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Remembering Memorial Day

It's a bit silly to look back on a simpler -- or at least less cluttered -- time and long to recreate those moments.  But as the days grow longer and warmer perhaps longings such as these are to be expected.  The neighborhood picnic, the block party, the community parade, barbequed burgers and brats, a triple-decker sherbet cone from the local ice cream shop, badminton in the back yard, a bike ride just before dusk and catching a firefly or two.  These were some of the memories of Memorial Days long ago.

But I also remember my dad standing patiently along the parade route every year as each of his three children marched in the local school bands.  I was the youngest, so I got to see more of my dad's parade-viewing protocol than either my older sister or brother did. 

Dad was a World War II veteran, as were all four of his older brothers.  He served in the US Army from the day he was drafted in 1941 to late in 1945.  He had terrible eyesight so he was assigned to do the correspondence and be the paymaster of his unit, so he was not often -- by his own account -- in harm's way during his service.  He did manage to sustain an injury one Saturday night as he and a few of his buddies ran through a field after partying a bit too much and he fell on a gun stand and cut his eyelid.  At least that's how the story was always told by my mom.  I only knew he hated chicken because he said it was served way too much in the Army.  Dad never talked much about his soldiering with me, and he lost plenty of his friends in that war. 

So every Memorial Day I'd stand at his side, watching as he cheered his kids in the band, but also watching him raise his hand and put it over his heart every single time the flag passed by as part of a parade unit.  Sometimes he'd salute when a group of soldiers marched by.  He never told me to put my hand over my heart when I saw a passing flag; in fact he was focused during those moments and not worried about what I did or what others thought. 

With the Viet Nam war raging through my formative years, I remember feeling conflicted about watching this aging soldier and father I adored show so much deference to the flag and practice such clear-minded patriotism while I heard so much from people who wanted peace.  It would be a pattern of conflicted thoughts and opinions I faced as a young woman considering many issues of the time: civil rights, the war on poverty, the Equal Rights Amendment for women and other domestic concerns.  My views were often not what my dad's were -- I was the leftie in a family of conservatives.  But my dad never urged me to be otherwise.

The years raced by.  My dad is gone.  Never once did he try to deter me from my moral, political or social views.  The last year that he cast a vote in a Presidential election, he did not vote for the Republican -- at my urging.  He came home from the polls, called me and said, "It's all yours, kid."  I had convinced him that he was casting a vote for future generations not his own.  I have always wondered if I will have the courage to love that much.  And I stood by him every chance I got at parades.  I loved him so much and admired the quiet but strong inner peace he had surrounding his love of country.


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I'm having more trouble with that this year.  This Memorial Day I am feeling a bit gut-punched.  Oil is fouling the Gulf Coast.  Corporations are running my government, spending my hard-earned money with the bail-out funds and choosing what my healthcare will or will not be.  One of my sons is somewhere in Afghanistan serving with the US Army and not speaking to me because he believes my priorities are disordered as I advocate for peace and healthcare justice here at home. 

My other kids and grandkids are spread out all over the country from Michigan to Colorado to California, and we don't have summer barbeques together or stand on the curb to watch parades go by.  We chat by text message when there is an emergency or the occasional obligatory holiday call.  It's an odd long distance, high-tech sort of family unit that my dad would have trouble understanding.  But many American families deal with these sorts of relationships.

This Memorial Day I find myself wondering what makes me think I can change even one tiny piece of the national scene in the United States where the big-money interests control so much that we face leaving our kids and grandkids a planet in far worse shape than we found it, a nation less just and less stable than we found it, states and cities more dangerous and run down than when we were children and neighborhoods left with little sense of neighborhood at all.  We work harder for less, and most of the people I see seem generally pretty unhappy unless they find a way to medicate away reality.

Is it too late?  Are we too far gone?  Am I foolish to believe we can still change the course with enough courage and passion and hard work and by making better connections with one another?  Or is my view tainted by my experience as one who lost all to the greedy healthcare system and who has had to claw her way out of the damage?  Am I wrong to think we can still care enough about one another and our world to change the course?

Memorial Day 2010.  So far away from what used to be reality and way too close to realities I often feel powerless to change.  Maybe my dad knew this whole exercise in citizenship and loving one's country would not be an easy one but that a simple act of remembrance of all those who lost their lives in the struggle so we all could fight on would be an anchor of sanity when things seemed so out of control. 

My hand is over my heart, Dad.  I'm trying.  Happy Memorial Day.

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Donna Smith

Donna Smith
Donna Smith Donna Smith is the national chair of the Healthcare Not Warfare campaign for Progressive Democrats of America.  She was featured in Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary, SiCKO.

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