Memorial Day

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(HOST) This Memorial Day, commentator Caleb Daniloff is reflecting on makeshift tributes and the act of remembering.

(DANILOFF) I find wooden roadside crosses among the saddest and most moving of sights. I’m usually driving when I spot them. They’re there. Then they’re gone. Just like the young lives they often mark. Sometimes you’ll notice flowers or stuffed animals or letters wrapped in plastic. Most sites are eventually removed by state road crews. And for the passing motorist, that’s the end of the story. But for those left behind, forgetting is not an option.

In western Massachusetts, there used to be a family diner called Chad’s Trading Post. The place was devoted to the memory of the family’s son who was accidentally killed with his father’s handgun.
The menu, artwork, uniforms – even employee tattoos – all referenced Chad’s life. To outsiders, the venture might seem a creepy obsession. Chad’s father once told a reporter, “It helps us keep him immediate. We will never forget. It’s how we get by.”

With those words, it all made sense. Memory is the struggle between immediacy and the sprawl of time. To be forgotten is to be erased, to have never existed. And that is simply unacceptable to the human heart.

On a recent trip to LA, I visited the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Interred in its earth and mausoleums are the remains of some of old Hollywood: Cecil B. DeMille, Tyrone Power, Jayne Mansfield. Along the base of a back wall, I spied odd streaks of color – blues, reds, oranges – and soon found myself standing over the graves of deceased infants and children. Woven into the vines on the wall and scattered near headstones were baby shoes, jump ropes, model airplanes, plastic ponies. But many infants had died the day they were born.

I was unsettled. Here were countless tributes to memories of experience that couldn’t have taken place. Was this a case of grief- induced madness? I wasn’t sure. But I hashed over the scene for days.

A month later, I found myself standing in a light drizzle at the famous Hope Cemetery in Barre. My wife and I had always wanted to see the stunning granite memorials – a couple in bed, an armchair, a life-size stone worker among his tools.

Before leaving, my wife pointed out a small piece of cardboard leaning against a headstone. Pinned to it was a pair of faded red ankle socks. Underneath read the words, “Thanks for the socks, Bunty.”

Among all that granite, the impermenance of the gesture was poignant. The ink would soon run. The pins would rust. The wind might send the cardboard skittering. And left behind – simply a pair of water-logged socks.

Then those cluttered infant graves came back to me. And I realized it wasn’t about desperate longing or creating a false life. It was simply the living trying to hold hands with the dead, to bring them along, to keep them present.

This simple offering spoke louder than the stone monoliths repelling the now pelting rain. And weeks later, I see those red socks more clearly than the fanciful stonework. I recall the plain words more vividly than the heavenly inscriptions chiseled into pieces of forever. They contain no dates, no finality. Only a human hand to prop them up. And the human spirit to nudge them across.

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter, book reviewer and freelance journalist.

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