Memorial Day is for remembering

cemetery by Bruce Stambaugh

By Bruce Stambaugh

Memorial Day is for remembering.

Originally, the day was set aside to remember those who had lost their lives in military service. Most research points to the American Civil War as the primary reason for Memorial Day. Graves of confederate and Union soldiers alike were decorated with flowers.

New York was the first state to officially observe a Memorial Day in 1873, with the rest of the northern states quickly joining in. The South, however, held its own day, separate from the date observed up north.

After World War I, that all changed. Memorial Day, then called Decoration Day, was established to remember all who had died serving the country in conflict. That’s how I remember the day growing up. Parades with bands, fire trucks, flags, and veterans marched by.

In 1971, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday of May to create another three-day weekend. With that, the emphasis switched again. It was a time to remember all those who had gone before.

Yet Memorial Day became more of a celebrative affair that lasted the entire weekend than a singular time of showing respect. Picnics, softball tournaments, fireworks, and family gatherings overshadowed a time of reflection on the sacrifices and horrors of war.

When my parents built their beloved cottage in southeast Ohio in 1975, they always invited the entire family down for a Memorial Day picnic. We went fishing, boating, played games, and generally enjoyed each other’s company.

With the kids grown and gone, my wife and I began celebrating Memorial Day at our favorite vacation spot, Lakeside, Ohio. We enjoyed the company of Flag and bunting by Bruce Stambaughfriends, along with food and games. Patriotic events were staged, too, but my preference leaned more toward remembering in silent contemplation than engaging in nationalistic revelry.

As a young boy, I remembered spending hours sorting through the hundreds of black and white photographs that my father had taken during his stint in World War II. I was fascinated with the exotic South Pacific images I saw depicted in those old photos. Water buffalo, island natives selling goods, and intended to be silly equator-crossing ceremonies all intrigued me.

Dad, like his father before him, never wanted to talk much about the war. They each only shared briefly about their individual involvement. I came away from those limited discussions with the impression that both Dad and Grandpa Merle had abhorred their wartime experiences. They wouldn’t give details, but I concluded that it was the fearsomeness of it all from which they wanted to protect me.

Grandpa had served in the trenches in France during World War I, and was hit with mustard gas. He was only treated at a field hospital, and since they had no record of his injury, he suffered with chronic coughing the rest of his life.

Dad, on the other hand, chose a rosier route, avoiding the negatives. He bragged about being on the first ship into Tokyo Bay and how movies were traded from ship to ship via pulley and cable systems. In his retirement years, Dad enjoyed periodic reunions with his U.S.S. San Diego shipmates.

Neither my father nor my grandfather celebrated Memorial Day in grandiose, red, white and blue style. Rather, they chose to personally remember the horrific effects of war silently, privately. All the while, they relished in being surrounded by family and friends, enjoying the precious moments at hand.

This Memorial Day, I plan to do the same.

Healing among the mourners

World War II Memorial by Bruce Stambaugh
My father, Richard H. Stambaugh, 89, got his only visit to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. courtesy of Honor Flight. As part of a review of the first decade of the 21st century, this picture appeared on the front page of nytimes.com on Dec. 24, 2009, three days after Dad had died.

By Bruce Stambaugh

In August, I emotionally crashed and burned. I thought I had been dealing pretty well with my father’s death late last year. Truth is, I wasn’t dealing with it at all.

Like so many others who have lost loved ones, I kept myself busy, and suppressed any emotions and hurts that spontaneously tried to ooze out at serendipitous times. I denied my suffering perhaps afraid to let myself go. I needed to properly mourn, take care of myself and share with others just how much Dad meant to me.

I thought I had of course. But I was just fooling myself. I know now that what happened to me was inevitable. I was in denial and the resulting consequences finally had caught up to me. I thought I was alone in this internal battle, and had to be strong for our mother and myself.

In his final months and days, Dad had received marvelous care from Hospice of Holmes County, along with the staff at Walnut Hills, the assisted living facility in Walnut Creek, Ohio where he and Mom lived. After his death, I began receiving monthly mailings from Hospice. Most of them had articles and literature on grieving.

Thinking that I was doing just fine, I usually glanced at them and that was it. That information was for others, not me. I was wrong.

The day my emotions hit rock bottom another Hospice mailing arrived. In it was an invitation to attend a special five-week session on grieving. I wasn’t tolerating the depression medicine the doctor had prescribed for me. I decided to stop the meds and start the counseling.

The group was small, which allowed for intimate, personal, confidential sharing. We met once a week for five consecutive Thursdays. I knew most of the handful of people who attended. The lives of rural people tend to intertwine consequentially.

Dick Stambaugh and Bob Dole by Bruce Stambaugh
Seeing Bob Dole, who was instrumental in making the World War II Memorial a reality, seemed to energize my father. Dole is often at the memorial to greet Honor Flight veterens.

Participants made the two hours each week a priority. We laughed, cried, listened and comforted each other. Our common, profound grief, our tears and smiles bonded us together with measureless compassion.

By the end of the final session, I had a greater appreciation for what others go through, how much people hurt even years after losing a loved one. I was no exception. I learned, though, that hearing the varying situations of others helped see my own issues in a new and realistic perspective.

We learned that grieving is an ongoing process. It takes time and understanding.

Still, I saw healing in my fellow mourners, and I felt healing myself. The last night we met, each of us took turns sharing something significant about our loved ones. Pictures, quilts, special mementos were all passed around.

I showed a slideshow of the Honor Flight trip I took with my father and older brother to Washington, D.C. in September 2009. Honor Flight is a program begun a few years ago to transport as many World War II vets as possible to the memorial in their honor in the nation’s capital.

I served as Dad’s guardian for the day, wheeling him around in his wheelchair. My older brother assisted two more able bodied vets. When asked where that experience fit in his 89 years of living, Dad said it ranked right after his marriage.

Knowing how much the trip meant to Dad, my brother and I were blessed to have been a part of that marvelous experience. In the same way, I was honored to have participated in the bereavement small group. The unconditional love and acceptance I experienced were unforgettable and priceless.

The hugs and handshakes upon parting told me the feelings were mutual.

Stambaughs at the WW II Memorial by Bruce Stambaugh
My older brother, Craig, Dad and I posed for a picture at the Ohio pillar at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 12, 2009.