Harriet Freiberger: Memorial Day is about more than death, much more
For the Steamboat Pilot & Today
At cemeteries throughout our country, communities will honor the men and women whom war has taken from our midst. Every word that has been etched into their stone markers speaks of life, American life. The sacred places where they have been laid to rest hold America’s promise to all who claim the heritage it bestows.
Some new recipients of citizenship have only just begun to find a foothold in the confusing jumble of opportunities and obstacles. Others can open family documents brought across the Atlantic four centuries ago. We all inherit a history that acknowledges men and women who dreamed of the future we now enjoy.
Today we can make certain we understand what has claimed soldiers’ lives on our behalf. Why designate this day to remember these particular men and women of this particular nation that is the United States of America? Why look backward ? Why remember? Without memory we would hear, see and make sounds, feel pleasure or pain — everything eternally new — but without meaning.
No, we and the way we live reveal our country’s progress: not only the pock marks of choices that sometimes proved difficult and wrong, but also shining gold stars that recognize evidence of continuing efforts to make things right — for all. Perhaps we would see ourselves and that potential more clearly if we traveled across the ocean and stepped upon American ground “over there.”
The generations who lived before us have left a lasting bond with the United States in 26 overseas military cemeteries where the American Battle Monuments Commission commemorates 207,616 individuals.
Beneath rows of glistening pristine marble markers in meticulously cared-for burial grounds, our soldiers lie, honored by children and grandchildren of the people who learned first-hand what Americans are about. They do not forget the boys who became men far away from home, men whose embedded footprints will never be erased. In France, Belgium, England and wherever our soldiers have fought, memorials inspire.
The Netherlands American Cemetery was built in Margraten near the highway over which, back in May 1940, Hitler’s army advanced to overwhelm the Low Countries and then, in September 1944, for that same army to withdraw from the countries they had occupied for four years. The cemetery, as seen now, was established in 1960, but it actually began being used in 1944, when the U.S. Ninth Army entered Holland from France and Belgium, on their way to Berlin. The Dutch people helped dig over 300 graves a day in a resting ground for some 20,000, long before families were permitted to request their soldiers be sent home. Our dead became theirs.
Locals have adopted each of the present 8,301 graves. They remember birthdays, place flowers, and when possible, stay in touch with the service member’s family. Over 300 people currently await assignment to their own American. A bi-annual event during Dutch Memorial Day weekend displays more than 3,000 photos of our fallen next to polished headstones.
From strongholds of the past our soldiers speak, their imprint etched in something more lasting than stone. The words they might have spoken flash like lightning within those who live in the present. A compass needle, they point toward a halt to the narrow-minded disconnect that currently threatens and, instead, to an effort toward the idea that people can live together in a way that protects, nurtures and encourages all toward our true north.
Today, as the sun rises above the easternmost rocks of Maine and sets along the westernmost beach of Hawaii, the sound of “Taps” will echo over the graves of our soldiers. “ . . . All is well. Safely rest. . . “ Lingering gentleness of the trumpet’s final notes will sooth the sudden sadness that wells up from a penetrating silence, but the signature of the past that lies within listeners will reverberate with an urgency that belies the calming sounds.
All cannot safely rest until we Americans find the marker that we carry and make certain it is there for all who come after. Let us remember, together. Today is Memorial Day.
Harriet Freiberger has lived in the Elk River Valley since 1982.
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