Memorial Day

A year before I was born, my grandfather died of a heart attack. His brother, my great uncle Julian (Julie), took over in his stead. He was the one who taught me to fish, shoot pool, play Gin Rummy and Uno, and realize that a man’s place could be in his kitchen. Few could argue this last point with a Marine who had survived a bullet wound to his head during the battle for Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima.

When Julie came back wounded from the war, the family story of what he did reads like a idyllic fairy tale. He married Gert, his sweetheart, and moved into rural Connecticut to run a small diner in a converted barn. They scraped up money to buy a fixer-upper “cottage” (in the 19th-century New York sense of the term) in northwest Connecticut, beside a lake, complete with 8 bedrooms and a billiard room. When he and my great-aunt discovered they could not have children, they hosted foster children who found love, discipline, and a home. Julie instilled in us all a sense of civic duty, a sense of pride, and a sense of fun. He lived into his late 70s, when he faced down cancer with pride and perseverance. At the end, he chose to die with dignity quietly at home, Gert and his foster children by his side.

As a child who visited Julie and Gert’s sprawling home countless times, it seemed so free from the shadow of war. But I now realize my child’s eyes did not see an invisible gift. An unknown Marine or Marines somewhere out there who, amidst the chaos of Iwo Jima, chose to save the man who became my surrogate grandfather. An invisible Marine who risked death–or who died–so that Julie would not be left behind—that Julie might instead been given a chance to overcome what most would have considered a mortal wound. For this gift, I thank you.

Today, there are untold numbers of children and spouses who give thanks to the unknown hands who chose to give the last full measure of devotion so that their comrades might live and teach all of us to live well. And soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who give thanks to friends now lost for giving them the chance to grow old with their partners and children by their sides. For your compassion, for your sacrifice, thank you from us all.