Happy the man, whose wish and care A few paternal acres bound, Content to breathe his native air, In his own ground. Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread, Whose flocks supply him with attire, Whose trees in summer yield him shade, In winter fire.
Blest, who can unconcernedly find Hours, days, and years slide soft away, In health of body, peace of mind, Quiet by day,
Sound sleep by night; study and ease, Together mixed; sweet recreation; And innocence, which most does please, With meditation.
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown; Thus unlamented let me die; Steal from the world, and not a stone Tell where I lie.
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. ~George Eliot’s final sentence in Middlemarch
We have no idea who came before us, unseen, unknown, unheralded, unvisited, yet they, by living and dying, made our lives better today.
They lie, forgotten, now dust in the ground.
Yet they lived fully and lovingly, stewards of the earth and its creatures, parents to the next generation and the next and the next, placed here as images of their Creator.
May we, someday, having also lived faithfully in the fullness of time, leave behind a legacy of good and unhistoric acts that leave this world a better place for those who walk behind us in our footsteps.
It’s the least we can do, to honor those whose footprints we now follow.
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May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy saints forever, for Thou art kind. Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.
In my father’s near daily letters home to my mother during WWII, month after month after month, he would say, over and over while apologizing for the repetition:
“I will come home to you, I will return, I will not let this change me, we will be joined again…”
This was his way of convincing himself even as he carried the dead and dying after island battles: men he knew well and the enemy he did not know. He knew they were never returning to the home they died protecting and to those who loved them.
He shared little of battle in his letters as each letter was reviewed and signed off by a censor before being sealed and sent. This story made it through:
“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa. It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget.
So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation. In training – close order drill- etc. there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed. The command is INSPECTION – ARMS. On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle. It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened. Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.
Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the <Tarawa> beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting. You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading. When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles.
A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.”
(for my father Henry Polis on Memorial Day)
It was only a part of what we knew about you- serving three long years in the South Pacific, spoken of obliquely only if asked about, but never really answered.
We knew you were a Marine battalion leader at age 21, knew you spent too many nights without sleep, unsure if you or your men would see the dawn only to dread what the next day would bring.
We knew you lost buddies and your innocence; found unaccustomed strength in a mama’s boy who once cried too easily and later almost never.
Somehow life had prepared you for this: pulling your daddy out of taverns when you were ten watching him beat your mama until finally getting big enough to stand in the way so he stopped.
Then Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian beaches bitterly bloodsoaked battles won, to be restored and renewed as vacation resorts.
We let you go without knowing your full story– even Mom didn’t ask. You could not share the depth of horror and fear you felt.
It was not shame that kept you silent; simply no need to revisit the pain of remembrance. It was done, finished, you had done your duty.
So as we again set flowers and flag on your grave, reunited with Mom after years apart, I regret so many questions unasked of your sacrifice beyond imagining.
Sleep well, Dad, with Mom now by your side. I rejoice you have wakened to a renewed dawn, an eternal light Lux Aeterna.
The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still. I went over to the graveyard beside the church and found them under the old cedars… I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did…
I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead. The world as it is would always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come. ~Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow
Today, as always during the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing. A handful of the living come together with a slew of the no-longer-living. Some, who have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.
It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, my alcoholic grandfather (who I remember as a very old man) who died of sudden cardiac arrest at the age I am now, my grandmother from whom I inherited inherent messiness and the love of things that bloom, my parents who divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.
These givers of my genes rest here in this beautiful place above Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountains with shining snow beside them. It is a peaceful spot to lay one’s dust for eternity.
It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging. But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be. There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder if they keep up this annual tradition of the cemetery-visit.
The world as it is…remembers the world that was.
The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration where we pray no one is missing.
All in good time. All in good time.
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In the cemetery a mile away from where we used to live, my aunts and mother my father and uncles lie in two long rows, almost the way they used to sit around the long planked table at family dinners. And walking beside the graves today, down one straight path and up the next, I don’t feel sad, exactly, just left out a bit, as if they kept from me the kind of grown-up secret they used to share back then, something I’m not quite ready yet to learn. ~Linda Pastan “Unveiling” from Carnival Evening
Some family gatherings can wait. I don’t feel ready yet to learn what they all now know posthumously, in their tidy rows in peaceful settings. I feel some curiosity as I wander among them, realizing my invitation is coming, most likely before I wish to receive it.
