Monday, May 30th, 2011
Southern families whisper memories of brother fighting brother. Maybe that’s why we called it The War Between the States, instead of The Civil War. A fractured family was a symbol of the fractured nation. More recent wars also have splintered families, and not always on the battlefield.
Decoration Day, 1956
We 3rd graders stood on the playground watching the big kids—the 7th graders—line up on the eroding side street. Each held a bunch of flowers that ladies had picked from their gardens that morning. The boys’ fistfuls of daisies and delphiniums dragged limply toward the 4-inch cuffs of their dungarees, and the scrabble of their black Keds hightops scuffed up swirls of red dust.
“Line up straight. Hold your flowers in front of you. Follow me,” fluted their teacher. The procession wormed its way to a nearby cemetery, where the children laid their bouquets on the graves of some of the South’s fallen heroes.
I waited in the concessions line for my usual—a bag of Tom’s peanuts and a green-bottled Coke to dump them into. “Can I watch the game with you?” came a voice from behind me. I’d seen him before. He went to the “town” school and bagged groceries in the afternoon.
After that, I always did the groceries for Mother. The other bagboys knew he’d take my stuff out to the goldish green ’60 VW bus.
There wasn’t much happening in our town. We’d drive fifteen miles to the nearest movie theater or cruise in his ’57 Ford to see who was hanging out at the Burger Palace or the Rec Center.
The next school year, I went north to college. He went further south. We saw each other that first Christmas holiday, but not at Easter.
Christmas Vacation, 1968
Back home during Christmas break, I looked up from counting oranges in the produce aisle and saw him where I’d seen him so often a few years earlier. “Hi,” he said.
“I hear you’re getting married.”
“Mm-hm. Next week,” I answered.
“Yeah, well, good luck.”
Mother’s letter ended, “You remember him? Well, he died in Vietnam. We went to the memorial service last week out at his mother’s church.”
Far away in my new home, I sobbed. I had never gotten as far as loving him. But he had been a steady friend through my last year at home.
By now the South had conceded; Decoration Day had become Memorial Day, a day for a whole nation to remember together all who have fallen in all its wars.
The blue-and-white trolley stopped at the Lincoln Monument. I stepped down and walked toward the Vietnam Memorial. I found his name among 58,228 others—lines of emptiness chiseled from black granite.
Vacation biking was reacquainting me with my childhood countryside. From one vaguely familiar crossroad, I pedaled onward several miles between grassy hills. Suddenly I recognized where I was. There was the farmhouse that had been in his mother’s family since before the Civil War. I rolled my bike to the door and knocked.
His brother greeted me. “Come in! Come in! You’ll want to see this! These are his things.” We stepped into the entry hall and faced a wall of certificates, souvenirs from his travels, letters, pictures of him, a rubbing of his name from the Wall, and more—too much to remember. His brother eagerly pointed out each thing. I wondered, did this living brother have to run the gauntlet of dead-brother memories every time he entered the house?
But the dead brother was in the living room too—a life-sized portrait sat on the TV alongside a vase of roses. “Mama keeps fresh flowers by his picture.” Anyone reclining in the Lazy Boy for the 6 O’clock News would be peering into his smiling, forever 23-year-old face.
But we were living people in the living room. I turned to his brother, “What’s happening with you?”
“Well, I was married, but . . . and I’m out of work, so I’m here with Mama a while. It’s not what we expected. It would’ve been different with him. I couldn’t hardly finish school, but he was always on the dean’s list. He had great ideas of what he’d do. He never got the chance. Sure wouldn’t’ve been like this. Mama thought he’d have children as smart as him. But now . . . life’s so different than . . . maybe the wrong one . . . .” His voice slipped to nothing.
“Uh, well,” I broke the silence, “it’s getting to be suppertime. I better go.”
“But Mama’ll be back soon. She’ll want to see you. Can’t you stay a little longer?”
“No. I have to go now.”
“Well, watch for her—’76 Cordoba, burgundy—big old thing.”
I hugged the right shoulder and glared at hayfields and heifers on my right as I pumped my pedals. I didn’t see a car.
Mother’s email ended, “Remember? There was a brother who died in Vietnam. Well, this other brother still lived at home and was killed in a farm accident. There was a memorial service last week out at his mother’s church.”
Memorial Day, 2011
As we honor our war dead today, I’m remembering that not all of our fallen were front-line veterans.
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