Margraaten, formally known as the Netherlands American Cemetery, is located on 65 acres of rolling green hills. We visited it on a family trip to Europe because it is the final resting place of my Grandfather. I no longer remember the exact day he fell, but I know it was within only a month or so of VE Day: 8 May 1945. I don’t know the details of his death, just that he lost his life fighting, and was buried there with 8,300 of his comrades. That visit was almost 25 years ago now, and I only remember bits and pieces of the visit, which I’d like to share with you this Memorial Day.
I remember the crosses and occasional Star of David headstones. Each bright, stark white against the verdant grass. The rows precisely marked, but with a gentle, distinct curve.
I remember being deeply touched by a quote, engraved in smooth white stone, “Honor is theirs, who knew the path of honor.” I was avidly reading Tom Clancy novels at the time, and was too young to fully grasp the depths of sacrifice such honor requires in real life.
I remember walking down a granite wall inscribed with the names of those missing in action, 1,722 of them. It engraved their name, their home town, how they served, and where they were lost. I don’t remember any of the details, but it seemed like the vast majority came from America’s Heartland, and were bomber crews lost when they were shot down. I also remembering feeling guilty that I couldn’t read and acknowledge every name there.
I remember the glass coffee table in the small, almost informal waiting area. Under its glass was printed out the stories of the 7 Medal of Honor recipients who are interred there. All of which, I believe, were received posthumously. And, I remember them all being narratives along the lines of, “single handedly charged a German machine gun nest that had pinned down his companions.”
I remember looking at the simple cross marking my Grandfather’s resting spot. It is a beautiful peaceful valley, and I still think, as I did then, that that means something, even if I cannot articulate it.
I remember crying and not being able to stop.
But what I remember most, what I will never forget from that day, is the image of my Dad having time alone to stare at the grave of his Father. My Dad wasn’t even two yet when my Grandfather died. It was the closest my Dad had ever been to his Father; he was the first in his family to be able to make the trip. I remember the umbrella resting on his shoulder against the light rain. The stillness. The tilt of his head looking down. The sea of white markers in which he was but an island. And I remember a wash of emotions beyond my young self’s ability to comprehend.
There is a lot of politics, patriotism, and consumerism that has pulled Memorial Day away from its intended purpose. I am as guilty as anyone else; waiting for the Memorial Day sale to replace the dishwasher, planning the BBQ, or even just looking forward to the 3 day weekend. Today though I am instead truly remembering and thinking on that scene from so long ago: of my Dad meeting his Father for the very first time, across an unbridgeable divide.