I nod to one and then another, greeting them as I used to when we gathered around the same dinner table. To those I never met but share DNA, I introduce myself, hoping to make a good impression.
They still have their secrets, as they always had. And I try not to ask too many questions. No, not yet.
“Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Psalm 55:6
Some glad morning when this life is over I’ll fly away To a home on God’s celestial shore I’ll fly awayI’ll fly away, oh, Glory I’ll fly away When I die, Hallelujah, by and by I’ll fly awayJust a few more weary days and then I’ll fly away To a land where joy shall never end I’ll fly awayI’ll fly away, oh, Glory I’ll fly away When I die, Hallelujah, by and by I’ll fly awayYeah, when I die, Hallelujah, by and by I’ll fly away
In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls. This is the great reward of service. To live, far out and on, in the life of others; this is the mystery of the Christ, –to give life’s best for such high sake that it shall be found again unto life eternal. ~Major-General Joshua Chamberlain, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1889
A box of over 700 letters, exchanged between my parents from late 1941 to mid-1945, sat unopened for decades until last year. I started reading.
My parents barely knew each other before marrying quickly on Christmas Eve 1942 – the haste due to the uncertain future for a newly trained Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. They only had a few weeks together before she returned home to her rural teaching position and he readied himself to be shipped out for the island battles to come.
They had no idea they would not see each other for another 30+ months or even see each other again at all. They had no idea their marriage would fall apart 35 years later and they would reunite a decade after the divorce for five more years together.
The letters do contain the long-gone but still-familiar voices of my parents, but they are the words and worries of youngsters of 20 and 21, barely prepared for the horrors to come from war and interminable waiting. When he was fighting battles on Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian, no letters or news would be received for a month or more, otherwise they tried to write each other daily, though with minimal news to share due to military censorship. They speak mostly of their desire for a normal life together rather than a routine centered on mailbox, pen and paper and waiting, lots and lots of waiting.
I’m not sure what I hoped to find in these letters. Perhaps I hoped for flowery romantic whisperings and the poetry of longing and loneliness. Instead I am reading plain spoken words from two people who somehow made it through those awful years to make my sister and brother and myself possible.
Our inheritance is contained in this musty box of words bereft of poetry. But decades later my heart is moved by these letters – I carefully refold them back into their envelopes and replace them gently back in order. A six cent airmail stamp – in fact hundreds and hundreds of them – was a worthwhile investment in the future, not only for themselves and their family to come, but for generations of U.S. citizens who tend to take their freedom for granted.
Thank you, Dad and Mom, for what you gave up to make today possible.
I hear the mountain birds The sound of rivers singing A song I’ve often heard It flows through me now So clear and so loud I stand where I am And forever I’m dreaming of home I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home
It’s carried in the air The breeze of early morning I see the land so fair My heart opens wide There’s sadness inside I stand where I am And forever I’m dreaming of home I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home
This is no foreign sky I see no foreign light But far away am I From some peaceful land I’m longing to stand A hand in my hand …forever I’m dreaming of home I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home ~Lori Barth and Philippe Rombi “I’m Dreaming of Home”
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart as the sun rises, as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open — pools of lace, white and pink —
and all day under the shifty wind, as in a dance to the great wedding,
the flowers bend their bright bodies, and tip their fragrance to the air, and rise, their red stems holding
all that dampness and recklessness gladly and lightly, and there it is again — beauty the brave, the exemplary,
blazing open. Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, and softly, and exclaiming of their dearness, fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,
with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are nothing, forever? ~Mary Oliver fromNew And Selected Poems
It is not about love or sacrifice, nothing vestal or sacred. The light comes from an open window, and perhaps a breeze too that has caused the white peony to drop three delicately curved petals on the red jacquard. They cast purple shadows. The eye must seek them out, must avert itself from the ceaseless action in the midst of other objects: a runcible spoon, a quill, a tankard, two ripe quince. Athena Kildegaard, “Still Life with Beating Heart” from Ventriloquy
White peonies blooming along the porch send out light while the rest of the yard grows dim. Outrageous flowers as big as human heads! They’re staggered by their own luxuriance: I had to prop them up with stakes and twine. The moist air intensifies their scent, and the moon moves around the barn to find out what it’s coming from. In the darkening June evening I draw a blossom near, and bending close search it as a woman searches a loved one’s face. ~Jane Kenyon “Peonies at Dusk”
At the end of May, I bring our peonies to the graves of those from whom I came, to lay one after another exuberant head upon each headstone, a moment of connection between those in the ground and me standing above, acknowledging its thin space before one more humble and silky life shatters and becomes nothing, its petals perfectly scattered, lush and trembling, to the wind.
