Memorial Day weekend is over. I didn't get to walk down town to the parade and see the varied groups and troops, holding banners and balloons, throwing candy to young children. All the local shops open, lawn chairs on the sidewalk, baby strollers and dogs on leashes. It's a day when the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor blend into one.
It's a day when whatever color your skin is, just makes the event more beautiful. I always cry when the firemen march by, bagpipers playing, followed by shining red trucks, polished with pride. If you walk with the parade, past the statue of Millicent Fenwick, the memorial garden for 9/11, the old train station, you arrive at the volunteer fire house where later there will be hot dogs and beer.
People who are too tired, or just need shade, sit in the parking lot which is guarded by an old soldier underneath an umbrella on a wheelchair. He hands out miniature American flags. Last year I was wearing a five dollar shirt that said, "God Bless America, Land That I Love". He handed me two flags and said he liked my shirt. I looked at his aged face, his old uniform, his VFW cap, covered in pins and said, "I love America and thank you for your service." With a wink, he told me I was brave to wear the shirt. I walked on, confused, almost turned back to tell him he was the brave one, but he was surrounded by children, happily giving each one a flag.
Alongside on the road, thankfully, classic cars with local officials caught my eye, as I wiped away sudden tears. Drawn by the chrome and glad for the dwindling crowd, I made my way to the town hall, where chairs and temporary tents are set up for speakers and clergy, under the cool of old trees, the stillness of a pond in the background. Ducks swimming.
A service of remembrance is held while men and women who have served our country stand at attention in hot uniforms. The remnants of the parade-goers sit across from them on the grass, sharing blankets and the shade of one tree. They start with everyone standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I know you're supposed to look at the flag, but my eyes were on the flag bearer, who was clearly overheated and in distress... "and to the republic for which it stands"...his shaking arms are steadied by another behind him...the concern and simple act is not lost on the crowd. Tears are streaming silently, as we finish, ..."one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
While the flushed flag bearer is helped into the back of an ambulance, a line of soldiers fire their guns and the ducks startle, flying away. A man reads the names of those in our town who served in every war and now rest in peace. Some people sit; most of us continue to stand in this holy moment. As he walks off, someone places a wreath of flowers at the base of the memorial stone. Clergy from every denomination offer brief prayers.
The sun continues without mercy and a young woman passes out. An obvious career military man gives a succinct speech, lays a wreath, sits back under the tent. Then in direct contrast, a Vietnam vet, decked out in half-Harley gear and half-POW/MIA, tattooed, long haired and headbanded, stands in front of the microphone. In silence. I'm crying again, as this was my generation's war. He waits, head bent as if in tortured prayer or shyness. The silence says more than any words that have already been spoken. When he is ready, he speaks, "Thank you for finally welcoming us home." He salutes the flag and disappears into his band of brothers and Harleys. I stand up and start clapping, not stopping until everyone is on their feet doing the same.
What I don't know is that there is one last speaker, a young Marine waiting for the applause to cease. He is in his dress blues and white gloves, standing solemnly. The crowd and I sit back down with our sweat and tears, in our summer clothes, on our shared blankets, in shifting shade. Someone says, "at least there's a breeze."
The young man calmly tells us how proud he is to be in the military, halfway through his first tour. The speech is eloquent in its youthfulness, humility and hope. When he finishes, the crowd stands, applauding. As the service is ended, people head home to pool parties and barbeques or shopping in air-conditioned malls.
Before I leave, I shake hands with several of those in uniform, the mayor who is also our lawyer, ending with the young Marine. As I start to shake his hand, our eyes meet and I realise he is probably younger than my sons. Totally thrown off by this, I say, "I just wanted to thank you for your hands." The mayor, the lifer, and a few other veterans hear this and laugh. The Marine masks his surprise and says, "You're welcome, Ma'am. It's my honor to serve."