In spite of growing up on the tailwind of the Hippie-era, I’m a traditionalist at heart. I like the Book of Common Prayer, the Our Father, Rosary beads, and the way Episcopalians always say, “And also with you”. I love the formality of a processional, a church choir that still wears choir robes, and the high church sound of an organ well-played. The whole world looks more magical to me through the lens of stained glass windows, even those portraying the most profound of all betrayals.
I was taught from an early age that a bible is more than literature, more than words on a page, more than a story. I was taught that the bible is infused with the Word of God. When I hold a bible it is as if I am cupping in my hands the very breath of God. Granny Leone did not tolerate anyone who treated a bible with disrespect. Her bible was always her most cherished possession. The memory of sitting beside her in the mornings as she read from the Word lingers. That girl I once was rises to the surface whenever I think of how Granny would gently tip her forehead up against mine, her bible open between us, and she would say something deep and powerful and then giggle like the girl she was once herself.
Barry Hannah might say that I am a living juxtaposition: A non-conformist who loves tradition.
I suspect he’d be right about that.
Nowhere is that juxtaposition more obvious with me than when it comes to Memorial Day. A day set aside to remember the war dead. Remembrance Day. Decoration Day. Whatever you may call it, the purpose of it is clear. This is the day when we collectively come together to remember and honor those who died while serving their country. Specifically, the war dead.
Some years back, I spoke before the thousands gathered on the Mall before the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. After I finished speaking, a veteran I didn’t know remarked: “That was a pretty good anti-war speech.” Some of the most anti-war people I know are not the deserters who high-tailed it to Canada. It’s the Vietnam veterans who sacrificed their youth fighting a war their country demanded they wage.
Nobody hates it more when uninformed people thank veterans on Memorial Day than veterans. That’s because they were the ones yelling at their dying buddies to “Hang on! Don’t die on me!” They live with the memory of their buddies’s last gasp for breath, the last whispers of “Tell my mama I love her” or “Take care of my girl, will ya?”
I’ve heard these stories over and over and over again, from the mothers and girlfriends and wives on the receiving end of those telegrams, and from the veterans who were boots-on-the-ground in DaNang and Pleiku and Bong Son. So many stories of loss. So much heartbreak. So many tears shed still. Sometimes, when recalling the stories of the Gold Star wives and mothers, or the Vietnam Veterans I know, I forget that I have such a story, too.
Juxtapositions, I tell you.
There is a museum in my hometown of Columbus, Georgia that I consider one of the nation’s finest museums. It is the National Infantry Museum. If you have never been, you should go. Go this Memorial Day if you can and think about war and its costs.
You just might come away feeling as I do – both proud of our military and heartbroken that so much of who we are as a culture is about the wars we have waged, and the wars we continue to wage. So take heed, such a visit might make you feel like a double-minded person.
I often feel like a hippie who hasn’t come out of the closet yet. I want to raise holy hell about war and all its aftermath, but I’m afraid that such ranting might dishonor those who gave their lives in honor and duty to their country.
Men like my father.
It is because of my father’s death in Vietnam that I recently received an invitation from President Obama and the First Lady.
I belong to a select club of people known as Gold Star Families. We are the ones whose mothers and fathers came home from war in a casket, if they came home at all. Some, too many of my friends, have fathers who remain Missing-in-Action in Vietnam. President Obama is making a trip to Vietnam soon. I made that same trip myself a few years ago. I detailed it in that memoir I wrote, After the Flag has been Folded. I’m going to take the president a copy of that book when I go to the White House on Memorial Day. I hope he reads it.
Going to Vietnam changed me in very profound ways. Specifically, it allowed me to let go of a lifetime of woundedness and it enabled me to see Vietnam as a beautiful place full of charming people. I realized that my father likely found the beauty all around him, even in the midst of some pretty horrific warring. He would have felt at home among the mountains of Pleiku.
The other thing making that trip did for me was it gave me family – brothers and sisters I wish I had known growing up. Sons and daughters who also lost their fathers. I wrote about them in that memoir, too. It was at the urging of Sons and Daughters in Touch (SDIT.org) member Terry McGregor that I ended up even making that trip. Terry understood what I lived through growing up because he lived through it, too. His father was the first Idaho casualty in Vietnam. Terry won’t be joining us in DC on Memorial Day. He’s waging a battle of his own with an invasive brain tumor.
I think it is all these juxtapositions that makes me view God as a poet.
My greatest joys have often been rooted in my deepest griefs.
I walk through life barefoot, breathing in the bittersweet, picking flowers as I go, and placing chains of honeysuckle on all those graves, remembering the stories of all those Gold Star families and veterans grieving still.
Not a day goes by that they don’t remember.
Never forget is their constant prayer and promise.
It is their Memorial Day version of the grace, “And also with you.”
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Burdy (Mercer University Press) and a bunch of other books.