A Memorial Day journey with my parents

I didn’t really think about the emotional impact of traveling with my parents to place flowers on the graves of our passed-on loved ones when they asked if my daughter and I would like to ride along Sunday.

I also forgot that every time we pile into the car with my parents, something weird happens or the adventure becomes much longer than originally planned.

This trip was no different and there were a couple of times I thought we were going to be waiting for a mechanic.

When we started out on the journey, I heard my parents speaking in hushed tones.

“Should we even be driving this?” Mom asked.

What did that mean? Was something wrong with the car? Great. Just great. Now we were on a 20-mile journey in a car that might explode or something.

“What do you mean should we be driving it? Is this a problem that could leave us breaking down on the road, or leave us flying over an embankment into a tree?”

My questions were met with a silence that spoke volumes (harkening back to the days when I was a child and my parents decided there were things I didn’t need to know) so I started to pray.

Luckily the car problem never became an issue and Dad was able to get it fixed two days later (well, today as I am writing this).

My parents decided we would make the trip after lunch on Sunday, but lunch was late so our trip was late. By the time we arrived at the cemetery about 30 minutes from my parents’ house, it was almost golden hour, the time when the sunlight is the prettiest. I always feel guilty admiring the hundreds of flags dripped in golden sun spread out across a cemetery. It’s a solemn place, not an overlook. Still, the staff of the cemetery did a nice job again this year.

My dad and Little Miss planted flowers by my grandparents’ grave and then we stood there a few minutes, not sure what to do next.

“Sometimes when I come alone, I say a little prayer,” Dad said. “Or talk to them. Should we introduce Little Miss to them?”

Oh. Right. My grandparents were there. Under the ground. I should be focused on remembering them, but I’d stowed that emotion in the back of my head to simply make it through the day without getting weepy. Here it was, though, in my face.

So, I introduced my grandparents to Little Miss, and then, as I told Grandma how much she would have loved Grace, I started to cry. I wasn’t only remembering the time I had spent with her when she was alive, but the times I used to come and sit by her grave with a bag of black jelly beans, eating them and chatting along to her like she was still around (though feeling a bit dumb about it). Grandma loved black jelly beans but wasn’t supposed to eat them because the licorice was bad for her high blood pressure, I guess.

(Unnecessary explanation number five in this post: I talk to my grandmother because I knew her the longest. I was two when my grandfather died. I was in my mid-20s when my grandmother died and I lived with her part of that time.)

Stuffing our emotions back in, we headed back to the car and then drove around the other side of the cemetery to my aunt and uncle’s grave. This is my dad’s sister and her husband. Next to their grave, is the burial spot of a friend/neighbor of my dad’s and a cousin of my uncle’s — a decorated Vietnam War veteran who reminds my dad of the darker side of being a member of the United States Army. This man (first name Guy) was a sniper, was injured, earned a Purple Heart, and then was placed on duty to escort dead soldiers home from Vietnam. Guy killed himself in 1998 in the woods behind his house, a short drive from my parents’ house, we believe to stop the memories of all he’d seen.

After my dad planted flowers at his grave, and Little Miss and I had gone back to the car, Dad, a veteran of the United States Air Force, turned and faced Guy’s grave, saluting him in the respect he probably wasn’t given when he came home from war. The sight hit me hard in the chest and as I turned to tell my mom, who’d missed Dad’s salute, I broke down and she did as well. We were a bit of a blubbering mess for a few minutes.

With the tears behind us, Dad suggested a stop at a local ice cream place and that’s where things went off the rails. First, there was a huge line at the place, second, Dad accidentally left the lights and air conditioner on, so while he was waiting in line for the ice cream, the battery in his car died. This is where living in a smaller area comes in handy, because my dad looked to our left and the man in the next car was someone he knew.

Our family has also known the man’s wife for years. The two of them managed to get the car jumped but then another man walked by who knew Dad and Little Miss, Mom, and I sat there wondering if we would get home before 10 p.m. at that point. It turned out he was the brother of the woman we knew and he’d only recently moved back to the area after being away for probably 30 years.

We might not have known when or if we were going to get out of there, but we did know we weren’t going to make it to my Uncle Billy’s grave, at a different cemetery, that night, because the sun was setting fast. My parents ended up visiting his grave the following day.

While we were waiting for our ice cream, I told Little Miss, who wanted to go play around some tables, that we couldn’t go far because we would need to help Grandpa carry the ice cream.

