They handed me a small, red, paper poppy--three elderly gentlemen from the American Legion seated at a card table in the produce department at Kroger last night. One of them smiled at Emma and Owen, and said he had a granddaughter from China. I thanked him and walked on. I remembered the flood of emotions from singing “God Bless America” earlier in church, and how we had thanked the servicemen and women in our midst, and how I’d just been thinking of those red poppies that had been handed to me as a child when we’d walked the 2 blocks up to the Memorial Day parade in Alton, Illinois. It’s one of the oldest in the country, dating back to the beginning of the holiday back in 1868, but I didn’t know that then. I just knew that every year, it was something we wouldn’t miss. School was almost out, the rumble of the drums from the marching bands, cheers from the crowds, zooming of the little motorcycles the Shriners drove dangerously close to the crowds, the clop-clop of the horses’ hooves, and the revving of the engines of the all those cars from the Alton Antique Auto Club were so close to my house that there was no way they could pass by unnoticed. I remember standing there with my brother and my Aunt Alice one year as the veterans walked by. This was one of the less exciting parts for me as a child, of course—why so serious on such a fun day? And I remember Alice soberly commenting, “We can never do enough for them.” I will never forget those words, and I heard them coming from my own mouth as we walked through the produce section in Kroger last night and I tried to explain what Memorial Day is about to Emma and Owen.
The great thrill came for me as a child when I actually got to participate in that ancient parade. I remember decorating my bike in red, white, and blue, and riding in it one time. Then I had an official reason to march—I was a Brownie. I remember being advised by Alice not to wear a certain pair of brown and white oxfords with a chunky heel because they would be most uncomfortable, but did I listen? And then standing in Oakwood Cemetery, the end of the parade route, blessedly no longer marching, blisters blazing and knowing she was so right as I listened to Taps and the 21-gun salute. There were the years of marching with Mr. Wilcox and the East Jr. High School Band, and then the Alton High School Marching 100. Standing in the scorching heat some years in the parking lot at Alton High as we waited to get started, thanking the Lord I took up flute and not some heavier instrument. I remember playing “Yankee Doodle” over and over on the piccolo with my friends, and stuffing it up my sleeve to protect it when it began to drizzle.
I remember bringing Sophie to the parade in Alton several times, starting around the age of two—as soon as she was old enough to last through it. My dad would usually drive one of his old cars in the parade, and I wanted her to experience the same feelings I had when I was a child. I recall one time walking up Edwards Street and a car screeching to a halt, and my best childhood friend, Kitty, hopping out in tears to give me a hug. We had been in that parade together many times—as Brownies, fellow band members (I only played flute because she did!), and one time when she was the drum major. I found myself thinking about the parade this morning and wished I was there with my kids. Sophie would love to see the bands, being the trumpet player she is now, Emma would love all of it, and Owen would get a thrill out of all of the cars! Maybe next year.
When we came through customs both times bringing our youngest two Chinese-born children home, brand-spanking new American citizens upon the plane’s touchdown on U.S. soil, I felt sad that they didn’t get better welcomes. In Minneapolis when we brought home Emma, the best I can hope is that the grumpy document review guy was having a bad day, and in Chicago last summer, we met the most unhelpful people in our whole 27-hour trip home. Welcome to America, Owen. But kids, even with the struggles America faces today, you are still coming to the greatest country on earth, and this day is about remembering those who gave all to make, and keep it that way. Alice was so right…”We can never do enough for them.”