Here is a column I wrote several years ago, for my humor/lifestyle column, Sanity Check, which ran for ten years in the Dayton Daily News. (Now I write “Literary Life,” a column about authors and literary events in the greater Dayton area.) I think of this particular “Sanity Check” every Memorial Day–and of my Great Aunt Cassie, who passed on within a year after the column’s publication in the Dayton Daily News.
Officially, Memorial Day is set aside for remembering those who have died in our nation’s service.
Unofficially, Memorial Day is also when we celebrate the sweet start of summer. Pools open. Picnics abound.
As a kid, Memorial Day meant a trip to visit family graves because, like most families, we stretched the official purpose of Memorial Day to include remembering all loved ones who had died.
But the holiday also meant that the glorious barefoot, popsicle, bike-riding days of summer were just a calendar-page flip away. Staying somber on graveyard visits was a challenge—especially when I was itching to kick off my shoes and run around.
So, I’ve never been comfortable with this holiday’s mix of solemnity and glee… until this Memorial Day. Although she doesn’t realize it, I have my Great Aunt Cassie to thank for my ability to finally manage this holiday’s emotional balancing act.
At 93-years-old, Great Aunt Cassie lives by herself—her husband passed away several years ago—in the same small Kentucky town in which she grew up. She doesn’t come close to breaking the 5-foot mark, but when her neighbors fuss at her for still tending a large vegetable garden, she stands tall and reminds them she’s been gardening for 8-plus decades, and isn’t about to stop. Since Great Aunt Cassie doesn’t drive a car—in fact, she never has—she walks to church and the corner store.
I, on the other hand, am lucky if I can coax a petunia to survive in a window box until July 4th. And I spend so much time driving around that our car payment would be more appropriately called “rent.”
But on my last visit to her house, I discovered my Great Aunt Cassie and I have more in common than I realized. As we watched my kids play with a toy that once belonged to Great Aunt Cassie’s daughter—who now has two grown children of her own—we talked about the joys of children. And then to my surprise, my always upbeat Great Aunt Cassie started crying. She had, she said, lost a child once.
First, I was amazed that she could still feel 60-year-old grief so freshly. Then—before I could push it away—my own grief welled, as I realized that I was about the same age she’d been when I, too, had lost a child.
I’d grieved at the time—then sealed away the ache in a memory vault. In this age of “been there, done that,” we tell ourselves not to dwell too long on anything, including grieving. Somehow—even if no one else directly tells us—we tell ourselves that we must quickly move on past losses.
Now, I don’t have anything approximating the wisdom of my Great Aunt Cassie. But I do have enough sense to recognize that you don’t get to be a happy, independent, beloved 93-year-old without figuring something out about dealing with life… and its losses.
So, finally, I took the only sensible course of action. I joined my Great Aunt Cassie in a good old-fashioned cry.
Then we took a good look at our kids—mine still playing on the family room floor. Hers cooking up lunch in the kitchen. And we went right back to rejoicing in the blessings we each have.
This Memorial Day, I’m going to remember my Great Aunt Cassie’s wisdom. Let tears fall, if they must. Let laughter billow, when it can.