Monday, May 30, 2011
Until 14 months ago, I didn’t appreciate Memorial Day enough.
My Grandma Norma was young then, growing up on a farm in southern Iowa in the ’30s. Soon after high school, she married her high school sweetheart, Maurice, who grew up on a nearby farm. They had wanted to get married even earlier, but Norma’s mother thought they were too young. Norma’s sweetness, that would become her trademark later, was evident even then. Maurice was the kind of guy who would do anything for anyone, including writing Norma poetry. A Renaissance man in southern Iowa.
It felt like they were just getting their lives started when a delusional man they hadn’t ever met, a world away, started acting on his delusions. Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, and France, and bombed England. Then, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the war came to the southern Iowa, or more accurately, took southern Iowa to the war. In a blink, Maurice found himself an Army staff sergeant stationed in England.
Staff Sergeant Swan was a member of the 453rd Bomb Group. A gunner, Maurice sat in the tail of a B-24. The environment around him was anything but simple, but what he desired most was simple enough. Maurice wrote piles of letters home to Norma, mostly simple letters about missing her and waiting to see her again. He just wanted to be home.
On May 8, 1944 Maurice was involved in a mission over Belgium. They were spotted and were fired upon. Maurice’s plane was spared any direct hits, and checked in to say they were all right, but their relief was felt only briefly. The plane above them in formation took a hit, careening toward the ground, and smashing into Maurice’s plane on the way down. They both crashed into the Belgian soil. Maurice did not survive the impact.
On his person, they found two things.
They found a Bible, and a locket with a picture of Norma.
It hit Norma hard. Dealing with the grief at only 21, Norma had to decide whether to have his body repatriated or left to be buried in what would become Ardennes Cemetery, an American Military cemetery in Belgium. As about 40% of other widows at the time, she chose to have him buried there.
The war died about a year after Maurice did.
Maurice had told Norma that he wanted her to remarry if anything happened to him in the war. That was difficult for her to accept. But, a few years later, Norma met a teacher at Winfield School, where she worked, the same school she had gone to herself years earlier. Orra had grown up in a different part of the state, but found himself in the area teaching and developing a reputation as a great basketball coach. Although he now jokingly says that the first thing he liked about Norma was what he noticed when she “was walking away,” he was truly smitten. He and Maurice were different, but it wasn’t about comparisons.
Norma and Orra soon got married and started a family. They are now 90 and 96, respectfully, still living in the same house they bought in Iowa City in 1961. I, of course, have only ever known them as my grandparents. Grandpa Orra is the most laid back guy I’ve ever known, and Grandma Norma is somehow the most joyous and worry filled person I’ve ever met. They have their own magnificent love story. Norma wouldn’t change a single thing about their decades together.
Like every woman who lost a husband in WWII, there is still a young widow inside that feels the hurt of losing her first love.
She has never flown in a plane and has never been to Ardennes Cemetery.
No one in the family had been there. She had never quite had closure.
She had always wondered.
For 66 years, she wasn’t sure if she did the right thing in having him buried there and not here.
Last year, Michelle and I decided to join in on a European trip that our friends, Joe and Jannah were taking. The trip would begin in Rome and end in Brussels in late March. Before we left, I consulted my uncle, and family historian to see about visiting Ardennes. It would work perfectly. We e-mailed the cemetery that we were coming.
We arrived in our rented Renault on a drizzly gray afternoon. In the office we were met by, Walter, an American Army officer in full dress uniform. He had been waiting for us and had researched everything he could on Maurice in preparation. The cemetery was immaculate with rich greens contrasting brilliantly the exactness of the lines of the white headstones in every direction. They had taken such care to carve out this spot, prompting the surrounding nature to even pay respect. Walter walked us to Maurice’s headstone. It was the one marked with an American and Belgian flag for our arrival. We laid flowers that Grandma Norma had purchased, we cried, and listened to Walter tell us the cemetery history and the unending care that the cemetery has received year round for decades.
When Michelle and I left, we knew we did something special.
When we got home, I realized that we had done one of the most important things of our lives.
I called Grandma Norma to tell her about the trip. I described for her the cemetery. I described for her the care. She described Maurice for me. Even though she could never be there, she could have closure knowing that a family member went there and reported back. She finally put to rest the wonder about her choice 66 years ago. In that moment on the phone she was just a young woman describing her first love to me.
That was the first time I understood Memorial Day.
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate soldiers’ sacrifices, I just did it on an intellectual level. I am pretty staunchly anti-war, so I’ve always been ambivalent about such things before, but I now know on a gut level that it isn’t about the wide view. I don’t think that Memorial Day is about nations and wars and borders and battles, and numbers. I think that misses the point.
I think it’s about individuals.
I think it’s about what that one person who is lost means to those individuals who miss them. Death is inherently stuck to the past, but missing that person is forever attached to the present.
At the same time, we, as a nation collectively have the young widow still inside us that misses our loved ones. We take a day each year to allow somber in and acknowledge our loss.
The totality of thinking about every soldier who has lost a life is too enormous for me. I have a hard time truly appreciating freedom as an idea, when I haven’t ever known anything else. I don’t know when a war is “just” or “good,” but I know that one person being willing to sacrifice their own life for others is something more than “just” and something more than “good.” I know that that is worthy of my remembrance. I know that feels like freedom.
I talked to my mom today as she was picking up Grandma Norma and Grandpa Orra. It takes awhile for my mom now as they move slowly gathering their things. They were getting their things together to make the annual 45 minute trip down to Winfield to go to the small cemetery where there is a headstone for Maurice. They walk slowly now, treading in the damp spring grass, to lay flowers and pay their respects to Maurice.
It’s just a small moment in the lives of two elderly people.
Collectively, it’s a big moment for all of us.