A week ago, we celebrated Memorial Day in the States. As the daughter of a man who trained as an Air Force navigator and tail gunner in World War II, this was a big day in our house. I try still to keep the spirit of the day in mind.
My memories wandered as I watched the flag in Memorial Park waving in the breeze . . .
I’m seven years old and watching a parade in the very small town of Milan, Ohio (pop: 1,367). On my father’s shoulders to see above the crowd, we sway to the rhythm of the marching band, wave at the fire captain in his truck and ooh appropriately when the Melon Queen (no snide remarks allowed, people) cruises by on her float. We’re at the Melon Festival, which happens every Labor Day weekend, but seems in this small town to be less about labor and more about Mom and apple pie. Every time a flag, a soldier or a veteran of war goes by, my father expects his girls to stand up and applaud. No lecture on patriotism. No explanation. It was just what he expected.
Milan is the type of town I can still appreciate but I see now things I didn’t then. The depressed economy, the number of NRA enthusiasts, the men drinking all day at the town tavern. Pronounced Mylan, not Milahn (no fancy European #$&%, I can hear the locals saying), this town is proud of its roots and perhaps a little too tied to a version of America that no longer works. But back then, I knew it as a place where my family got to have a day of fun.
After the parade, we ate barbecued chicken at the firehouse and homemade melon ice cream in the town square. To this day, having eaten in some very fine restaurants, nothing beats this ice cream. Seriously. It’s phenomenal and a tradition at the festival still. I would then ride on the merry-go-round and the swings, and the day usually ended with me asleep in the back of the family station wagon on the long trip home, my father carrying me to my bed, tucked in with a kiss on the forehead. I dream of waving flags and melon ice cream.
I am a teenager. I’m grumpy because I am not an early riser and my father has hustled me out of bed at an ungodly 7 a.m. so we can make the local Memorial Day parade. Taking all of about 10 minutes, with a couple of police cars, fire trucks and some very old veterans, I don’t see the point. At least not at the age of 14. We go. We stand and applaud every time a soldier or flag passes. And then we head out for breakfast at my father’s favorite breakfast joint—or he buys me doughnuts on the way home to make up for the early awakening. At the end of the day, my father carefully brings down our own flag, insistent that I watch how it is properly stored. Grumpy again because I’d rather be out with my friends, I stomp off to bed and aggravatingly, dream of waving flags.
I am a forty-something mother and I am holding tightly to my youngest son in a military cemetery. My oldest is trying to be stoic and I am afraid if I touch him, the tears will start and not stop. He would hate such a public display of his grief.
We are at one of the outdoor pavilions used for short services before the burial of a soldier or a veteran. In this case, that veteran is my father. Two soldiers stand in front of us, performing the very complex task of folding the American flag properly to present to the eldest daughter present, as my mother is deceased already. They’ve fired off the gun salute and played Taps, two things no daughter wants to hear, no matter how aged her father was when he passed on.
Flags wave at many of the gravestones, which are bare of much else. White stones, row after row after row. The cemetery is impeccably kept, in military style.
I watch the folding, watch the flags waving, hear the muffled sobs, hold my son. Silent tears run down my face and I think of the flags waving in days past. I think of the man who made sure I knew what those flags stood for, the sacrifices they represented, without any pomp or circumstance. And I wish I was seven again on his shoulders, with my ice cream cone. Fourteen again having breakfast with him at one of his joints.
That night, I dream of Taps and a waving flag, waking with a start at the three-gun salute.
I cannot go back, so I move forward.
This year, I plan to fly my father’s flag. My eldest knows how to fold it properly, a skill he learned in Boy Scouts, which would send Dad over the moon with happiness. And maybe I’ll sit, sipping my iced tea, and watch the flag wave. You’ll have to forgive the sitting, Dad. The boys and I will forever stand during parades and all other ceremonies. Promise.
That would make Dad happy.
*If you’ve never witnessed the ceremony at a military funeral, it’s beautiful in its solemnity and reverence. Click here to access the clip of just such a ceremony for a fallen American soldier.