Memorial Day Memories In 2011

For much of my life remembering the war dead on Memorial Day has been about those lost during WWII or the Vietnam War. It was easier when I was younger to balance a plate of barbecue while watching a parade of war veteran’s marching to honor fallen comrades. It was more distant then, less personal.

There were stories of course like those I heard about my great-uncle Hugh Lee, who died in France during WWII, but nothing close enough to affect me personally. Having died years before I was born, it was my father and my great-grandmother who talked about him the most and made him more to me than just a name on a gravestone in the family plot.

Gratefully, he was the last in our immediate family to die in service and while my father and I both spent time in the Army, neither of us were faced with military conflict.

At fifty, I struggle to read the news reports of war related deaths especially when I see that some of the people dying are my daughter’s age or younger. I can’t imagine their parent’s grief. I don’t want to know how that feels.

What I do know is how important the stories we share are no matter if they happen at the cemetery or over a plate of barbecue. I won’t be doing either today, no visits to war memorials and no family gatherings with food or conversation, but I will remember and not just my family.

I’ll spend some time today with the stories I usually can’t bear to read because this is a day for remembering and for acknowledging the loss that some people can never forget.

Here’s one of my stories from last year. If you have a link to one you’d like to share, feel free to leave it in a comment below.

 

Memorial Day – Because Sometimes We Forget

Captain Eleanor Grace Alexander died on November 30 1967 in a plane crash in Binh Dinh, South Vietnam. I did not know anything about her until I made a point to find out who she was and how she died after seeing her name at the Vietnam War Memorial Wall. Eleanor Grace Alexander was one of eight active duty women who died during that war. She was 27 and unmarried.

Born the same year as my mother she would have been 70 on September 18 had she survived. Having read first hand accounts from people who knew her and several who served with her including Rhona Marie Knox Prescott who wrote this moving letter which is part of the Veteran’s History Project in the Library of Congress, I am grateful there was a record so that some of my questions could be answered.

As an American child of the sixties, it was the Vietnam War that was the backdrop of my daily life with body counts and war updates delivered each night by men like Walter Cronkite of CBS news. Sadly we are still at war, still fighting, and still burying the dead. Although we do battle in different countries now, the result is the still the same for many and unless your life has been touched directly by loss it can be easy to forget why we recognize Memorial Day, why it’s more than a precursor to summer fun and pool side parties. I’m guilty of forgetting in the past, of treating the three-day weekend that leads into Memorial Day as a much needed respite from a too full life. What I hope to never forget is that I’ve had a chance to live the life I have thanks in part to men and women who died in wars long before I was born.

I plan to take a few minutes today to think about Eleanor Grace Alexander and my great uncle, Hugh Lee Stephens who died in WWII.

Is there someone today that you need to remember … I only ask because I know from experience that sometimes without meaning to, we forget.

June 6, 1944 – Surviving To Die Another Day

 

HUGH LEE STEPHENS

HUGH LEE STEPHENS

While June 6, 1944 is a day that many will gather to remember the 65th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion and the wartime sacrifice of human life, in my family there is another date that we remember someone lost to us on French soil in 1944. Like many other families it’s more personal than just another breaking news story where they bring out the oldest surviving vets and listen as they recount the horrors of that horrible time.

Stories are powerful, they shape opinion and leave a lasting impression on how we view the world around us. I grew up hearing stories about my great-uncle, Hugh Lee Stephens. He was one of only two children born to my father’s maternal grandparents in a time when families were usually larger, when more children in families like ours meant more hands to work the farm and fields. On the day my family learned of Uncle Hugh’s death, his mother, my great-grandmother, had what I believe was first of several heart attacks she would have throughout her life. She was 53. She forever mourned her dead son acting in some ways as if her life ended with his. By the time I was born she almost seemed like a frail reflection of the sturdy woman I saw in family photographs before 1944.

My father was only a few days away from his 10th birthday when he heard the news and spoke often of how he’d looked up to his uncle who at 18 years his senior, was in many ways like a second father to him. My grandmother Clara Mae, his only sibling, told the kind of stories one might expect from a someone still clinging to the unfinished business of sibling rivalry … choosing to hold onto old hurts instead of feeling the pain and finality that comes with death. Each one had a different story … each one the truth for them. As for his father, my great-grandfather, I cannot ever remember him sharing any stories of his lost son … almost as if it was too much to remember what must have been to painful for him to recall.

Hugh Lee, as he was called by his mother and father also left behind a wife who loved him. When he died at 27, he was just a simple Georgia boy in a foreign country. He found himself in a country he never imagined he’d be growing up as he did on a rural farm in the south. A place across the ocean where he’d struggle to find his footing and fall dying as he did beside his fellow soldiers, the sons and fathers and husbands we still remember 65 years later.

Because I had served as a soldier in the U.S. Army, when it came time to pass Uncle Hugh’s flag to the next generation for safe keeping my father offered it to me, the eldest of his three daughters. I took this photograph in Georgia just before I passed it on to my daughter Miranda who while only 21, was appreciative and eager to accept it into her care. While packing up the small amount of things that I value most to send over to England, I made the decision to leave behind the flag that draped the casket at his military funeral not because I did not value its meaning or because there was no room, but because I believed my great-uncle Hugh’s American flag should stay in the country he called home.

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The reflection of the empty chairs in this photograph of his flag reminds me of the family and life experiences he never got to have. Leaving no children of his own, his story exists now only in a few genealogy notes, this flag and the memories we share.  I honor his service and sacrifice in the best way I know how by sharing his story with a group larger than the boundaries of our little family and hope that he like so many others who gave their lives on the battlefield, will never be forgotten.