In my 20s, I started searching for the reason why things are the way that they are. Why am I the way that I am? I combed books of psychology and philosophy to figure out how my mind works and why I thought the things that I did. It didn’t take me long to realize that history has a huge part in answering that question.
Ideas and people come from those who came before them. By a simple cause and effect, things get passed down like water in the river of time. Your history is interlocked and intertwined with people that came before you. What does it mean to be “you” anyways. The idea of “you” is a continuation of memories that you – and others – carry forward and remember. Over time, your physical body changes a million times over, but it is the remembrance of the past that connects your life together. In this way, even the dead are alive.
This is why Memorial Day has become an important holiday for me. Each Memorial Day, I go across the state of Kentucky with Katie’s family to the grave sites of her family. We spend the day remembering the people and lineage that brought them to this place in time.
At each grave, we clean the stones and connect the history of this person to the present day. Stories are told and passed down from grandmother and mother to daughter. When we went last week from grave to grave, it meant even more to me. I kept thinking, “I have to remember this”. Coralen will need to be told this. In Coralen, I have now been connected to this story. Before, it was Katie’s story – her lineage. Now, Coralen and I will be grafted in. We will be weaved into the tapestry of the history that made Katie who she is. People that Cora did not know will become alive again. She will know who she is and where she came from.
Visiting the gravesites was something that Katie’s grandfather, Charles, started doing. The importance was not lost on her mother, Lou Ann, and she has continued the tradition. It is something I hope to instill in Cora. My generation – and those that have come after – have looked at tradition with disdain.
Religious and social tradition has been replaced with current fad and the opinion that the past isn’t needed. We have become a people from nowhere in particular and disconnected from each other. In gathering the past, we remember ourselves and can forgive the members of our history for their shortfalls. Wendell Berry writes of Jayber Crow standing in a graveyard on Memorial Day,
What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on… It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.
There’s something special about visiting a graveyard. Both life and death meet together in time. We see the members of a community and a lineage that, while not always perfect, are a part of us all. In remembering, we re-member ourselves together as members of each other, as the inheritance of people that we did not know, connected together, even beyond time.
This is the importance of stories passed down from generation to generation; oral history, sayings, and funny stories get passed down the river of time from previous generations that are pulled into the banks of the present and then sent back into the river to be pulled in again later.
Memorial Day has become a tradition that I look forward to. It’s a day of quality time spent with Katie’s family, remembering beyond our own time. Look back into your own history. Peer into the river and start to bring your own memories up to the banks to show your children. By doing this, you release the past to be pulled out later and then passed on. In this way, by connecting the past to the present, you live in eternity.