What Memorial Day Means to an Islander

Memorial Day is loaded with wonderful childhood memories for me.  Every Memorial Day my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Art Krsnak, who still live on Broadway Avenue in Sayville, would host a big family party.  My aunt and uncle and my grandparents would usually have done the upkeep on the family plots around Memorial Day and I remember hearing reports about trimming away the grass around all monuments and plaques. Memorial Day meant that the end of school wasn’t far behind. On the Island, it means, open the flood gates, the tourists are a’comin’!

Picnics all around the Island will be awash in a sea of Tupperware bowls filled with various secret recipes for potato salad and coleslaw.  Men will gather around grills, hallowed ground where men control fire since we came out of caves. The arguments about what charcoal to use, how to regulate the fire, what to grill and how will go on until the beer runs out.  When the beer and the chicken runs out, that signals the end of picnic.  Tired and dirty children will be strapped to the luggage racks of cars while the leftover food rides inside the car with the air conditioning so it doesn’t spoil.

I also had the experience of observing Memorial Day in the Armed Forces cemetery known as the Punch Bowl in the crater of the volcano whose image you always see in the background of any picture of Honolulu.  Standing at the edge of a sea of crosses and Stars of David marking the sacred resting places for WWII soldiers and others. I never thought I’d see a more emotionally-arresting place until I saw Arlington National Cemetery. Did you know that Arlington was the home of General Lee’s family? The land was donated by the Lee family to the government for the specific purpose of burying the Civil War dead, both North and South.  Looking out over stark white crosses in all directions and to the horizon, you are so overwhelmed you have to remind yourself to breathe.

I thought about Arlington recently, and what it must have been like for the Southerners to accept that black people must be granted the same civil rights as white people.  And I remembered a story I read about an incident in a southern church some years after the war. The church was mostly white, and on this day, for the first time, a black parishioner came forth and knelt at the communion rail to receive bread and wine along with whites.  The pastor stood still, not knowing what to do.   Shortly, a small, frail man came forth and quietly knelt next to the black man at the railing. It was written that you could hear a pin drop as the congregation realized it was the now elderly General Robert E. Lee.   We’ll never know if he approved of recognizing black people as full citizens, but we do know that he accepted it.

As I watch my country struggle with the idea of gay marriage, I think we’re having the same growing pains the southerners did.  No one has to compromise their religious beliefs and grant approval to gay marriage, but we all need to accept their entitlement to the same life, liberty and pursuit of happiness that all Americans are promised. And pause to consider, how many of those stark white crosses lay over gay soldiers.

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