Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Return to Arlington

Today we (my mother, brother, sister, nephew and I, and then later, my wife, son, daughter and son in law) returned to Arlington National Cemetery to visit my father's grave and, I guess, to try to take in the place with emotions slightly muted from the funeral itself. Another bright, beautiful, warm Washington day. This time the route was more familiar, without the extra anxieties of the funeral schedule and the caravan of cars--we all squeezed in, and were able to take advantage of the lifetime pass to the cemetery provided to first degree relatives of those buried there.

So many Jewish prayers begin with invocations of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (and today, of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah), asked that their merits in G!d's eyes be conferred on us, who are less deserving of G!d's consideration. So too here--we relatives are given privileges (and treated with a special deference by the many Arlington guards and guides), owing entirely to Dad's merits, and not to our own.

Dad is buried just inside the main gate, in section 33, within a short walk of the Administration Building and Visitor Center, and reasonably accessible via the Metro station, for those better able to walk than I. the Kennedy grave sites (which we visited today) are not too far; nor, we think, are the tombs of the Unknowns. Tour groups walk nearby, but not right at the spot. Most of the graves nearby date to 1955 and 1956, and the grave immediately left of his belongs to a veteran of the Spanish American War. A couple of graves nearby contain veteran, spouse and infant child (one a junior)--heartbreaking to contemplate. We didn't notice other Jewish graves in the immediate vicinity. There were flowers on Dad's newly filled grave, from cousins in California. One of the strange things about yesterday's ceremony, with the military pallbearers and protocols, is that we (my sister excepted) did not actually touch Dad's casket (although we participated in the Jewish ritual of reluctantly shovelling a bit of dirt on it). Today, I lay down next to the grave and bawled.

Back at the hotel, we watched a newly made DVD copy of a video interview my sister conducted with each of my parents 13 years ago (they were 73 then), during a calm and reflective moment when their memories were sharp (my mother's, amazingly so) and their health was better. They each spoke about their families, the journeys to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their growing up experiences during the hard times of the Depression, the War years and experiences, and their early life as a couple, before and just after moving to Miami. Seeing and hearing Dad, so focussed, so compelling as a storyteller, so moving in describing his military training and time in combat, his reflections on both the terrors of war and the lessons--particularly discipline and learning to get along with very diverse others in the most trying circumstances--was incredibly powerful. His reflections on the need for mandatory national service and the benefits he thought that would bring to American life (a position I largely share, although I never realized Dad felt so passionately about it) were really inspiring to me.

Mom has been having a very difficult time, and the combined emotional and physical stresses of recent weeks have taken a heavy toll. My brother decided to take her home a day earlier than initially planned, and my sister to accompany them, so we disbanded shortly after viewing the video as they headed for the airport. We decided to stay, not least because several Washington-area friends were planning to visit at tonight's shiva gathering. We took the "kids", and our new son in law (making his first visit to D.C.--amazing!) on a quick tour of the monumental and governmental city in all its majesty, winding up with a visit to the apartment building on Woodley Place, between the Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street bridges, where we lived from 1978-82 (leaving almost exactly a quarter century ago, almost to the month), when both our children were born, and where Mom and Dad visited to help us with our newborns and glory in their first grandchildren. Such a wonderful period in all our lives.

Ah, the arcs and cycles of life. Very much present in our lives this week.

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