The sky is overcast yet in a small act of mercy the rain is gone. As the hearst pulls into the cemetery, the rows of white headstones stand like soldiers at attention among a field of green. The living having come to honor the dead.
Jean is in the back seat of the third car driven by her son, Cole. Her daughter, Jo, is seated next to her, their hands folded together as a tender act of consolation. No spoken words are adequate on this day. Words will be uttered, but they will not be remembered in the wake of other memories that fill her mind.
“Mama,” Cole says, “you wait for me when we stop, and I’ll come around to help you out of the car.”
She hears but responds only with a gentle nod. Jean is 96 years old.
It was not so long ago that she was a lonely young wife at home by herself while a great war was going on across the ocean in places she could not imagine. She was the wife of a soldier. Just a child herself at 18 when she married Joe.
He was only 20 when he came home from the war. Shrapnel had nearly torn his leg off while under heavy fire just outside Bastogne in 1944. He was late getting home for Christmas that year, and she had kept the tree and the few small presents ready for him. The waiting settling upon her like a layer of quilts on a cold and quiet winter’s night.
The car came to a stop. She patiently held her place as Cole opened her door.
“Careful Mama. The ground’s a little slick from all the rain.”
She stands for a moment allowing the substance of her loss to find its resolve within herself. She is gathering her courage as she is gathering her memories of Joe. Nearly 78 years of marriage runs through her mind like one of those Kodak slide shows of family vacations. Scenes and silly poses with colorful beach umbrellas planted in the white sand.
Cole and Jo were maybe 10 and 8 when they went to the beach that year. It was the first time she had seen the Gulf of Mexico. Girls from Mississippi who grew up in the middle of the Depression didn’t get out much. Joe was working at the paper mill which shut down for the week of the Fourth.
“Why don’t we all go to the beach?” he asked her.
It was also the first time the kids had seen his battle wounds. The discolored scars and the misshapen flesh. Joe never talked much about the Army. There was a silence that surrounded his time there that she respected, and the children never questioned. They had no reason to. It was before their time.
She and Joe were sitting on a blanket in their swimsuits. The kids had just come up from the water to get something to drink. Joe could tell that Cole was stealing glances at his leg and then looking away.
“You got something you want to ask me about my leg?” He didn’t mean for his tone to sound stern. The boy shook his head.
Jean spoke up. “It’s okay. Go ahead.”
The walk among the white markers down to the tent was not far. Cole on one side. Jo on the other. Jean was still agile for her age, but she appreciated the escort from her children, who were now well into their sixties. They stood in silence while Joe’s casket quietly rolled out the back of the hearst.
Young men in dress blues with white gloves moved in a calculated cadence in front of them bearing their fragile burden to its final resting place. Every move they made was a slow and deliberate act of respect for a man they did not know. Yet, these men and her Joe belonged to a brotherhood sacred to those who understood.
She wondered if any of these young men had been off to war, if they had scars of both body and mind and soul.
This is not her first time to visit this cemetery. Their home near Hattiesburg is only about an hour away.
“I want to go down to Biloxi this weekend.” Joe’s voice is solemn. She can tell he has something on his mind.
“It’ll be Memorial Day and I’ve got a few old friends I need to go see.”
She and Joe are walking among the headstones. He is talking to her about that day in Bastogne in hushed tones, as if he doesn’t want anyone to hear but her.
“They gave me a medal. For bravery they said. But I was scared outta my mind.”
Finally, he finds the names he’s looking for, and for a long time he stands in silence. His face and body still as a tree, but the memories inside him as fierce as the day he fell bloody and broken to the ground.
“Tuck and Charlie and Ben didn’t get to come home. Not like I did.”
She slips her arm around his waist as she stands beside him. He salutes, and then wipes his eyes with his sleeve. It was the first of many visits to Biloxi.
Today would be his turn to join them.
She sits by her husband’s casket as the minister speaks of sacrifice and valor and honor. She can tell by a familiar tone that he too was a soldier once, and it gives her comfort to know that he understands. Herself a stranger to the horrors of war but deeply familiar with what that sacrifice does to a man who lives years beyond the last day he put on the uniform.
The bugle played its sad notes, mournful of a soldier laid to rest. The military salute fired its shots in response to the command of a voice she did not know. She sits with her eyes closed as the flag is folded, a gift she is bracing to receive with a sorrow she is not ready to realize.
The soldier approaches her chair. Jo squeezes her arm, and the veteran wife with white hair and clear blue eyes looks up. A man with the flag clasped between his white gloved hands leans in.
“Ma’am. On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
She collects within herself the best of herself. “Thank you, young man.”
The ride home was a lot more cheerful than she expected. Cole was driving, but this time her grandson, Cole’s boy, was in the front seat, and two great-grandchildren were with her in the back.
For most of the hour they swapped stories about Grandpa and laughed about what her grandson called his “old ways.”
As they neared home and the conversation fell silent, Cole spoke up.
“Mama. I was really proud of Dad today.”
Through a smile and with a tissue to the corner of her eye, Jean answered him.
“So was I, dear. So was I.”
3 thoughts on “To All The Soldiers”
Many times when I read your stories, I cry as I did this time. But I often laugh too. So please keep the stories coming. I enjoy them all.
Very sad. Many did not come home.
Thank you Paul for this. We can never say enough or do enough to thank the “Greatest Generation” for saving our world then. My dad was there and wounded at St. Vith in 44. I spoke of him last Friday in a Vet Day tribute. We can never forget them and all Veterans who protect us. God bless them and you.
Comments are closed.