I am the son, grandson and brother of combat veterans. As a former Navy pilot myself, Memorial Day has special significance. But lately it has become difficult to wish others a “Happy Memorial Day” without drawing fire. Last year, PBS incited an online riot when it posted a Happy Memorial Day banner on its Facebook page. Among the litany of criticisms from readers were comments like “HUGE faux pas,” “Delete this stupid image” and “Totally insensitive.” I have experienced this on a personal level. My usual Happy Memorial Day greeting has increasingly been met with disapproving headshakes. Last year, one especially sullen cashier told me to “Get a clue.”
I understand. This is a day set aside to honor those who died serving in uniform. Memorial Day is among our oldest holidays, originally conceived in the aftermath of the Civil War. But for many Americans, it has become little more than a three-day weekend, filled with backyard barbecues and door-buster sales. For those who see this day of remembrance being trivialized, it is easy to take offense at the suggestion that there is anything happy about it.
I do not recall my father or grandfather giving much thought to how they would greet neighbors at our own backyard picnics—it was always “Happy Memorial Day.” Perhaps that is because prior generations needed no reminders about what the holiday signified. My grandfather’s war, WWII, was a national effort, in which everybody sacrificed something. My father’s war, Vietnam, was deeply divisive, but at least everyone knew it was happening. The draft ensured a lot more families had skin in the game.
Today it is different. Less than 1 percent of Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The vast majority of civilians do not know anyone who died there. The farther into our national memory these wars recede, the more important it is to maintain reminders of the price paid. That, I suspect, is the underlying reason behind excising the “Happy” out of Memorial Day. But however well intentioned, this attitude does nothing to preserve the memory of those who died defending our way of life. In fact, it does the opposite.
I do not know a single veteran who expects the country to mark this holiday with 24 hours of uninterrupted sadness. A few years ago, I spent Memorial Day at a military cemetery visiting my grandfather’s grave. Though I was there to grieve, I could not help but recall stories that made me laugh—like when his plane’s emergency raft deployed in flight, and his machine gunner nearly shot off the tail trying to deflate it. Smiling at that memory, I realized I was not alone. All around me was the sound of quiet laughter, as families gathered before simple white headstones to remember loved ones lost. These days, when I reminisce with my buddies about friends who did not come home from war, the stories we most often tell are ones that bring us joy.
That is how they would want it. When I think about those who have died serving in the military, I remember why they joined in the first place. They did it to defend a way of life, one that includes the pursuit of happiness as a founding ideal.
To be sure, we could use a bit more reverence on this day. A moment of silence before we dig into our brats. Fewer shopping sprees. But unrelenting grief? None of my buddies would want that. Mattress discounts and pie-eating contests and the freedom to be happy are all part of what they fought and died for.
This Memorial Day, I will head to the ocean as the sun is coming up. I will spend some time alone, and think about those who never made it back. Then I will return to my wife and kids and be grateful for my life. I will fire up the grill and invite friends over. And I will wish each of them a Happy Memorial Day, knowing full well that this day and the joy it brings are gifts I can never repay. Except, perhaps, by living a life full of happiness as my fallen friends would have wanted.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Observer.
Honor the Space
Tonite there is a space. A deep breath before the holidays burst to life, the visitors arrive, the food is served, and the festivities begin. There is a space. A quiet part of us that misses someone. Or, a lot of someones. And whether this space is new this year or it’s something you’ve grown to understand & have learned how to do, that space is still sacred. And quiet. So tonite, in the stillness before the season, I honor that space in you. And I honor that space in me. I pray that our hearts keep healing & that someone puts their arms around you & tells you that you are loved. Because you are. — T. M.
My wise and altogether wonderful friend, Terri Mervenne, shared these words today and it was like a blanket for my soul. I suppose, too, that I read her note at an opportune time. Every surface of the kitchen was coated in flour. The living room looked like a stuffed animal breeding ground. There was an unfathomable amount of toothpaste on the bathroom floor. The only thing prepped for tomorrow’s feast was pie crust. Next to the refrigerator, there was a To Do list that had not been adhered to, and a 3-Day Master Schedule that had been woefully ignored. I felt, as I often do at the start of the holidays, on the verge of a meltdown.
