Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Memorial Daze

I have warm memories of Memorial Day weekends past.

During a recent phone call with my dad, he said he had some memories, too -- none of them warm.

He recalled the days when he and my mom were still married and hosted Memorial Day gatherings at our house. The two of them would rise before the sun did on the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend and prepare.

My mom spent the morning in the kitchen cooking massive amounts of food that never seemed to fit into our two refrigerators. She spent the afternoon up until the party cleaning what us kids thought was an already immaculate house. It wasn’t just a job, she’d say, but a family adventure.

My dad did the yard work, cleaned the pool and set up the dining arrangements out back. He was also in charge of commanding us kids to keep quiet. “I can’t concentrate on my work,” he’d scream as he mowed the lawn.

According to my dad, our guests never had to do anything but show up, eat and relax.

“But when we went to their houses,” he said, “we were expected to bring a salad or a dessert, a set of bowls of some sort or an ice cream maker or extra dishes or a small table for the kids -- we’d stuff the trunk of the car. I used to wonder why we were going to their houses when I was bringing half of my house and doing half the work.”

My dad said family gatherings became more and more of a nuisance as the years passed.

“I had an aunt who had to cut everything in half,” he said. “She’d cut the cannoli in half, cheeses in half, a piece of salami in half -- she’d even cut halves of sandwiches in half. She’d come over, we’d have everything prepared, and she’d go into the refrigerator, pull out the food and start cutting it in half.”

I don’t remember that. But I do recall games of Marco Polo in the pool with all my cousins, competing in our annual family badminton tournament, and playing pin the tail on my kid brother.

I also remember one particular Memorial Day barbeque at our house when one of my aunts spent the better part of the afternoon throwing coins into the pool for us kids to fetch. By nightfall, we’d filled three empty pickle jars with the money we gathered. My dad recalled that particular incident, but, as before, not as fondly as I did.

What I don’t remember, he said, was just before everyone went home, one of my uncles emptied our pickle jars of coins back into the pool. My dad spent the rest of the evening at my uncle’s throat. My uncle spent the rest of the evening fetching the coins out of the pool.

“You don’t remember how bad it was,” my dad told me. “You were too young.” He remembered the steaks that burned, the pool floatation devices that flattened and the screaming youngsters who didn’t want to go home.

What is past is prologue, unless we choose to remember the things we don’t want to repeat. My father said he “experienced” all those Memorial Day gatherings so that I might avoid them when it came time for me to serve my tour of suburban dad duty. I’ve always tried to make my dad proud.

This Saturday, my wife, 5-year-old son and I are hosting a barbeque for friends. We did everything so that our guests don’t have to do anything but show up, eat and relax. On Sunday, we’re going to a family barbecue at someone else’s house. My wife said we only have to make a salad and bring dessert. And we have to bring some dishes and our big fruit bowl. And toys for the kids. And charcoal for the barbecue. And our barbecue.

While I may have failed to learn from family men like my father, who fell during the Memorial Day gatherings of their time, I will never forget the real heroes who died for this country to protect our right to freely repeat Memorial Day weekend blunders.

-May 2009

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