On Memorial Day I recall guys I knew who didn’t make it back from Vietnam, but also my parents, who were veterans of a different battlefield. The social earthquake they lived through is a story for another evening. Let it suffice to say they walked sixteen years together and then over thirty-five apart, surviving an ordeal with the strange dignity given to those who endure.
In the end they were buried very far apart. My father’s grave is less than a mile away, but I cannot visit my mother’s grave. She asked that her ashes be scattered at sea. I’m not sure why, for she didn’t tell me her reasons. She was a very private person, and perhaps didn’t want her privacy intruded upon, even in death. If that is the case, it didn’t work, for when I go swimming at the beach I sometimes think of her ashes, and that I am swimming in her as I once did as an embryo in her womb. You can’t get much more intrusive than that, but then, I always was a bit of a brat.
It made no sense to me that she would want to be buried at sea, for all her life she was in terror of the ocean. Maybe her choice was made because her first love likely died at sea, (he was a merchant marine sailor on a freighter sunk by a German submarine while convoying supplies to Russia.) Maybe she wanted her ashes mingled with him, in the end. However she sure hated it when my father and brothers and I sailed and fished on the ocean. She’d seen the sea be cruel, and was sure we all were good as dead, over and over and over again.
We never died, for as far as we were concerned it was a kindly sea, not a cruel sea, and it never let us down despite some close calls and hair-raising escapades. Rather than dying my father came alive on the sea, and if anyone should have been buried at sea it should have been him. It makes no sense that he’s buried up in these hills, so far from the shore.
In any case, there was little chance of visiting my mother’s grave today; the traffic to the shore was terrible, and I am way behind on my planting. In any case, she never seemed to want visitors, but my father seemed to think being remembered was a nice thing. Every Memorial Day he’d go down to Clinton, Massachusetts to his family’s plot, and visit his parents and grandparents. I figured he’d like it if I visited him today, so I picked some lilacs and went to his grave.
We used to argue about whether there was an afterlife or not. I stated the Mind was different from the brain, and he stated consciousness ceased when the electricity ceased flickering through the miracle called the brain. Therefore he would not want me to visit because he’d be watching. Instead he liked being remembered.
He actually wanted to be buried down in Clinton, so he could be remembered along with his mother and father and brother and sister-in-law, and the linkage of family history back through time would be easier. However my stepmother insisted she would be buried in the town she loved, with the man she loved next to her, and my father meekly and wistfully complied. (My stepmother could be very selfish at times, but I brought her some lilacs all the same.)
After I laid the lilacs on their graves I stood in the hot sun feeling far away from them. No communing was going on. I figure folk are fairly busy in the afterlife, and not very aware of this world. This world fades like the reality of your bedroom does, when you are deep in a vivid dream. However my father wanted me to remember, so I did my best.
Oddly, what popped into my head were two pictures of my father in situations I hadn’t witnessed, taken sixty years apart.
The first was a picture my sister sent me, of my father in uniform in World War Two, with my uncle, also in uniform. There were other, more formal pictures, but this one was a gag shot. Because my father was the “baby,” six years younger than my uncle, (my grandfather served in France in World War One between their births,) my uncle was holding my Dad in his arms, (more like a husband holds a bride crossing a threshold than a mother holds a baby,) and both wore mischievous grins I’d never seen them wear, as more serious elders.
The second was a gag shot from the final visit my father made to the Clinton graveyard. By then my father could not move about without a walker, (which he called a “galloper”,) but he had labored away from my grandparent’s grave, up a slope to my grandmother’s family plot, and had his picture taken by the big stone with her family name on it. I’m not sure my stepmother recognized the irony as she took the shot, but I’m certain my Dad did: A very old man in a walker by a gravestone with the single word, “Young,” on it.
I guess that demonstrates a tough sense of humor that lasted from youth at the gates of war, to the gates of death sixty years later. It made me smile, blinking in the bright sunshine, which I think is the sort of remembrance my father would have wanted.
However as I turned away to get back to my planting I wished I had done more for the old man, in his final years. I did take him fishing at a nearby pond, but never took him to the beach, though we talked about the ocean all the time. I suppose it was because I could barely take my own kids to the beach, for a single day once or twice a summer. Still, it seemed a shame that a guy who loved the sea so much didn’t get to the shore once, that I know of, in his final thirteen years.
I think that thought was wandering through my skull because I found this old, sappy Father’s Day poem I wrote for my Dad, when my my dead computer from those days was resurrected, last Saturday.
SAILING (For Dad.)
In a boat called, “Life,”
On a sea called, “Life,”
Through a storm called, “Life,”
We’ve gone sailing.
To reach sheets in the wind,
Or to reach a beach on a reach before finned
Sharks bit our bark,
We’ve gone sailing.
We’ve gone sailing in the summer
When the waves are soft and low,
And gone sailing in some weathers
And in places few dare go.
In a manner of speaking
We have sailed onto the shore
And up and over mountains
Where eagles never soar.
We have sailed across salt deserts
Which have never seen an oar.
We’ve ignored the folk who say,
“Sail where sailors ought.”
Even when we simply sit
We’re sailing in our thought.
And I am glad I’ve learned these ways
Of thinking, at your side,
And looking back I see a wake
that makes me grin with pride.
When the night is full of plankton
And my wake is through the stars
And I tack about the Dipper
I’m glad you were my skipper.
I can’t really remember writing this poem, nor whether I decided it was too sappy to give to my father. Often I’d write poems that seemed great, and later decide they stunk. It is as Henry Miller wrote, “Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read the words of a master and recognize them as our own…”
If we want life to be more poetic, we need to push poetry and to be poets.
However I did remember my my father on Memorial Day, which is something he would have liked.