Monday, May 26, 2014

memorial day memories

i ran to the store to buy chicken so i can make more cat food for my furry family.  there was a bit of a jam at the light, by the end of our parking lot.  there's a decorative fountain there, as well as a flag pole and apparently an oft-overlooked memorial stone.  the commotion was a group of vets in uniform, laying a wreath at the memorial stone, saluting, and firing off a few rounds into the air.

i haven't thought about my grandfather in years.  he died august of 2001, weeks before the 9/11 attacks.  i remember sitting on our front stoop after 9/11, smoking a cigarette, and talking about how glad i was my grandfather died before 9/11 because it would have broken his heart.  grandpa didn't sit around talking about the action he'd seen fighting overseas in world war II; he didn't often bring out uniforms or medals and talk to me about them.  but he was an active member of his local VFW group, butehorn brothers post 4987, and was a commander for some years.  he was honored by the nassau county american legion as legionnaire of the year 1992-1993.  grandpa was active in his veterans groups and active in his home after the war, bethpage.  he regularly wrote for the local bethpage tribune; i often would page through the paper and find something written by him, or photos he took.

as a young girl, there were many times i'd see myself in that paper.  i didn't realize the importance of memorial day back then.  i remember sitting in my grandparent's den, where grandpa's computer was, and cutting up ribbons to be tied around telephone poles and trees to mark the route of the memorial day parades.  i was active in the local girl scouts, as a brownie and a junior girl scout, and loved marching in the parades.  i would volunteer to hold the american flag, not the girl scout flag or another flag, but the american flag.  i took pride in ensuring that i held it higher than the other flags carried by other girls, because i knew it was important that the american flag always be above other flags.  i would often meet my grandparents at the community park in bethpage where the parades always ended, and would stand with my grandfather, in his VFW hat with pins i didn't understand, as he and his fellow veterans laid wreaths on memorial plaques.  i remember seeing tears in my grandfather's eyes and knowing how important this was, but i didn't understand why.

after i moved away from bethpage, away from the girl scouts and the parades, i grew up.  i became an asshole teenager, was swallowed by my depression, engulfed in drug use, and the subject of an abusive relationship with a parental figure.  my stepfather was a vietnam vet.  he never spoke of his time in vietnam, only once when he got really drunk - he brought out photos of him and his fellow soldiers in vietnam.  he did tell me he lost his teeth over there, he was shot at least twice and had a piece of shrapnel he once invited me to feel under his skin - i think it was in his shoulder; memories of that time of my life are not sharp.  i remember how important it was in the house we rented for him to put up an american flag.  i remember when he added a POW/MIA flag.  i remember how during the summer, for weeks at a time, he would light candles under the flags in our yard.  i once asked him about it, when we were high and getting along.  he said he promised friends that didn't come home from vietnam that he'd remember them.

i remember being so angry at my stepfather; he was often mean to me, verbally and physically abusive.  he'd give me all the pot i wanted but i always ended up paying for it.  we had a tumultuous relationship - unlike the relationships he had with my mom and brother.  as i got older, i realized that he was probably doing the best he could with what he had been through.  does it excuse it?  no, of course not.  but it helps explain it.  my stepfather was a deeply wounded man, a product of his own dysfunctional upbringing and whatever horrors and hell he experienced during his years in vietnam.  and then, to know what he came home to, how the support for the war - and the returning troops - just wasn't there.

who knows what my grandfather and stepfather saw on their respective tours that affected them so deeply.  how many men they may have lost or left behind.  how many times they may have thought they were not going to make it home.  my grandfather came home after world war II a hero; my stepfather returned from vietnam a villain.  they both had their faults - my grandfather may have seemed like a larger-than-life hero when i was a small girl, but age brings wisdom (and family stories), and people's fault lines begin to show.  my stepfather may have seemed like a hurtful, spiteful dick who would turn on a dime and be a caring, supportive parent, but again - age brings wisdom, when people's fault lines become understood.

on memorial day, we often wander from barbecue to barbecue.  we may hang out by a pool or at the beach for the first time of the season.  we have a day off from work, we go to the malls to shop the sales or use the excuse to hit home depot and get some work done in the yard.  we use it as an excuse to have fun, drink too much, and see friends and family we haven't connected with since we all holed up for the long new york winter.  i was planning on laundry, cooking cat food, and some cross stitching.

instead, i decided to write.  i haven't thought about my grandfather in so long, and i haven't thought about my stepfather in positive terms in a long time.  but both of them served their countries: when asked to leave their homes for combat overseas, they did not hesitate to do what they were being asked, even knowing that they may not come home.  this is what memorial day is about.  neither my grandfather nor my stepfather died in combat, but they both served their countries.  we have thousands of soldiers who have returned from service and suffer at the hands of a ridiculous veterans administration; suffering from PTSD and undiagnosed illnesses.  we have veterans who are still trying to determine the effects that agent orange may have had on them, and veterans who are still trying to figure out how to return to 'normal life' and reintegrate in society while seeing visions of the horrors they may have witnessed.  and we have veterans who come home less than whole, missing limbs or parts of themselves, parts of their souls.  or veterans who come home draped with an american flag.  veterans who are lost and never come home at all.

remember that.  i'm a big hippy pacifist, most of us know that.  i don't like violence, i don't like guns.  but i don't run this country and i don't run the world.  our armed forces protect us every day, whether it's the coast guard protecting our waterways and boaters, the national guard responding to devastating disasters within our borders, or the branches of the forces that are sent to protect our interests and people overseas.  they do what most of us can't - or won't - and the deserve at least a thought today, a thank you.

thank a serviceman or servicewoman.  check out charity navigator's listing of charities to support our troops.  or click on one of the links below to give back to the veterans who have given us so much.

***please leave a comment if you donate to support our troops and/or veterans - for every reader that donates, i will add $1 to my planned donation to the USO, up to $50***

happy memorial day.

wounded warrior project
homes for our troops
disabled american veterans
veterans of foreign wars foundation
operation gratitude - write letters of thanks to servicemen/servicewomen

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