Mindful of Memorial Day By Gabby Friedenthal

Memorial Day- Photo by Robert Rissman
Memorial Day- Photo by Robert Rissman

The beginning of summer: That time when you feel the sweet release of the year’s busy pace. The sun is shining longer; your schedule doesn’t feel so very tight, you breathe a little deeper, and you drink icy margaritas on hot summer nights. Isn’t that what Memorial Day means? The beginning of summer? Ease? Barbeques? A three day weekend?
When my husband asked me to stop for a moment on the Friday night before Memorial Day and check out an inspiring article he read about this national holiday, I’m sad to confess I ignored him. He was one more person wanting one more thing from me, and it was time to shut off and escape into my book, the juiciest most delectable part where no ‘time-outs’ are permitted. As he left the room he said something to the effect of me being, like most Americans, unconscious of what Memorial Day really means. I went to sleep with his words floating in my mind, his words and the weekend’s crazy schedule: Shrek 3, three barbeques, two hikes, two play dates, one potato salad, and a partridge in a pear tree.
When I awoke, Matt, my seven year old was sitting on my bed. “Mommy” he said, Daddy says we should be mindful of Memorial Day. I don’t know what Daddy means. Can you show me how to do what he says?” There are many ways to skin a cat. Maybe I rejected reading the article he showed me, but Mark, true to form, didn’t relent. He simply chose another route, hand picking the exact words to plant in my little boy’’s being that would propel me to do something. A child says “Show me how to be mindful (once you tell me what that means) of Memorial Day.” And any good American Mom worth her salt – says…”but of course.”
Hmmmm…… Mindful. I sometimes shop at Whole Foods . I’m getting better at recycling. I’m turning off more lights these days. I try to be kind, considerate and friendly most of the time….isn’t this what mindful means? Through my little boy’s questioning eyes, I could see I needed to be more mindful of two things: what is mindful in the first place? and how to I apply mindfulness to the Great American, Three Day, BBQ Extravaganza we so happily call Memorial Day.
The Merriam Webster dictionary online is where I started.
Main Entry: mind·ful Pronunciation: \ˈmīn(d)-fəl\ Function: adjective Date: 14th century
1 : bearing in mind : aware
Perfect! Some a road map for me to follow: be aware of; bear in mind – Memorial Day. Now, the way I bear things in mind , like most women, is to process unceasingly about the issue at hand. Perfect opportunity: three barbeques with a great conversation starter in my pocket, hours and hours of processing about Memorial Day, and hopefully some sort of answer for my son.
The barbeques begin and hot dog in hand, cold bubbly beer by my side, I am ready to ask my burning question. One, two, three – GO!, “What do you think about when you think of Memorial Day?” Twenty different people, seven conversations, and approximately fifteen hours later and this is what I got:
“I’m embarrassed to say, I don’t really think about it. Let’s see, maybe the first thought that comes to my head is barbeque.”
“The beginning of summer.”
“It’s the time when it ‘s ok to wear white pants again – you know…as in the beginning of summer!”
“Barbeques, traffic and sales!”
“Gosh, until you said something, I only thought about the day off from my job. I am so excited about the extra day with my daughter.”
“I feel awful, but I didn’t think about Memorial Day’s meaning.”
“It always means the opening of summer season”
“Fun in the sun with good friends!”
What did all this mean and how was I to put this information all together? There is me of course, resentful and ready to ignore my husband’s request to be aware of Memorial Day. And then a number of very good, conscious, conscientious, caring people who didn’t seem to truly register Memorials Day’s significance. What was I supposed to tell Matt at the end of the weekend? Give a cavalier nod to fallen soldiers who served our Country and consider myself done with the job? Things weren’t jelling.
Next step – google: History of Memorial Day as found on http://www.history.com/topics/memorial-day-history:
“Memorial Day, which falls on the last Monday of May, commemorates the men and women who died while serving in the American military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades. Unofficially, at least, it marks the beginning of summer.”
Great. Facts, but no resonance within.
Monday night I’m in the back room, folding laundry after the barbeque marathon. I still don’t have an answer and it’s almost bedtime. The television is on and it is here, I must note, that the media did give a lot of attention to Memorial Day.
I switch channels during commercials and there they are – two gorgeous tow headed blondes with sparkling blue eyes. Their smiles are devilish (in a good way) and their manner speaks unmistakably of their joi de vivre one wishes upon all children. The kids are goofing around on the sea shore standing on some big boulders making muscle man arms as if they have triumphed over all the elements. The camera pans in on one boy who comes running up to Colonel John Parkins, his Dad. Colonel Parkins is being interviewed about his current deployment to Afghanistan. “The hardest part?” the Colonel says, “Not being able to wake up and see my baby boys every day.”
Next clip is a close up of Mom crying. She is trying to hold it together as the camera zooms in “”If something happens to him, I don’t know how I will ever be able to explain how he died to my boys.”

Henry David Thoreau asks “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?”

It’s in that moment of true empathy, as my eyes are riveted on the TV set and thetears are rolling down my face that something clicks.

I put myself, if only for a second, in Mrs. Parkins’ shoes. I feel her bottomless pit of fear for her husband and her children – as if it is my own. My heart jerks out of my chest and falls right down to the floor as I stand there crying.
It takes this, to put myself in the shoes of someone whose husband is going to war, that I understand what I need to explain to Matt. Colonel Parkins is one person….and I will wish every day for his continued safety and well being. The numbers we hear don’t register: “Twenty service men died today when a car bomb blew up in Baghdad’s City Center” “Six servicemen were killed by a road side bomb” “405,399 died in World War Two” “58,209 died in Vietnam.” Numbers do not help us to do what Thoreau speaks of as a miracle – if only for a moment to experience the depth of a single, very important life as if it were our very own. Ponder just one man or one woman’s life and what it looks like and feels like – moment to moment. If his or her life is anything like mine, then just how many people, let alone children, will be victims of the ripple effect of his or her loss?
Here I must point to one more thing my Mother in-Law mentioned to me during one of our conversations about Memorial Day. “What about the disabled veterans?” she said. Think about what their lives look like after they come home from a war that happening right here and right NOW and is right in our faces. We can’t begin to imagine the emotional and physical, life altering struggles that will be theirs because they risked their lives in service to us, the American people. We need to spend time thinking about how we would feel coming home with an ambushed psyche or an amputated leg. “
After my tears were spent, I went in to put my boys’ bedroom. As Matt climbed up into his bunk, I told him I tried to be aware of Memorial Day just like his Daddy asked us to. “What do you think Memorial Day means Matt?” I asked. ”It’s for all the people that flew in airplanes, sailed on the seas , fought in the oceans – they were brave people because they were risking their lives to save our country.” “Tomorrow” I thought to myself, “tomorrow I will sit down with both my boys and tell them what I learned of Colonel Parkins. I will ask them to be mindful of one man and his family everyday that they can remember to – at least until next Memorial Day Weekend rolls around. I hope Colonel Parkins is home by then, living a fulfilling life, enjoying his family and friends and waking up every morning to his sons’ smiling faces.

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