“Hey!” a little boy with a buzzcut and a neon green shirt declared. “My Grandpa’s name is Grandpa too!”

All in all, the trip was a success, and we did make it home before 10, but not before dark. We let anyone who gets in the car with my parents know that they might want to plan for a longer trip than expected.

There is a good chance something weird will happen or Dad will want to take them on a tour of an area he is familiar with or once lived in. Either way, the trip is going to be longer, and often more interesting, than anyone expected.

The soldier’s hat


I have been blogging about 12 years, although I don’t have all the posts from all those years. I do have some and I found this post today from around Memorial Day in 2014 while looking for another post. I thought I’d share it here again today and maybe share some of my past posts like Mama’s Empty Nest has been doing recently.


I remember the day Harry gave my son the VFW hat.  We were at a celebration at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars where they were honoring Harry because he was moving from the area to live with family.

I had taken Jonathan with me so I could grab a photograph for the local newspaper, but also so I could say goodbye to Harry, who I had interviewed years ago about his service during World War II. We had visited Harry at a nursing home a few weeks earlier while also visiting my aunt. My son, Jonathan, was 7 at the time.

I told Jonathan that Harry had fought for our country during World War II and to free the Jews during the Holocaust, something we had been talking about one night when he had asked me some historical questions. I remember how horrified he was about Hitler treating the Jews so awful and because of his age, I left out the worst of it, mainly only telling him how much the Nazis had hated the Jewish people and how wrong it was. After I introduced Jonathan to Harry, who was in the hallway sitting in a wheelchair, Jonathan, without prompting, saluted him.

Harry was touched and overwhelmed. As I sat and chatted with Harry, often having to almost shout since he had lost some of his hearing by then (he was almost 93), Jonathan drew a picture of Harry in the war, jumping out of airplanes and fighting in the Phillipines. Again, Harry was touched and impressed with Jonathan.

A week later when we attended Harry’s farewell celebration, we were surprised and emotional when Harry asked to see Jonathan and handed him two of his VFW Commander hats. Harry was thrilled to see Jonathan and smiled and talked to him, thanking him again for the salute and the picture.

We were definitely sad a year later when we heard Harry passed away. He had dedicated more than three decades to the local VFE post, where he served four years as post commander, 20 years as post quartermaster, 10 years as district quartermaster and three years as district commander. During his time at the VFW he had been named an All-American post commander, an All-American quartermaster three times, and also received several awards through the VFW.

DSC_4820DSC_4821-Edit-2When Harry passed away the  new post commander, Dan Polinski, told the local paper about the countless times Harry and others of Harry’s generation had stood in all kinds of weather to honor veterans who had passed away. Dan remembered one specific day where the rain was coming down, cold and stinging, against their faces.

“The younger of us, and I use that term loosely, said to Harry, O.C. Spencer, and some of the other World War II guys, ‘Listen, you guys, don’t stay out in this.’ The wind was whipping and it was brutal,” said Polinski. “Harry, and O.C., and all of the old crew — all of the old World War II guys who had stood with this Color Guard guy at many other funerals — just said, ‘No. He would do this for us.’” (Morning Times, Sayre, Pa. August 1, 2014)

I can attest to Dan’s story because I remember those rainy Memorial Days (in fact, I remember more rainy Memorial Days in Bradford County than sunny ones. It seems it always rains when there is a parade or a ceremony to honor veterans here.) I covered a few of those ceremonies for local newspapers and when I first saw Harry, and fellow World War II veteran O.C. Spencer, standing out in inclement or sweltering hot weather, I wondered why someone didn’t get them a chair or an umbrella, or usher them inside. Looking back I know it was because they stood not only to honor the fallen and those who served but to honor our country. They did what so many of us don’t, or won’t, do. They did what they’d done years ago when called to fight; standing when others turned or walked away.

DSC_5342_1We keep Harry’s hats sealed inside the clear plastic case he handed them to Jonathan in and we keep them in an honored spot next to a sealed American flag given to Warren’s family after his great-grandfather passed away. And when we do pull the hats out we not only remember the man who stood at every Memorial and Veterans day service, no matter the weather, in full uniform, honoring those who served and those who fell, but the man who came home from war, worked with troubled youth with his wife for a decade, worked hard at every job he did, and also showed us how to persevere during the toughest times in life.

