In my family’s home town, there’s usually a big parade on Memorial Day. Fire engines, tractors, cars with local big-wigs, the elementary school band, the high school band, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H – it goes on and on. After the parade folks gather around a platform to sing the Star Spangled Banner, and offer the Pledge of Allegiance, listen to a speech, and remember the dead who’ve served our country.
When they remember the dead, they remember the dead. They’ve kept a record of every town resident who’s served in a war, and all the names are read. If that person is an ancestor, you’re expected to stand up, as a visible reminder of the service and sacrifice of those brave people. In the years I attended, I stood when I was told to, and I honor those men (and the women who nursed them!), but the person I most often remember is a man I never met.
I met his widow once when I was young; she was ancient, the widow of a man who’d served in the Civil War. Much later I discovered that she was his second wife and fourteen years younger than him. She was in her forties when they married. Twenty years later, some fifty years after he was released from a Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia, her husband, John Merrick Paine, went out in the woods one day and shot himself. He had never left Libby Prison behind.
General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, “all war is hell”. Truer words were never spoken. The sharp uniforms and the disciplined drill are not war. War is about killing and being killed, and sometimes, as for my cousin John Paine, the war never ended.
That’s what I remember on Memorial Day. I remember that war never really ends for those who’ve been a part of it. I remember the men I’ve known who never had a full night’s sleep after the war in Europe; who’d have nightmares about having to kill someone walking in a minefield in a bitterly cold Korean winter, before they let the enemy know about the mines by stepping on one. I remember the dark stains on the pews in my childhood Quaker meeting – we thought they were bloodstains from the building’s use as a battlefield hospital in the Revolutionary War. I remember the grave for the unknown soldiers behind the meetinghouse.
And I remember the words of Abraham Lincoln, at his second inaugural:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Our ancestors, those who served in any of our wars, who gave their lives, what they were, what they might have been, all they had – we honor them when we seek to make Abraham Lincoln’s words our words. When we act with malice toward none; with charity for all… to bind up wounds… to care for all…. that we might live in just and lasting peace.
Today, more than any Memorial Day in my memory, those words burn in my heart. We live in a world as torn by hatred as our country after the end of the Civil War. Let us make this our guiding phrase in our world today: with malice toward none and charity for all…. for a just and lasting peace.
Easter blessings, Pastor Virginia