For Memorial Day

Memorial Day is upon us in a few short days, letting us know that finally–finally! – it is okay to wear white shoes. Actually, I think white shoes are inexcusable year round, but so are many aspects about Memorial Day. It’s a day everybody looks forward to, because we all get a three-day weekend and the weather is generally lovely, and it’s a good excuse to eat barbecue and drink beer. All very well in itself–but few of us bother to think much anymore about why we get this day off.

Because of the fallen.

Memorial Day was originally created to honor the fallen servicemen and women of the United States, but I like to take a moment and think about the fallen throughout history, whether they lived in the US or not. Greek soldiers sweating inside the wooden horse at Troy. Julius Caesar’s legions facing off against a narrow-eyed Vercingetorix at Alesia. Britons lining up in shield-walls, trying to put a halt to the Saxon invasion. English archers halting the most renowned army in all chivalry with a few showers of arrows at Agincourt. Farmboy sharpshooters hunting British soldiers through the marshes in the American Revolution. Germans and British curling up in the mud of World War I’s trenches, shielding their ears from the shells and their eyes from the mustard gas. The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto flinging themselves up against Nazi tanks. Warriors today, in deserts and in jungles, on the sea and in the air.

Even more than the fallen, I think of those the fallen have left behind through history. It’s an iconic image, one that transcends time, place, or century: women waving their men off to war. Sometimes this was a chosen way of life: the Viking wives whose husbands went off cheerfully on seasonal raiding parties, and returned with longships filled with loot. Sometimes the fight in question was a desperate measure: Gauls forming desperate armies to keep the invading Roman legions from burning their homes and enslaving their families. And of course it isn’t always men to do the fighting. Plenty of French mothers during World War II worried for daughters who went to blow up Gestapo officers in the French resistance, and plenty of husbands today sit at home praying for wives piloting helicopters over sand dunes. Regardless of whether the left-behind were Highland wives or the mothers of knights, children of legionaries or husbands of Navy Seals, they all have one thing in common: the same sickening disbelief when prayers go unanswered and no one comes home.

That too has changed through the centuries. A medieval wife might be separated from her crusading husband for years, never getting a single scrap of news until finally some shame-faced companion brings her husband’s dried-up heart home in a box. So much easier to transport from the Holy Land, you see. Mothers of sons abroad fighting Napoleon got letters arriving weeks or months late. World War I widows sometimes didn’t even get the certainty of death, just a mumbled “Missing Presumed Dead,” which translates to “Pieces Too Small For Identification.” Wives of World War II got the fatal telegram. And anyone with a spouse in today’s military who opens the door to find two somber uniformed men on the doorstep knows that they’re in for a very bad announcement.

Memorial Day means more to me than it used to. Sure, I like having a leisure day filled with baseball and beer and barbecue–but now, I share all those things with a husband who is in the Navy. He does dangerous things from time to time, and will probably be called upon to do more. Unlike the women of centuries past, I do not have to worry about seeing dragon-headed Viking ships in San Diego Bay, or sword-carrying Italian condottieres beating down my apartment door looking for a little bargain-price rape. But the world is still a dangerous place, and as long as I have a husband who wears a uniform and carries a weapon, what happened to countless women throughout history may someday happen to me: a knock on the door, and news I do not want to hear.

So this Memorial Day, after the barbecued steaks come off the grill and before the Red Sox start playing the Royals, my husband and I will raise our glasses in a quiet, heartfelt toast:

To all the fallen–our honored dead.

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