Anyone who has ever visited me anytime between the age of 14 and today knows that wherever I am living at the time there will be a picture hanging on the wall. One that I have had since I was 14 and continues to hang in all its glory on the wall of my living room today. Its a reproduction of a well-known painting called Reflections by Lee Teter. The first time I saw it my heart filled with sorrow. And in that one picture I was able to understand what Memorial Day meant to me. That picture hangs in my home today and will continue to hang there as a reminder to me, my kids and all who enter of the men and woman who have died while serving our country. And for the men and woman who survived and many cases struggled to find their identity outside the military.
When I really sit down and think about it, Memorial Day stirs up many different thoughts and emotions. Those of us born in the late 70s grew up with a very strong idea of war. Vietnam was a tragic mess, and by the time most of were learning about it in U.S. History in High School we were learning about it from teachers who lived it.
My High School history teacher had been a young man during the Vietnam war who fled the draft and our Vice Principal had fought in Vietnam and sat in on our class while we learning about it. It was somewhat of a big deal to be learning about it from the viewpoint of people who had lived through it just 20 years before.
I remember reading Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July when I was in Junior High School. It was a horrifically graphic novel, much of it telling the tale of Kovic’s experiences in Vietnam. Living beneath a sky of bullets and knowing that you and your friends could be killed at any given moment by one of those bullets is still something I cannot fathom.
I remember another time, with my husband, driving to a show he was doing way up in Mendocino. We gave a ride to the Bass player. He was a quiet man with a big smile and kind heart. And I remember not long into that drive Jimi Hendrix coming on the radio. He then told us how he had seen Jimi Hendrix live the night before he went to Vietnam. The rest of the two-hour drive to Mendocino was filled with the soft hum of Hendrix on the radio and the Bass player telling us stories of Vietnam.
But my reflections of Memorial Day is not all based on someone else’s’ stories. I come from long lines of military heroes and sheheroes.
On my dad’s side of the family the air force has been a tried and true tradition with family members serving in WWI and WWII. My Great-Grandfather was one of the “Flying Sergeants” in WWI. My dad was born on a military base in Germany. My Grandmother was a daughter of a military family and surprised no one when she met and fell in love with a pilot, my grandfather.
On my mom’s side, well it’s almost something right out of a Gershwin musical. My grandmother, a WAC, met my grandfather while he was in the Army (32nd Red Arrow Division) right there on the shores of the South Pacific during WWII. When they came back to the U.S. She returned to California while he went home to New York. But not for long. Eventually he made his way to the Bay Area to be with her and their life began.
My great uncle was at Pearl Harbor. Not sure what more to say about that. The woman he fell in love with and married was also a WAC and one of my Grandmother’s closest friends. They spent the rest of their lives together, until he passed away. She followed him a few years later, not long after my son was born.
Around the time I entered Junior High the Gulf War started. This was not long after my brother had joined the Air Force himself. He did two tours in the Gulf. His letters and the sterling silver necklace that says my name in Arabic that sits in my nightstand are reminders of how scared I was at the thought of my brother on the other side of the world in the desert alone defending our country.
It’s funny, my grandpa never talked about WWII. Other than telling the story of meeting my grandmother of course. To this day I really know nothing about his experiences there. Other than that if the world’s greatest storyteller kept those stories to himself, then they must not have been easy experiences to live through. Or maybe he died
before I was old enough to hear those stories.
But it doesn’t change the fact that my family history would cease to exist if it weren’t for the love and friendships that came out of WWII.
For me Memorial Day is not just about remembering all the unknown soldiers who have passed away that I never knew. But it’s about my family and the memories and experiences that will forever stay with them. Its the friends that they lost. And the nights they spent a million miles form home. In a jungle, on the shores of the South Pacific, or in the desert.
My sophomore or Junior Year in High School the Vietnam moving wall memorial made its way here to Livermore. I went to go see it. I had no camera. I had no name that I was searching for. But I quietly ran my fingers across the names etched into the wall. Though I didn’t know the names, I wondered who they were. Were any of the names my fingers ran across friends of my parents? Maybe my own friends uncles or grandparents. Well yes, of course some of them were. It’s not a difficult task to find someone who knows someone whose life was lost in Vietnam.
Today, my thoughts are there with their spirits. And their families along with all the other service members who have passed on while serving our country.