May 23, 2008
To muse and brood and live again in memory,
With those old faces of our infancy
Heap’d over with a mound of grass,
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!
—Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Lotos-Eaters
I’ve been reading over a folder of personal letters I saved from a former job. One of them, dated nine years ago yesterday, came from a former boss who had learned that my mother had recently died. Among the words of comfort he offered were these: “Time does heal a lot of the pain and sorrow. Memorial Day takes on a greater significance.” He was right, of course. I never thought much about Memorial Day when I was younger.
In junior high and high school, in fact, I actively disliked Memorial Day. I was a band member, and there was a long parade to march in every year. The uniforms were hot and ill-fitting—not to mention ridiculous, if the evidence of surviving photographs is to be given credence.
Think of an organ grinder. Now imagine what the monkey is wearing, and (except for the fez) you have an accurate mental picture of my junior high band uniform.
The march ended in the city park where we stood at parade rest to listen to the windy, politically cautious piety of local dignitaries. The ceremony culminated in an uncertain recitation of the Gettysburg Address, usually delivered by a student. My feelings then were appropriate to the energetic impatience of youth, but the time for that passes.
Several years ago, I read an interview with Jonathan Winters. Then in his late 70’s, Winters retained his blazing wit, yet the interview overall saddened me. As a boy and young man, Winters endured great coldness and cruelty from his parents. He had kept those injuries green, although he owed it to himself to allow the wounds to heal. After all, what is the point of long life if at its heart it is merely the sum of our wounds?
Winters’ emotional pain made me think of the old hymn I sing with the choir every year on Maundy Thursday:
Forgive our sins as we forgive,
You taught us, Lord, to pray;
But you alone can grant us grace
To live the words we say.
How can your pardon reach and bless
The unforgiving heart
That broods on wrongs and will not let
Old bitterness depart?
Like everyone else, I had my own injuries and wrongs and outrage when I was young, but they have mostly passed. Now, with a simple heart, I miss those old faces.