Happy Memorial Day, readers! I wasn't sure what to post today, but late Saturday night I had this idea for a memorial-themed short story. So I wrote and edited the entire thing Sunday afternoon and tonight. Hopefully it isn't *too* bad and y'all can get something out of it. :P
I guess all families have their own traditions. Things like whose house you go to for Christmas, Christmas Eve, Easter, and the Fourth of July. What you eat when and who gets to read the Christmas story.
We have a tradition that's probably a bit unusual. My paternal grandfather – a WWII veteran and a hero in my eyes – started it. He was always a patriot, but from what I've been told, this particular tradition started after he returned from Europe.
Every Memorial Day weekend, for as long as I can remember, all the aunts, uncles, and cousins gather at Grandpa and Grandma’s house. After filling up two whole pews at the country church on Sunday morning, we would come back for the cookout and family time. The aunts would make sure all the kids changed out of their good clothes before turning us loose in the backyard. Our playtime before food was served wouldn't last long. Then we'd sit on old wooden picnic tables and eat our fill of hot dogs, potato salad, and homemade ice cream.
As soon as everyone had finished eating, and before one of the ladies dared start cleaning up, Grandpa would stand and walk away without a word. Grandma would follow closely behind him, slipping her hand into his elbow before they rounded the corner of the house.
The adults would round up all us kids and lead us to the front of the house, giving strict orders to be quiet and respectful during our moment of silence. I clearly recall the words of my dad, reminding us that this was to remember those who had given the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom we enjoyed daily. I'm sorry to say, those sober words didn't mean much to my six-year-old self.
Everyone would take seats – in the rockers, the porch swing, or sprawling on the floor boards. I can remember sneaking peeks at Grandpa, watching him out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes he would shed tears and talk about his memories, but other times he would just sit staring off down the road.
Sometimes we kids would grumble to each other about having to be quiet, but never in front of Grandpa. No, we always sat there just as we were told to out of respect for him. For his memories. After a while of putting up with our uncomfortable squirming, Dad would give the go-ahead nod and we were at liberty to slip away.
The spring of my twelfth year, I was much more attuned to Grandpa’s uttered words as he reminded us kids to never take our freedom for granted.
I had questions this year; I wanted to know more. “Grandpa?”
“Yes, Caleb,” he answered, leaning back in the rocker and meeting my gaze.
“Are you a hero?”
Grandma, Dad, and someone else further down the porch nodded their heads, but I didn't want their answers. I wanted him to tell me.
Grandpa smiled at the question and shook his head. “No, son. I'm not a hero, but I have known a few.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked, puzzled by the mystery surrounding his reply.
“People think they're talking to someone special when they thank men like me. But who they really should be thanking is the ones who didn't come home.”
That line certainly gave me something to think about and contemplate. And for awhile, it was enough.
Years passed and cousins grew up and went off to school. There were many times everyone wasn't able to make it back to that old, white farmhouse for our family gathering, though we always tried our best.
Again, the spring of my senior year, I sat there on that porch. I stayed with Grandpa long after all the others had wandered off to the backyard to clean up from our cookout or join in the reckless game of dodgeball.
“Something bothering you, son?” Grandpa finally asked.
I turned to face him from where I sat on the top porch step, my elbows propped on my knees. “Yes, sir.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
I shrugged, returning my gaze to the dirt road that stretched on for miles and miles, winding around mountains and dipping into valleys. What would it be like to walk down it, not to come back for years? Or ever?
“You're readable, Caleb,” Grandpa said. I heard his rocker creaking as he stood and limped toward me. “Something’s weighing on you, I can tell.”
He stepped up beside me, preparing to sit on the porch edge like I was. Regardless of the much-different story he would have told, he wasn't a spring-chicken.
I reached for his arm, aiming to steady him. “Can I help you, Grandpa?”
He frowned and swatted my hand away, easing himself the rest of the way to the seat on his own. “Thank you for the thought, Caleb, but despite what your father and his sisters think, I'm not falling apart.”
I snickered, remembering the many quarrels between my grandparents and Dad about this subject.
Grandpa nudged my shoulder. “Are you going to tell me what's bothering you? Or do I get left in the dark?”
I leaned forward and propped my chin on my crossed arms. “I've been wondering about a lot of stuff lately, especially my future. I've…I've been heavily considering the military.” I glance to my right to gauge his reaction.
He just nodded as if that was old news. No shock, no surprise. “I thought so.”
He smiled, a faint smile that seemed to hold a hint of sadness and then faded away. “I think there is something in every man that makes him feel protective over those he cares about. For some that may just mean being a good person, a good husband or father. There's nothing wrong with that, but for others, it means more. A call to serve.”
I looked down at my crossed arms and let Grandpa’s words wash over me. I had so many questions and it took awhile before the most prominent one formed itself in the forefront of my mind.
“Dad says you had a friend who was killed during the war,” I began, treading carefully into uncharted territory. “Were you…good friends?”
“Best friend I ever had next to your grandmother and the Lord Almighty.”
I didn't expect such a quick answer, and I scrambled to come up with my next inquiry. “What was that like? Coming home when he didn't?”
Grandpa sighed and mimicked my pose, leaning his elbows on his knees and staring off down the road. When he spoke his words held a tremble that hadn't been present moments before. “Hardest thing I've ever done, Caleb. But I can't blame it entirely on Bobby’s death. War is never easy. Whether you lose someone close to you or not, you're surrounded by death and destruction. It changes you, and you can't stop it.”
Grandpa’s words washed over me and wrapped around me, exactly what I needed to hear that warm, Sunday afternoon. “Why are you telling me this now?”
“Because you need to hear it, Caleb,” he replied, his hand appearing on my shoulder. “Your struggle is written all over your face, but it takes someone who's been where you are to understand how you're feeling. If God is telling you to serve your country this way, then he'll give you the courage to do it.”
Instead of going to college that fall, I shipped out to boot camp. I've served in the armed forces for nearly a decade now, and at times I've doubted if I would be where I am today without the man who saw my struggles and shared from his own painful memories in order to help me along my journey.
Grandpa passed away last autumn. At his funeral, I heard the twenty-one gun salute, I saw the folded flag they handed Grandma. I realized that the man I sat on the front porch with that day so long ago truly was a hero. A hero who honored those who gave even more than he did.
And I cried like I've never cried before.