Today, during a trip to the Wood River country where my family resided from the 1890’s through the 1950’s, with three of my cousins on the Schaufelberger side of my family, we stopped in front of the WW II Memorial that sits in front of the old City Hall in Bellevue, Idaho. There, cut in granite are the names of our three parents (or aunts and uncles depending on the relationship from which we viewed their names). Each had served in different theaters of the war—one in Africa, one in Europe and on in Southeast Asia. Each were members of the Greatest Generation. We then visited the Bellevue cemetery and decorated the graves of our grandparents and great grandparents, each who lived through the days of the Great War after immigrating to the United States at the end of the 19th Century.
This coming Monday we will celebrate Memorial Day. It is a day during which we honor, primarily, the memory of those who gave their lives in ultimate sacrifice, protecting the many freedoms that we, the following generations, now enjoy. As well, Memorial Day allows us to remember all those whom we have loved and have given over to death. If we allow ourselves to do so, we will give ourselves the opportunity and the freedom to let the joys—and yes, the sorrows—of our past wash over us and fill us full of who we are, where we have come from, and what events and people have influenced our lives, for better or for worse.
That certainly was the case with the four of us, as the older of us cousins, a man who is now in his 80’s regaled us with stories of our grandparents, their parents, and their siblings and second cousins once removed, etc. in the days before the rest of us were born. We visited their homes in the village (long turned over to owners we did not know). As we stood in front of each home we remembered who lived there and how, as children, we walked to this particular great aunt’s house because she would always have a fresh loaf of bread with freshly churned butter, or to another’s because she always seemed to offer heavenly cinnamon rolls—and we marveled that these treats seemed to always be at the ready! We remembered being taken up to the family mining claims or being given rides on ol’ Nellie, Uncle Fred’s horse. Such sweet memories. And we remembered the trips to the cemetery when those members of our family were laid in their final resting places.
To “re-member” is to connect ourselves again with the past. It seems so simple yet without our memories, who and what would we be? Even our worst memories are a part of what makes us “who” we are. In fact, we are learning that buried memories are often at the root of much of psychic, spiritual and even physical pain. If we want to move forward in positive ways in our lives, remembering, or reconnecting with our memories is often an essential step to healing.
The power of memory struck me convincingly many years ago when I read an interesting little book entitled Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God, written by Joe Coomer. The story is about three women: an overweight seventeen-year-old with an abusive boyfriend; a recently widowed archeologist in her late twenties; and an older widow who owns the docked boat on which they all live. All, in fact, are searching for many things in their lives, and God is certainly on their lists. As the story unfolds the older woman suffers a stroke which temporarily leaves her without a memory, along with some other physical changes. Over time, she recovers and her memory returns. Then a few weeks later she suffers another, milder stroke, but her memory fails to return. She quickly recovers again but now realizes at a very deep level how vulnerable she is. One day, when both other women are off the boat, she takes the boat out into the harbor, anchors it, and disappears. She leaves behind a cryptic note which reads, “I can’t bear to live without my memories.”
Since reading Beachcoming I have been haunted by the power of memory, of our memories, and who they are to make us who and what we are. That includes my own memory—the good, the bad and the ugly. In a few days I will celebrate 50th anniversary the drowning death of a beloved friend just days before we were to graduate from college with our bachelor’s degrees. The interesting thing about this tragic event in my life is that the memory always surfaces for me in my dreams on and just before the anniversary of the event—even when there is nothing to particularly arouse the memory within me. It did just a few nights ago as I dreamed of viewing his grave marker. I was amazed that once again, my memory revived this event, amongst all the others stored away in my brain.
Given the choice to wipe the slate clean, or to keep all of what I have accumulated over the past half century-plus, I would choose the latter. Events such as Gene’s death catapulted me into a fully different understanding of my call to ministry and challenged me to understand the presence of God in my life in wholly (holy) different ways. I really don’t have a choice to wipe that memory away. And even though the pain is still there, and although it is diminished by the years, I am always lightened by the memories of our four years of college, of the sophomoric pranks we played and the profound conversations deep into the night that shaped my understanding of the world in the early 70’s. Once again, I end up savoring the delicious memories of that relationship—and once again they aid me while squarely facing one of my deepest sorrows.
Facing the wonderful elements of our life that are deeply ensconced in our memories is easy—facing the painful memories isn’t always so easy—but they create a rich tapestry of each of our lives. I hope that during the coming Memorial Day you might be able to share some of your memories with another person regardless of whether there are shared memories–such as was the case with my cousins today. On this Memorial Day, I encourage you to take a few moments to do some “re-membering.” It may bless your day richly. Blessings as you do so.
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I so enjoyed and appreciated your reflective words, Kent. I plan to follow your advice for Memorial Day, taking younger family to the cemetery to share stories with them. Thank you.