I have always tended to confabulate Labor Day and Memorial Day. For one thing, it just doesn’t make sense to me that something sad, like remembering the dead, should happen just as summer is starting to show up (even if today marks the third anniversary of Ellie’s death, and summer, my birthday in fact, marked the funeral of my childhood best friend); shouldn’t the end of school be when we celebrate all the “labor” we did as school kids and some school’s out completely feeling?
When you’re a kid, you generally don’t know too many fallen soldiers and “laborers” are also an abstract concept. Nevertheless, as a kid it’s crystal clear that the beginning of summer is a good time and the end of summer is a bad time. Therefore if you’re going to have a holiday about sad things, make it at a sad time—and besides, how does it help dead soldiers if we eat corn and watermelon?
I think that if I were the ghost of a dead soldier, and I happened across a typical American Memorial Day celebration, I might think they were all happy I was gone. Not that I want a gloomy holiday, but why don’t we sit shiva and get deli if we’re honoring men and women who died so that we could remain free?
A further complication in my differentiating between Memorial and Labor Days was that, as a child, after my long internment at “camp” I was finally released at the end of summer. I had counted the days, nearly drowned, watched my counselors learn their fates from the Viet Nam draft lottery, watched one dance with manic glee to the Doors’ “Light My Fire” when he learned he was somewhere around 265 out of 365 and unlikely to be called up to the war, and so I had just returned from a private hell of my own.
As I stepped off the bus, my mom came limping and wincing in horrible pain to meet my brother and me. When you’re a child, a mom in pain can all too easily be misread as someone not terribly happy to see you.
The story turned out to be that my parents threw a last summer bash on the night before our return; as my mom was putting away the middle slab of the dining room table, the one that made it longer for their big wingding, she dropped the damn thing right on her toe. If they’d had a shooting party she would have shot herself in the foot. Faced with the prospect of childcare once again, she self-destructed.
Back in dad’s Lincoln, mom had a bucket of ice for her foot (no mere icepack for a woman of drama, her foot was the champagne my dad would no longer be drinking now that we kids had returned to spoil their mid-summer night’s dream). My mom tried to lead with her excitement about signing us up for camp the following summer—because those spots would fill up, and because the other children, the “normal” children could not wait to go back. I felt like I’d returned from the holy wars and was being enticed with travel posters that I already knew looked nothing like the bloody siege that was for me at least, summer camp. My brother and I vehemently protested (we would not prevail, but all conversation ceased at that moment).
As we pulled silently onto our street, I remember my father telling us that a boy (we were boys, so to us a person of eighteen or nineteen was something neither a boy nor a man) down the block had been killed in the war. A flag hung in front of their house, the muscle car that would only have made sense to that boy sat in the driveway, forlorn and slightly blurry for some reason. I don’t know if it was Labor Day, but it felt like Memorial Day.
Inside my parents’ house, the remnants of their party lay strewn about. I felt suddenly surreal and dissociated as I looked at a bird of paradise flower in a vase. I had never seen one before and it was extraordinary to me, bright colors pluming up from that sharp beak. My mom proudly told me that it was a bird of paradise—that they were rare and expensive.
I lay down on the couch, feeling increasingly not myself. Dead soldiers, near drowning, broken toes, birds of paradise, end of summer, threat of return to camp, dread of the meanest teacher in the school looming as my fate. I remember saying that I didn’t feel well and my mom asking me if it was “physical or emotional.” I could never answer that question, although she asked it often that year. Now I might be inclined to say that it had been neither emotional nor physical, it was spiritual.
In the life I live now you never see birds of paradise in vases. They grow all around me and sometimes they look natty and sometimes ratty, but they ironically comfort me by being cheap and common. My mom’s and my love is all entwined with Memorial Day because, according to her, either I shot her down or she shot me down in our past lives during WW I; while I remember all sorts of strange things, this particular thing eludes me… but still it might explain a lot.
So, whatever this day is about for each of us, and for all of us together, here’s to summer and swimming (safely) and popsicles and corn and watermelon and respect for the dead and respect for labor (and the many who have lost their jobs, and cannot get jobs)… and to love, for all of us together and for all our collective children.