On the green hill with the river beyond it long ago and my father there and my grandmother standing in her faded clothes wrinkled high-laced black shoes in the spring grass among the few gravestones inside their low fence by the small white wooden church the clear panes of its windows letting the scene through from the windows on the other side of the empty room and a view of the trees over there my grandmother hardly turned her head staring like a cloud at the empty air not looking at the green glass gravestone with the name on it of the man to whom she had been married and who had been my father’s father she went on saying nothing her eyes wandering above the trees that hid the river from where we were a place where she had stood with him one time when they were young and the bell kept ringing ~W.S. Merwin “Windnoon” from The Moon Before Morning
Visiting the graves of those who lived and loved for decades,
now mere dust lying side by side,
their spirits risen and flown~
we realize we were young once and now
feel the weight of change and passage of the years
despite our effort to grab and hold them still.
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay “Dirge Without Music”
Each Memorial Day weekend without fail,
we gather with family, have lunch, reminisce,
and trek to a cemetery high above Puget Sound
to catch up with our relatives who lie there still.Some for over 100 years, some for less than a decade,
some we knew and loved and miss every day,
others not so much, unknown to us
except on genealogy charts,
their names and dates and these stones
all that is left of them:the red-haired great-grandmother who died too young,
the aunt who was eight when lymphoma took,
the Yukon river boat captain,
the logger and stump farmer,
the unmarried school teacher who hid away an oil well,
the two in-laws who lie next to each other
but could not co-exist in the same room while they lived and breathed.
Yet we know each of these
(as we know ourselves and others)
was tender and kind, though flawed and broken,
was beautiful and strong, though wrinkled and frail,
was hopeful and faithful, though too soon in the ground.
We know this about them
as we know it about ourselves:
someday we too will feed roses,
the light in our eyes transformed into elegant swirls
emitting the fragrant scent of heaven.
No one asks if we approve.
Nor am I resigned to this but only know:
So it is, so it has been, so it will be.
They sing their dearest songs — He, she, all of them — yea, Treble and tenor and bass, And one to play; With the candles mooning each face…. Ah, no; the years O! How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
They clear the creeping moss — Elders and juniors — aye, Making the pathways neat And the garden gay; And they build a shady seat…. Ah, no; the years, the years; See, the white storm-birds wing across!
They are blithely breakfasting all — Men and maidens — yea, Under the summer tree, With a glimpse of the bay, While pet fowl come to the knee…. Ah, no; the years O! And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.
They change to a high new house, He, she, all of them — aye, Clocks and carpets and chairs On the lawn all day, And brightest things that are theirs…. Ah, no; the years, the years; Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs. ~Thomas Hardy “During Wind and Rain”
A waning November moon reluctantly rose, dimming from the full globe of the night before. I drive a darkening country road, white lines sweeping past, aware of advancing frost in the evening haze, anxious to return home to familiar warmth and light.
Nearing a county road corner, slowing to a stop, I glanced aside where
a lonely rural cemetery sits expectant. Through open iron gates and tenebrous headstones, there in the middle path, incongruous,
car’s headlights beamed bright. I puzzled, thinking:
lovers or vandals would seek inky cover of night. Instead, these lights focused on one soul alone, kneeling graveside,
a hand resting heavily on a stone, head bowed in prayer. This stark moment of solitary sorrow,
a visible grieving of a heart illuminated by twin beams.
This benediction of mourning
as light pierced the blackness; gentle fingertips traced
the engraved letters of a beloved name. Feeling touched
as uneasy witness, I pull away to drive deeper into the night,
struggling to see despite
my eyes’ thickening mist.
~Emily Gibson – “Grief Illuminated”