We all have this idea of how seasonal gatherings are supposed to be. And every year, between late November and early January, we are faced with the reality of how our holidays actually are. Sometimes that disconnect is encouraging. Perhaps we grew up in a quarrelsome family, but we marry into a clan more placid and accepting. But a lot of the time, the disparity between what we desire during the holidays and what we actually experience can be quite painful. And it is hard to know what to do with all that, what to do with the empty space.
My father is one of ten children. As adults, they fanned out around the country from Hawaii to Maine. Whenever they gathered for holiday photographs, they honored the missing siblings, and would assign inanimate objects to stand in. “Gina is the lamp,” they’d say before the flash. “Tommy is the dining room chair.” For years afterwards, that everyday item became the placeholder for the missing sister or brother 2000 miles away from the turkey dinner.
During the holidays, many of us do that same thing. We make grandma’s turnips or a great-aunt’s secret apple pie in an effort to hold a space for folks who have come before us, for loved ones who began our traditions long ago. But those marshmallow-covered yams and those green beans drowned in cream are such a far cry from the whole and wonderful person who once shared our table. Often, the very things meant to honor the empty space end up exacerbating it.
I have lived away from family for most of my adult life, and I have grown accustomed to the empty spaces around my table where siblings, parents, and cousins ought to be. But it wasn’t always easy. I remember one Christmas Eve, years ago, before the kids were born. Ken was in the Navy, deployed somewhere in the Pacific. And I sat alone on my front porch with a Christmas tree lodged in the doorway. I was pruning its branches with a letter opener when Tom, a neighbor I hardly knew, walked by and asked whether I needed any help. I told him I was fine and turned to shove the bedraggled tree towards a stand in the living room. When the broken-branched pine fell over for the third time, I looped twine around its trunk and tied it to curtain rods and the fireplace grate. I gazed upon my own personal tannenbaum with simultaneous triumph and defeat.
I had not been “fine” and Tom was kind enough to notice that. He and his wife invited me over that same night, and to this day, I am ever-so-grateful that they did. They saw a space in me and honored it, not by trying to assist my attempts to recreate Christmas past, but by welcoming me to their table.
Since that night, I have cobbled together my fair share of hobo holidays — thrown-together affairs with lasagnas and Yorkshire puddings, rooms full of expats or enlisted kids too broke to fly home. One Thanksgiving, our tiny party abandoned the turkey to its half-thawed fate, and dined entirely on apple pie instead. As much as I cherish the Rockwellian memories of my childhood, I know they are rose-colored reflections. There were spaces at those tables, too. Over the years, I have grown to love the custom of opening our home and welcoming the stranger. I honor the space in my heart best when I am honoring someone else’s. In this way, the emptiness connects us.
Space is funny like that. It can either keep us distant or help draw us close
Whether you spend tomorrow at a soup kitchen, in your own kitchen, or at your great-aunt Hildebrand’s eating soup, whether you share your dinner with 27 people or 2, I pray that you will, as my friend Terri so lovingly put it, “honor that space” in everyone you meet.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
We made homemade pie crusts today. And baked homemade rolls. We tossed together some homemade chicken stock; its aroma is filling the house with anticipatory joy. My nine-year-old wanted dumplings, so we whipped up homemade pot stickers, too. And dipping sauce. We couldn’t forget that.
But I fear I may be running out of juice. Thanksgiving’s not for another two days, and we basically just made from scratch all the things I usually buy. To balance this, for Thursday, I might just have to buy all the things I usually make. Either that, or serve chicken soup, pie crust, wantons, and rolls.
Also popcorn. I love popcorn.
In the end, of course, I know it doesn’t matter. Whether we eat turkey and turnips, or popcorn and pot stickers, the food is actually the least important part.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. May yours be a day of fullness and gratitude.