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Memorial Day: When the Past is Our Greatest Present

May 26, 2018

Yesterday my friend Mark went to visit to visit my grandparents’ grave to put flowers there for Memorial Day. He sent me photos and got me thinking about my grandfather and how my relationship to Memorial Day continues to evolve. There was always a reverence I had for it, I suppose, but disconnected and fleeting. It mostly meant a long weekend, welcoming warmer weather, the end of a school year, a break from work, or maybe an opportunity to take a quick trip.

Even after my grandfather died 21 years ago, a decorated WWII hero whom I grew up with and loved, Memorial Day still had continued to come and go in my life without much notice. These past five years working on projects about veterans and military families, about moral injury and community’s role in healing… this has certainly changed all that for me – but I have to wonder why it took all this to shift my perspective.

I miss my grandfather at the most unexpected times; memories of him and my grandmother visiting for Sunday dinner; he was always armed with chocolate bars and new joke for my sister and me. I never knew him as “the colonel”, the terrifying alter ego I had heard so much about.

My father did occasionally share the stories about how my grandfather was the lead bombardier in pivotal missions over Austria. How he was shot, but a compass in his pocket deflected the bullet and saved his life. I knew he received a medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, a high honor that had rarely, if ever, been given to such a young Air Force officer before. But these were stories of a fictional hero, it never occurred to me to ask my grandfather directly. A regret I’ll always carry.

I remember so clearly the last time I saw him. I was at my aunt’s house in Worcester, MA, home from college for Thanksgiving. Next to the kitchen was her hair salon where I had gotten my haircut my entire childhood. I entered to get my jacket so I could go off with my friends, and he was sitting in there alone. I knew somehow that he was waiting for me. He asked how school was, and then went on to inquire more and more, really listening and wanting to understand. I wasn’t a “typical” boy boy like my older cousin who he was so close to. I preferred painting to playing sports, and was now off studying art. This was the first time we talked in depth about all of that. He was giving me permission to be myself, to open up.

We hugged when I said goodbye and something had shifted. I was closer to him in that moment than I had ever been. On some level I believe he knew it would be our last time together. That he was saying I love you, I’m proud of you, and saying goodbye.
I always knew how much he loved me, he couldn’t hide it so I never questioned it. But that wasn’t necessarily the case for his children growing up. My dad and uncles would share stories sometimes about how he could be so strict, drinking too much, quick to anger and an authoritarian. The stories were always shared through smiles in sarcastic tones, but we all knew that was just to keep the more unpleasant truth at a safe distance. Looming over it all, for me, was his military service. Maybe that’s why I never asked him about it.

I remember on a recent visit to my uncle Steve, a Navy veteran himself, he told me all the WWII stories again. He shared articles about my grandfather I had never seen, celebrating him. But we also took time to pause and reflect on how young he was during the war, about the battles he fought, the responsibility he carried, and how much death he had seen… he had caused.
My grandfather was a decorated colonel and undeniably a hero. He saved countless lives, and took many lives too. He loved and cared for his family, and at times scared them. He had adventures I’ll never hear about, and experienced horrors I couldn’t possibly understand. He had to make life and death decisions as a 21 year-old boy that I’m sure haunted him his entire life.

This Memorial Day I’m reminded that the ripple effects of those who have served reach all of us. And with reflecting on the past, there is so much richness we can experience in the present; so many lessons we can apply to better care for the living – our service men and women, our returning vets, their families, and all the loved ones of those who have died.

Michael Collins

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