Cemetery-hopping on Memorial Day

Visiting strangers in Normandy, getting hazed by Dazed and Confused, and celebrating the opening of AM radio season

Every year on Memorial Day, my family goes cemetery-hopping. We start the day at the ancient grave of one of our long-ago ancestors: a man named Benjamin, who served in the Revolutionary War. He is buried five miles away.

My ancestor’s grave is ancient and tipped; it’s pretty much receding into the earth. Any precise memories of him have receded, too — but he landed our family in my hometown by accepting a land grant in 1790, in exchange for his service in the war. He arrived in the area (from New Jersey), armed only with a wagon and two oxen. We’ve been here ever since.

My family then gathers at another cemetery just outside town, and there we commune with much closer relations. We hang around, reminiscing and often laughing, and tend the graves there, brushing the grass trimmings off of the various stone markers, watering the flowers, and washing the etched memorial stone, which contains all of the names of those buried in the family plot.

I go to the cemetery often — not just on Memorial Day — because it is very near my stomping grounds (really just a bike ride away), because it is beautiful there, and also because, while there - I can continue to narrate a very long story.

(This is one of my favorite photos of me with my aunt Jean, copping a squat on a memorial marker at our family plot. Aunt Jean — the last of the four great Genung sisters — died last year. Her name will be etched on the memorial stone this summer.)

I do not actually commune with my dead relatives, nor do I talk aloud to them in the way that people in movies do. But I do use these visits to reassure myself that — as long as people are present to remember them — my beloved family members aren’t really gone.

That’s all.

Two summers ago, I was lucky enough to visit the American Cemetery in Normandy, France. Lacking any personal connection to any servicemembers who fought in Europe during World War II, I was searching for a way to honor specific people, and so I reached out on Twitter and offered to visit the graves of fallen soldiers on behalf of other families.

Several people responded, sending me the names of their relative who was buried at Normandy. Armed only with these names, I was able to locate their specific gravesite among the 9386 Americans buried there, through the precise database at the visitors center.

I was then offered an escort (a sweet young French woman), who brought me to each stark marker. The cemetery doesn’t allow flowers or any ornamentation around the markers, and so I hastily drew a heart on a piece of paper and photographed it to share with their family member back in the States, as a witness to my visit.

I emailed these photos to those who had asked; several people also gave me permission to share their story on Twitter.

“What do you know about your great uncle/cousin/grandfather?” I asked. And people offered a line or two, which I included with the caption. Below are some examples, along with the photos I took:

This is where Syracuse native Albert B Cassidy is buried, far away from home — in Normandy, France. I was honored to pay my respects to this son of Syracuse.

This is the final resting place of Robert Layne, PFC. He grew up in Florida, died in the earliest days of the Allied invasion, and is now buried in a shady glade in the American cemetery in Normandy, France. His parents lost two sons in WWII.

This is the grave of Ambrose Clancy, proud son of Sunnyside, Queens. He died a soldier and is buried in Normandy, France. His family never stopped missing him.

This is the beautiful resting place of Jefferson Osenbaugh, who was born in Iowa, and died in Normandy, France. I was honored to visit his grave, on behalf of his loving family.

This is where Charles Joslin is buried. A son of Colorado, he died on the 6th of June, 1944, in Normandy, France, and this is where he is buried. I visited his grave today.

Seeing how young most of these men were when they died in France was heartbreaking. But knowing that they were still remembered by people who had never known them — almost 80 years after their death — well, that was also heartbreaking.

Below is a 6 minute story about an amazing art piece installed on Omaha Beach in 2013. The piece is called “The Fallen.”

Thinking about sacrifice and service on this day, I’m aware not only of the indelible mark these soldiers made on the history of the world, but of the extreme sacrifices of their family members back home. Their descendants quietly carry this burden, generations later.

The juxtaposition of the somber notes of Memorial Day along with the traditional start of the American summer season sometimes leads to the jarring weirdness of celebrating the start of barbecue-season on the same day we are meant to honor our dead.

Mainly, I’m good with that. If I’ve taken away anything of significance from my frequent cemetery visits, it is to remind me to enjoy the visceral pleasures of being alive.

DEPARTMENTS:

From Railey Jane Savage:

JUNK FOOD: Stuff I consume to feel better

This week: More confused than dazed

Railey writes:

I was a first-year college student when I watched Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused for the first time. The movie came out in 1993, takes place in 1976, and I was watching it in 2003. The people I was with had seen it a hundred times and were parroting the characters and howling at the jokes, but I remember not, like, really getting it.

