car, she would muse aloud, I’m sure so that I could hear, wondering if anyone would bother to come around to tend to her grave after she was gone.
Since my grandparents are buried next to my father and mother, each visit also reminded me of the day my grandfather gave me his wallet before he died. Inside, he left a handwritten note intoned with his usual sense of humor asking that I remember to bring a glass of water to his grave to slake his thirst.
And, so today from hundreds of miles away, my mind flies there with a basket of flowers and clippers in hand along with a glass of water. I bend over the headstones, clear the grass away to reveal the sharp edges, and whisper a prayer.
Farther north and east, I allow my mind to fly to my mother-in-law’s grave in Flint, Michigan. She passed away a couple of years ago after living her last years with us. I allow my mind to hover there as I pay my respects. In contrast to where my parents are buried, this cemetery is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, not that I’ve seen all that many mind you, nor care to. Her grave sits on a high hill surrounded by old and plentiful trees. And, the lush manicured grounds are dotted with life-sized bronze sculptures of children playing crack the whip, of young boys with jumping puppies, or of adults sitting on benches in perpetual poses of peaceful reflection. As you drive past these graceful works of art, you cannot help but smile.
As I pull back, I find myself reflecting today also of good friends here in Denver who, just this week, lost their mother. Her death was unexpected and swift. Visiting from California to attend her granddaughter’s school advancement ceremony, she got up from the dinner table on a Tuesday evening, had an aneurysm and a series of strokes, and passed away on Thursday. We had the pleasure of seeing her and her husband when they visited, the last time just this past Christmas. We laughed together over brunch, marveled at stories of their travels, and never once talked or thought of the specter of death.
It seems the thread of life runs long and thin amongst us. Another friend, who lives in the foothills above Denver, told me last week that her boyfriend’s young son died suddenly a couple of weeks ago. Another friend who lives in New Mexico, wrote on Facebook that her cousin, a well-known aerobatic performer, died recently at an air show. She was vibrant and pretty. Gone too soon. But, then aren’t they all gone before we’re ready for them to leave.
I guess we all hold our own thoughts this day about loved ones who’ve gone before us, or of those who died far to young fighting in foreign fields and deserts, giving up the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
Whether you’re standing at the gates of a cemetery or the gates of your own garden, I hope that wherever you are on this Memorial Day, that your day is filled with peace and reflection.
Remember. Make every hour your happy hour.