Sunday. The water was 52° F. today; the air was 68°. Grace, Elena, and Sarah went into the water the moment we got to Cold Storage Beach; my father stood there, knee-deep, for a few minutes and then dove in. Later, I went in all the way, as promised. I lasted about 10 seconds. Lydia and Karalyn had a swim after they came back from the jetty.
Last year’s Memorial Day weekend was also sunny and warm, “75-80 degrees,” according to my mother’s 2007 datebook. The 2006 holiday weekend was glorious, too, and we went swimming to get a jump on summer. Three times: I’d call that a tradition.
This morning before the beach, and then later at dinner, I surveyed my siblings, their spouses and friends, and my parents, “What do you remember about Memorial Day from when you were a child?” Flags. A commemoration at school. Cemetery visits. Going to the parade. Being a Girl Scout and walking in the parade. An annual get-together with family friends.
Those memories of Memorial Day are like mine. I also remember the first few lines of one of the few poems I ever had to memorize in school, and I recall reciting it, with my classmates, in the paved playground of Leicester Center School, when I was in 4th or 5th grade, during a ceremony in which the flag was unfolded from its formal triangle, then raised to the top of the flag pole, then lowered half-way.
In Flanders Fields (1915)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.— John McCrae
I do not remember learning about World War I in school around this time, but we did learn about poppy fields, and veterans’ cemeteries, and flags. We must have recited the poem in sing-songy, childish voices, caught up in the rhythm. I doubt we stopped in the middle of the first line of the second stanza, as a reader should. I read that line now, as an adult, for the first time in more than 30 years, and I wonder, how can you not stop after such a line, “We are the Dead.” That stanza is something, isn’t it?, with all the thudding “d” sounds, starting with that doubled one: dead.
It seemed beautiful to me then, as a child, that image of an endless field of orange poppy heads waving in the sun, a makeshift burial ground transformed. Somber and bright at once. I don’t think I thought of sleepless soldiers under the poppies, or who the speaker of the poem might be or, rather, had been.