Somehow, in all the times I’ve written or thought of Memorial Day, I have never explained to Elie what Memorial Day was like in America when I was growing up…and even until the day I left. We were making plans for Memorial Day and I suddenly wanted to explain. He stood there astounded. He clarified it, “Memorial Day?” as if I had made a mistake. Surely, he thought, I must have meant Independence Day.
I lived with my family on a main street in a small town in New Jersey. Every year, the parade went in front of our house. Most years, we took out chairs to sit and watch. Sometimes, we had plans and so we moved our car to a side street so that as soon as the parade passed, we could go drive somewhere. I remember Memorial Day as a day of barbecues and shopping. It was the opening of the summer season; beaches opened to swimmers and flags flew.
I’m not sure if I ever associated Memorial Day to the concept of fallen soldiers. Certainly, it was a day of pride in America, in democracy, in freedom…but did I ever realize that without our soldiers…we would not have had America, democracy, freedom? I wish I could remember and say I did, but as a child, as a teen, even as a young married woman, I’m not sure.
By contrast, from the start and even before, I always understood that Yom HaZikaron “Day of the Memory” or Memorial Day was clearly connected to the soldiers. It is so different here. The concept of doing a barbecue or visiting friends or a sale in honor of this day is an impossibility to comprehend. There is no celebration – it is a day of agony here; of remembering in pain those we have lost and sharing quietly with those who still suffer.
Each city has a ceremony, from the tiniest to the biggest. Candles are lit; flags lowered to half mast. All movie theaters are closed, all shows canceled. You don’t go out to eat, to celebrate. Your heart aches to the deepest reaches of your soul and you know your eyes will burn with tears. For the first two years that Elie was in the army, I just couldn’t bring myself to go to the ceremony. It was enough, I told myself, to let him serve. I mourned quietly at home; I watched the names flow past on the screen…those who died in 1948 fighting for our country to be born, and all those who have followed…from the first until this year – when Eliraz Peretz fell just a few weeks ago.
Last year, I told myself I could handle it, and I did. I went with my youngest son and prayed never, ever, ever, to be anywhere but there deep in the audience, unnoticed, unimportant as I watched mothers that I know, walk up and light candles for their sons. I prayed with all that I was worth, ashamed that I was thinking of mine when I should be mourning theirs. I told myself that God and country would forgive me and understand. I had come, hadn’t I? That had to count for something.
It’s a year later and I have a different son…two even…in the army. I asked Elie if he would come with me tonight, “yes,” he answered in that tone that said it had never been a question.
It is a night of tears, of sad stories, of lives cut short. It is going to be good to sit there with Elie this year.