When I was growing up, Memorial Day meant a parade down the main street of our small town. People’s fathers appeared mysteriously in uniform, accompanied by the high school marching band, scout troops, local service clubs, and fire engines. My sister Lorna and I walked into town to see it, and followed the end of it to the VFW post, where speeches were made, ice cream in dixie cups was given out free, and a softball game was organized in the weedy next-door lot.
We had pictures at home of my father wearing the Army Air Force uniform that hung in our hall closet, but he did not put it on or join the parade. He was raised a city boy, but he hated crowds. Lorna and I weren’t big on crowds either, but we were very big on ice cream. Still in our single digits, we didn’t understand what memorials, or veterans, or foreign wars were, or what they had to do with the official start of summer, permission to wear white shoes, or free ice cream. But we gleaned from the speeches and the surroundings that the point was to be grateful: for the veterans who fed us, expecting nothing in return; for the musicians carrying their shiny instruments in the gleaming sun just to play for us; for the watchfulness of the firemen; for the warm light of summer; for the softball game that might last until dark; for all these things we licked our sticky fingers with gratitude.
Sometime later I found out what war was, all loss, terror, and heartbreak, and then I was truly grateful for anyone able to pitch in and stop one. This meant the World War veterans, of course, but I had also heard of Victory Gardens. Now I thought I knew what they were – a way to stop war by getting people to garden. It made sense to me: if people put in the effort needed to grow things, to care for them patiently and see how beautiful they were, why would they want to blow them up?
It was later still that I found, sadly, that people could think of other people the way I thought of, say, the woodchuck. His needs opposed to mine, he becomes The Enemy. It’s a word that has momentum.