“It was a confession, a release of some life-long burden, words left there for all to see, cast into the wind, set free; I wondered as I read it if the son’s soul felt lighter as he walked away.”
The dried leaves cracked like rim ice under our boots. The scritch and scratch of metal rakes cracked open the early morning.
This was the last of the old cemeteries on our list, the last to be cleaned up.
That was probably because it was so remote, off a small dirt road, off another small, back road, surrounded by a collapsing field stone wall, and shielded by a stand of half-dead trees.
We never use the word “forgotten.”
They are drawn on an old map, if you go back far enough. A thin cross inside a box, unnamed; sometime later skipped over, deleted, the box and cross replaced by hand-drawn trees.
Maybe the original road was moved.
Or maybe, like this resting place, about two-hundred feet square, it was full. Records said the last burial took place there in 1973.
But still they came, the families, loved ones.
Green plastic pots, wrapped in red, white and blue ribbons held dead flowers from a Memorial Day or Veterans Day past; in places a single small red rose, left perhaps on an important day, an anniversary, a birthday, still held its color among the brown, dead blooms, and blackened stems.
Rakers stopped to remark on the dates and names on some of the oldest markers. 1796. 1865-1867. The children taken young by disease. Young women gone after childbirth. Boys gone to war. Then, Jonathan Weaver, 1823 to 1919. Father, husband, soldier. When did your family stop coming, Jonathan Weaver? Are there none left?
The flag got my attention, resting on a marker that only had one name: Eagleton.
It had been carefully placed inside a familiar, memorial triangular box, the sign that it had once been draped over the coffin of a military member, then folded, pulled tight at every fold with respect by the honor guard and handed graveside to a grieving family member.
The box was new, not weathered, a recent addition.
Inside a sealed, clear plastic envelope was a handwritten, single-page letter.
I only moved it because it had slipped out from behind the flag box.
I only began to read the letter because envelope had been mud-stained, apparently during some rain storm.
I brushed away the caked mud with my gloved thumb.
“Dear Dad, I’m giving this back to you,” the letter began. “I don’t know that else to do with it.”
I wanted to stop reading, feeling like an intruder, but it seemed more than just a letter written by a son to his military father. It was a confession, a release of some life-long burden, words left there for all to see, cast into the wind, set free; I wondered as I read it if the son’s soul felt lighter as he walked away.
“I’ve seen the photographs of your service, felt the pride they declare. I’ve seen the smiling, young cadet, hair-windblown riding a ship in the open ocean, seen the warm homecoming. I’ve attended the parades, heard the bands and the speeches and the cheering, felt the smiling patriotism.
But in all that, I never saw you.
It was someone else’s life.
I have learned over time that war survivors are reluctant to talk about the hardship, battles and death.
But you locked it away more deeply than most, I suspect; you wouldn’t even explain the details of random photos when asked, as if we, your children, did not deserve an answer.
As I grew older and did some research, I found that except for a few months at sea, your military career was as much a grand adventure as it was a time of treachery.
Certainly there were times of fun and humor and camaraderie that would have been joyful to recall as you spun them into tall tales.
But you kept them to yourself.
What I learned from your life was isolation, distance and a sense of sadness.
Why did you not trust us? Why did you push us away?
I can tell others of your adventures as seen in the photographs, hear the exclaimed surprise of the listeners as the stories unfold, and respond, yes, to the questions of my pride in your accomplishments.
But they are as distant to my life as a foreign star. I want to claim your life and story as my own, wave it like a rich banner in the centuries-old trek of our family, but I need to stop.
There are times when I feel you in myself, beyond a look on my face, or in a hand gesture. It is the great sense of loneliness of your life. It rises when I fail to act, fail to express love and satisfaction or fall to a brooding darkness. It was in your eyes behind the smiles of all those photos.
That is what you left me; I will not carry any further the burden of your silence.
So, I leave this flag here. It is as tightly wrapped as your soul.
It’s the best I can do for you.
Love, your son.”
I brushed away a few stray leaves and replaced the envelope under the triangular box, the silence of this place descending.