Memory and Memorial

By the time you read this, Memorial Day will have come and gone. I try to pay it the appropriate attention. Like many Maine families (and others), I know scores, both alive and dead, who served: my father and grandfather, my uncles, even two of my nephews. My mother-in-law was a Marine, about which we do not joke.

I associate Memorial Day most memorably with the sweet bready smell of blooming lilacs, but also with veterans handing out red plastic poppies, student marching bands, and old faded men in old faded uniforms marching into the long moments of silence.

Only a week later, I returned from my 50th college reunion at that well-known liberal arts school in central Maine, and I will skip the obligatory joke about how old all those other people looked. I will say that, by show of hands, there were many more joint replacements than tattoos. Not that there were no tattoos.

The highlight of the weekend for me, faintly macabre as it sounds, was the memorial service one of my classmates arranged for the forty-six members of our class who have died. Better than ten per cent of the freshman class, and if that number didn’t give people pause, nothing else would.

The remembrance consisted of a reader speaking the name of each person who was gone, then a friend or acquaintance of that person picking a red rose from a pail and placing it into a bouquet that would collectively represent everyone we had lost. We would carry the bouquet with us to dinners and events for the rest of the weekend.

In 1969, when we all were first on campus, like any group of young people, we divided ourselves into groups: the jocks, the freaks, the science nerds, the brains, the party people, the frat boys and the sorority girls. It was a strange and divisive time, deep into the Vietnam War, steeped in conflicts over civil rights and gender politics. At the same time, we loved our beer, dancing badly to the Rolling Stones, and all the other escapades that make the privilege of college life so dear in the moment.

What struck me deeply in the memorial was that nearly all of our dead classmates had someone to add a rose for them, and that many—most—of the connections crossed those strange and arbitrary lines we had drawn when we were younger and more foolish. It became clear that, if nothing else, the passage of time teaches you to suspend your judgments, weaken your prejudices, open up your assumptions to new information. It was moving to see how many of those old disconnections had faded.

Which would be lovely if all of us lived long enough to do that for each other. But just in the group of my classmates, some died while they were students, others in only their twenties and thirties. I was reminded that we don’t always have the time we think we have to act better than we have. Which is all the more reason to loosen our self-imposed boundaries, to cross over the divisions we have fashioned for ourselves, to open up our selves to the possibility we might be wrong about something. Or someone. What would be fine, I think, is if you could bring someone a rose, or a poppy, before someone needs to bring one for you.

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10 Responses to Memory and Memorial

  1. Ronna L Lambiasi DeLoe says:

    Thank you so much for this. It’s truly moving. I can relate, as last fall, my husband and I missed our 50th high school reunion because he had to have a triple bypass shortly thereafter and wasn’t allowed to travel. We were part of the entertainment for the weekend (I play keys, he plays sax), and we felt terrible about not being able to show up, but my husband is still here to talk about it. We’ve been able to play at past reunions with people we never would have hung out with in school, and this reunion would have been more of the same, allowing us to cross over those divisions with fellow musicians but not friends from school. In any event, we had a large senior class compared to schools in Maine, and we often think of those we’ve lost, but nobody has ever done anything like this. We hope to have another reunion in 4-1/2 years, and we’ll suggest this wonderful tribute. Thank you!

  2. John Clark says:

    Great post. My 50th college reunion would have been in 2020 and at Arizona State. I remember the graduating class was so big we had it in Sun Devil Stadium under bright skies and 100 degree temps.. The masters in social work students were right in front of me and I still remember one of them turning to the person beside him and saying, “well now we have an advanced degree for a field where there are no jobs.” I wasn’t tempted to go back because there were so many and the ones I knew wouldn’t have gone.
    I’ve been reflecting on something that relates to your post recently. There seem to be two types of people these days with views opposing to mine. One group is unapproachable, the other easily approachable and the difference seems to be how close to the surface those beliefs are and how much else in their lives is important to them.

  3. Katherine Vaughan says:

    What a beautiful post. You must be a writer! 😉

  4. kaitcarson says:

    A lovely and thoughtful post. My 50th high school reunion was derailed by the pandemic. Sad because it was also the 100th anniversary of our school. In our class of less than 35, most have kept in some sort of touch, facilitated by the Internet! It would have been lovely to go back and see the unfamiliar familiar faces.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Definitely bitter and sweet. As if we needed more memento mori.

  6. This is so moving, Dick. I missed my 50th because I had promised to be a speaker at the MASAR conference before covid…and after covid, it fell on the same day. I was curious about my classmates and sorry that I missed it. And your advice about paying attention while we’re still alive is right now. Wouldn’t it be better to send that awkward email or write that slightly daunting letter or make a phone call than to attend a memorial service?


    • dickcass says:

      Always the question–I find I care less and less if people think me odd or overemotional–freeing of years, I suppose.

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