It felt like an exercise in nostalgia for a time and place I couldn’t relate to and didn’t really want to, anyway. High school was traumatic enough without sitting through 103 minutes of not-so playful hazing. I think the movie’s interesting when viewed for what it is, though, which is a cast of twenty-somethings acting as 18-year-olds seventeen years prior. But today I only want to talk about one character: Mr. Payne.

A central driver of the action in Confused is the give and take of hazing. It’s the last day of classes in a Texas high school and bedlam is barely contained until the end of the day, when things get dire quick. It’s apparently in good fun and charitably coded “tradition,” but the rising seniors spend the afternoon violently hazing the rising freshmen with insults, threats, and wooden paddles. When two students ask their teacher to be let out early to avoid the melee, Mr. Payne replies with, “It’s like our sergeant told us before one trip into the jungle: Men! Fifty of you are leaving on a mission. Twenty-five of you ain’t coming back.” It’s a joke, I think. But more Full Metal Jacket than Stripes.

Clearly there’s no real love lost between this movie and me, but this Memorial Day I’m thinking of Mr. Payne and hoping the interceding years were kind to him. I’ve only known war in the abstract, and I am grateful. So I don’t care that Payne is fictitious, I still wish peace and calm and clarity to the man, the soldier. I’d argue that Dazed and Confused aged horribly, but I hope Mr. Payne didn’t.”

{Railey Savage lives, works, and writes from her front porch in Ludlowville, NY. Follow her on Instagram @cartoonsandcats}

LAURA LIKES:

Where my friend Laura tells me about good stuff.

This week: It’s AM radio season!

Laura writes:

“I am not a huge summer fan -- bugs love me, the humidity makes my hair frizzy, I feel awkward in tiny clothes, and I immediately burn rather than tan (check back later for a long, heartfelt  disquisition on the importance of sunscreen). I love the idea of summer, certainly, but I probably need a screen porch to do it justice. 

All that aside, there's nothing I like more come summer than a still evening, fireflies winking occasionally outside the open window, and listening to a baseball game on the radio. There's just something about the whole ambiance of the thing that goes beyond nostalgia and into a kind of quiet contentment.

It doesn't even matter if you don't like baseball (I do) or if you don't know what's going on (I totally know). If you spend a lot of time streaming sports via apps or satellite, the sudden shift to the local announcers calling your hometown/favorite team's game on an AM station can be odd...what's with all these ads? But there's something kind of fun about that, too. Little bits of your childhood seep in through the cracks, as you hear 30-year-old jingles for brands you'd kind of forgotten. If you're listening to Kansas City on the Lawrence station, you're going to suddenly find that why, yes, you suppose you are in the market for a Mahindra tractor. If you're listening to Cincinnati over AM when the atmospheric conditions are just right, you think "man, I haven't had a Kahn's hotdog in decades, that sounds great." 

That's another thing, if you listen on AM, there's this wonderful weird luck of the draw because of the way AM works at night...I've also picked up games from Cleveland, Denver, St. Louis, Atlanta and one time even Washington DC (though I had to bail out of that because the reason I could hear it at all had to do with the tornado that touched down a half-mile from here). 

(My AM tube radio, scavenged from my grandmother's house. Yes, it works just fine. Yes, it's seen better days. I don't care. Note how AM 700 is marked as being WLW -- the 50,000 watt clear channel voice and flagship station of the Cincinnati Reds, thankyouverymuch. We didn't have a major league team in Louisville, so I was a Reds fan as a kid. )  

At any rate, the pace, if you're listening, feels glacial without all the TV bells and whistles and no online chatter. It's a little bit of the past come to life in the present. A glass of real lemonade, a scorecard, a pencil, the occasional lusciously cool breeze breaking through the stifling night, the comforting voices and the dull roar from the crowd -- it's summer. Everything's ok, this is baseball, our game, and it's a thing that preceded you and will outlast you and right now, you can just sit back and let the world unfold, with crickets and cicadas singing counterpoint.  

(Yes, I keep score, because I know how, and I am a massive nerd. )

{Laura Lorson is the voice of NPR in Lawrence, Kansas. Do yourself a favor and follow her on Twitter @prairielaura}

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