It’s hard sometimes to look at the local Color Guard during Memorial Day services and not see Harry standing there, rifle propped against his shoulder, back straight, jaw firm, gaze steady. I find myself choking up at the memory of the dedication he showed and how a new generation is missing out on the lessons of perseverance his mere presence there taught us.

What is important, I remind myself, isn’t that he isn’t here anymore, but that he was there at all and that there are people still around who will work to keep his memory and legacy alive.

DSC_5363

The soldier’s hat

I remember the day Harry gave my son the VFW hat.  We were at a celebration at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars where they were honoring Harry because he was moving from the area to live with family.

I had taken Jonathan with me so I could grab a photograph for the local newspaper, but also so I could say goodbye to Harry, who I had interviewed years ago about his service during World War II. We had visited Harry at a nursing home a few weeks earlier while also visiting my aunt. My son, Jonathan, was 7 at the time.

I told Jonathan that Harry had fought for our country during World War II and to free the Jews during the Holocaust, something we had been talking about one night when he had asked me some historical questions. I remember how horrified he was about Hitler treating the Jews so awful and because of his age, I left out the worst of it, mainly only telling him how much the Nazis had hated the Jewish people and how wrong it was. After I introduced Jonathan to Harry, who was in the hallway sitting in a wheelchair, Jonathan, without prompting, saluted him.

Harry was touched and overwhelmed. As I sat and chatted with Harry, often having to almost shout since he had lost some of his hearing by then (he was almost 93), Jonathan drew a picture of Harry in the war, jumping out of airplanes and fighting in the Phillipines. Again, Harry was touched and impressed with Jonathan.

A week later when we attended Harry’s farewell celebration, we were surprised and emotional when Harry asked to see Jonathan and handed him two of his VFW Commander hats. Harry was thrilled to see Jonathan and smiled and talked to him, thanking him again for the salute and the picture.

We were definitely sad a year later when we heard Harry passed away. He had dedicated more than three decades to the local VFE post, where he served four years as post commander, 20 years as post quartermaster, 10 years as district quartermaster and three years as district commander. During his time at the VFW he had been named an All-American post commander, an All-American quartermaster three times, and also received several awards through the VFW.

DSC_4820DSC_4821-Edit-2When Harry passed away the  new post commander, Dan Polinski, told the local paper about the countless times Harry and others of Harry’s generation had stood in all kinds of weather to honor veterans who had passed away. Dan remembered one specific day where the rain was coming down, cold and stinging, against their faces.

“The younger of us, and I use that term loosely, said to Harry, O.C. Spencer, and some of the other World War II guys, ‘Listen, you guys, don’t stay out in this.’ The wind was whipping and it was brutal,” said Polinski. “Harry, and O.C., and all of the old crew — all of the old World War II guys who had stood with this Color Guard guy at many other funerals — just said, ‘No. He would do this for us.’” (Morning Times, Sayre, Pa. August 1, 2014)

I can attest to Dan’s story because I remember those rainy Memorial Days (in fact, I remember more rainy Memorial Days in Bradford County than sunny ones. It seems it always rains when there is a parade or a ceremony to honor veterans here.) I covered a few of those ceremonies for local newspapers and when I first saw Harry, and fellow World War II veteran O.C. Spencer, standing out in inclement or sweltering hot weather, I wondered why someone didn’t get them a chair or an umbrella, or usher them inside. Looking back I know it was because they stood not only to honor the fallen and those who served but to honor our country. They did what so many of us don’t, or won’t, do. They did what they’d done years ago when called to fight; standing when others turned or walked away.

DSC_5342_1We keep Harry’s hats sealed inside the clear plastic case he handed them to Jonathan in and we keep them in an honored spot next to a sealed American flag given to Warren’s family after his great-grandfather passed away. And when we do pull the hats out we not only remember the man who stood at every Memorial and Veterans day service, no matter the weather, in full uniform, honoring those who served and those who fell, but the man who came home from war, worked with troubled youth with his wife for a decade, worked hard at every job he did, and also showed us how to persevere during the toughest times in life.

It’s hard sometimes to look at the local Color Guard during Memorial Day services and not see Harry standing there, rifle propped against his shoulder, back straight, jaw firm, gaze steady. I find myself choking up at the memory of the dedication he showed and how a new generation is missing out on the lessons of perseverance his mere presence there taught us.

What is important, I remind myself, isn’t that he isn’t here anymore, but that he was there at all and that there are people still around who will work to keep his memory and legacy alive.

DSC_5363