FlagIn celebration of the real meaning of Memorial Day in the U.S., an 1876 flag with 38 stars that we hang on our porch for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July and other days when the happy spirit of patriotism strikes.

It is easy in our hip, intellectual, urbane world–the one in which we read Proust and bake spelt madeleines and drink raw almond milk and eat Dagoba Xocolatl bars and listen to poets on the radio–to be embarrassed by expressions of national loyalty and pride, to be conflicted by the connection some make between patriotism and fighting, to understand how to oppose a war and still support those fighting it and on this day, to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives.

So many of us have never fought for the freedoms we enjoy; in fact, we don’t even recognize that they are freedoms, but feel they are just how life is, should be. We won’t fully understand that they are not ours just for the breathing, not until they are gone, will we?

Never one to condone war with my Quakerly leanings, particularly wars that are unjust and unfounded, and cognizant of the fact that I avoid real images of war, those beyond the parade, opting for the sanitized ones instead, I can nevertheless put a heartfelt word of thanks out into the world to those men and women who protected me, who did what their country asked of them, for people they will never meet. Who lost their lives for me, for us.

Bronze_star_1It is Memorial Day in the U.S., a day to remember those men and women who have laid down their lives in the service of our country.

Yet, in the grandest of American traditions, as a nation we mark the day primarily by shopping. Memorial Day sales are legendary; perhaps it’s a day better spent hearing the stories of our relatives who have been to war, as a tribute to those who didn’t make it home. Just maybe.

Last week, I flew home from New York. On the last leg of my trip, I was deep into self-whining: I’ve been on the road for weeks, my neck hurts, the flight is late again, would it kill Delta to give me more than peanuts for dinner? It was the Self-Pity Olympics and I was a Gold Medalist.

As I settled in for the last one-hour flight, I was just plain irritated. The air conditioning wasn’t working on the plane, people were breathing on me, the cell phone chatter was too loud and personal and intrusive. Poor pitiful me, I thought to myself. Pity, whine, pity, whine, pity, whine more.

And as I sat there in my wholly grumpy self, feeling like the business world’s sacrificial lamb, my seatmate arrived. Reaching into my carry-on bag for an Altoid, I saw a large shoe stop in the aisle, a beige sand-colored boot with sand-colored camouflage pants legs stuffed into it. My seatmate was a young soldier on the last leg of his trip home, not from 2 nights in a nice hotel in Rochester, but from 18 months in Iraq. He was returning home to see his baby daughter for the first time; I was more than humbled, I was ashamed. Other passengers kept stopping by our row of seats to thank him for his sacrifice.

No matter what I believe about this war, or wars past, as I thought about his sacrifice for my life–for yours–I stopped whining. It gave me pause. I haven’t sacrificed like that, ever. As I talked with him, I remembered another flight home.

As I had walked out of the gate that time, a woman and three small children raced past me, jumping onto a serviceman who had been walking behind me, flinging themselves on him like they would never let him go, the children burying themselves in him, sobbing. It was a reunion that took into account the very possibility of it never happening. Those reunions that never happened are the focus of this day, Memorial Day.

Star_for_serviceMy husband John’s great-grandmother’s sacrifice was legendary in Housatonic, Massachusetts. The War Department provided a star for each son in service; in her window hung five stars–her five sons all served at the same time in World War II. People came from around the Berkshires to see the stars in her window, to say a quiet thank you, a silent nod at how hard it was for her to say goodbye to those boys.

John always used to call my stepfather on Memorial Day just to say a quiet thanks and to help Boyce remember his friends who died. Boyce never talked about his service as one of Patton’s Ghosts, but he won five bronze stars for what he had to do, what he did, what he saw and always remembered. We never even knew he had five bronze stars until we found his service record when he died. He never said, he just did.

All of us have lost something when wars are fought; some have lost everything. Today is a day more suited for humble remembering and honest thankfulness and a rethinking of our own whining and our misplaced self-pity than it is for bargains. Just remember those who didn’t come home today. You can shop tomorrow.