It’s an end-of-May tradition I have – hardly worth mentioning – except that I want it to lead to the point I hope to make. I buy a patriotic, true red, white and blue $5 T-shirt at a sporting goods store just before Memorial Day.
By now I have enough tees to wear a different one every day of the three-day weekend, with a couple to spare. The shirts will be worn again around the Fourth of July, and in all likelihood I’ll wear a favorite out of the collection on Sept. 11.
The truth is, it’s a shopping trip I look forward to. I like standing there looking for an addition to the collection, critically assessing the shirts’ designs. The artwork and slogans on the shirts usually reflect the “land of the free, home of the brave” America I grew up on. I like that despite our cracks and crevices, this remains the “land that I love.”
The effort and purpose of the shopping trip give me cause to remember. Remember that while I am blessed to be a citizen of this great country, my blessings came at others’ great sacrifice.
Unfortunately, a $5 T-shirt can’t begin to express all that I would like for it to.
This year, my T-shirt shopping trip happened Friday, coincidentally the last day of the school year, and I wedged it in between my end-of-school duties and a dinner celebration with teacher friends and coworkers. Finding just the right shirt on a short schedule had the added challenge that the best ones in my size were gone. It also so happened that a lady just about my same size and girth was shopping at the kiosk. We helped each other look, and even though our selection was limited, we both vetoed an otherwise favorite red shirt with a neat flag graphic because the slogan said, “United we stand.”
“Sorry, I can’t do that this year,” she sighed, glancing my way fearfully, I presume thinking I might take her to task.
“I know,” I offered.
In that moment we were kindred spirits, doing well, what good Americans should in their daily go-about in life.
But there’s another thing about the trip that bothered me. Silly, I suppose. I bought a shirt, and as the cashier dropped it into a sack, she wished me “a happy Memorial Day.”
“Thank you,” I smiled. “God bless America.”
Please understand, I do not want to seem like one of those “gag at a gnat swallow a camel” people. I did not take offense that I was wished a “happy Memorial Day.” I appreciated the fact that in our exchange, the young girl at the cash register was saying what she thought appropriate for this holiday, generally considered the official kickoff for summer.
It’s just that I can’t – nor do I want – to apply the one-word-fits-all holiday greeting. I take seriously the charge of remembering the fallen on Memorial Day. My career writing for newspapers made Memorial Day observances a professional responsibility for me, which the clerk shouldn’t know or have to worry about.
Still, in my mind, there is an unforgettable file of those I never met in life, but wish I might have known better. Men who were killed in war, for whom I will always grieve. Their stories were my charge to write and I did my best, apologizing to their widows, siblings and parents after the stories were published, I could have done more. Mostly, I fervently wish there hadn’t been a reason to write the story, they wouldn’t have been what the military calls, “a casualty.”
I remember most of a poem I memorized in high school. “The Vacant Chair” penned by Henry Stevenson Washburn in 1861 begins, “We will meet / but we will miss him. / There will be one vacant chair…”
The lines poignantly describe the sadness of Memorial Day, and why it cannot be a “happy” holiday.
There are ways and means to honor our fallen, through ceremony and reverence. But those few moments out of the day will leave plenty of time to also enjoy this American life – to be happy, because we can be. I believe that’s what our fallen would want. That we would meet, and miss them, but that we would go on about living the life they fought to protect.
They did their duty, so people, like me, can wear the T-shirt. It may be the least we can do, but sadly, it’s also the most.
Editor’s note: Candace Cooksey Fulton, formerly of Brownwood, is a freelance writer now living in San Angelo. She writes weekly columns for the Brownwood Bulletin and the San Angelo Standard-Times, each unique to the particular paper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.