May 28, 2011
My mother died fourteen years ago at age 87, having lived a long life full of the joys and sorrows common to all of us. The evening before her funeral, my brothers and sister and I sat around my sister’s living room telling each other stories about Mom – small stories that made us laugh and, occasionally, cry – our way of coping with the loss we felt, even though her death had not been unexpected and, I suppose, our way of keeping her alive a little longer, before the finality of the next day’s funeral service.
In some sense, she is still alive, of course, in my memories of her. I can still see her face, aided more and more by old photographs. I can call up the sound of her voice, her own distinctive movements around a room, the scent of her talcum powder, the warmth of her hugs, the ups and downs of her life.
Memories are selective. Though bad memories sometimes come unbidden to the point of pathology, we mostly choose to remember the good ones. I can remember, if I choose, the pain of my mom’s absence from much of my childhood after my parents divorced and my dad took custody because of my mom’s mental illness. Those memories, too, lurk in the nooks and crannies of my mind. I can also remember the three-day bout of non-stop, word-salad sentences that marked the cyclical manic episodes she suffered every nine years – at least the one I personally dealt with. For the most part, I choose not to, instead remembering how every nine years she came out of those episodes, picked up the pieces of her life and went on about her business with a fair amount of grace and courage – knowing that, one day when she wasn’t expecting it, the illness would strike, again.
All of my loved ones who have passed on were ordinary people who sometimes found themselves in extraordinary situations and did the best they could with what life handed them. I remember them with love because of that and the lessons their lives taught me. I sometimes view what they did at those times as remarkable; I do not see them as heroes. They did what they had to do to carry on in the personal wars they fought.
Memories differ from memorializing and I think that, especially on Memorial Day, that’s a distinction worth making. Men and women who go to war do things both heroic and horrific in fighting those wars. They are also mostly ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations doing the best they can to carry on. For the families and friends of those serving, that is the person who is loved and remembered when they die.
For the rest of us, who do not know the person and have no personal memories to rely on, there is a danger in these celebrations of their service. Countries rarely fight wars for the noble reasons our leaders tell us. The men and women who fight those wars are rarely as heroic or horrific as those who profit from their deaths – or the deaths they cause – make them out to be. There is a constant, not so subtle attempt, in memorializing them as such, to aggrandize and memorialize the act of war, itself. Understanding that, remember their lives, honor their service if you will, but beware of memorializing, and thus perpetuating, the wars that killed them.