There’s a bittersweet quality to every holiday, but the Memorial Day weekend - with its emphasis on death and dying - in particular.
Taken with Labor Day, it’s a bookend, a point of departure. It’s the last day of school (“I’m free!” text messages one high school sophomore after her last exam).
For me, this year in particular (when I know I’m going to travel and do something different but I don’t know what or where), the ends are more loose than usual. Like other Memorial Day weekends I never quite know what to do.
Too much traffic to go to Tybee Island for the Beach Bum Parade. Too hot to walk the beach. Too much trouble to drive up to Charleston for Spoleto (although I’m always glad when I do).
For others, the last of May/the beginning of June is a shift, an opportunity to travel from one parent to another, a chance with the longer days and the more flexible schedules to take vacation, an occasion (once again: longer days) to check off house projects, a time to give the garden (in the South, at least, where gardens in June are often spent, are often worn-out) a rest.
As much as any other time of year, this week screams of transition and passage. Nowhere is that more evident than at a graduation ceremony. To an outsider - especially if the class is large and you don’t know anyone particularly well - the custom can be boring and trite.
I was expecting as much when I went to the middle school graduation at Charles Ellis Montessori in Ardsley Park. I’ve known a couple of these eighth-graders - and their older siblings - since they went to Maggie’s Morning School. I know their parents, too.
I’ve gone to Ellis operas, Ellis fundraisers, Ellis soccer games. I’ve waited in line in my car to pick up Ellis kids after school. I’ve braved the traffic to drop off Ellis kids in the morning.
But graduation at that level seemed a little gratuitous and unnecessary. Or so I thought.
Maybe it was the size of the class - 22 (and very short on boys). Maybe it was the school’s history, the fight a few years ago to keep it from being closed in favor of some larger, more generic institution, its red brick veneer.
Maybe it was the way the kids marched in - boys as well as girls carrying flowers - cocky, self-assured, a little embarrassed, open and ready for anything.
Maybe it was the hugs between the students and the teachers or the green crocks worn by one of the teachers or the rap song the students wrote.
But I found it moving. I tried not to tear up but I did, repeatedly.
“Chose your relationships very, very carefully,” said the principal, Charles Wooten. “Starting next fall, the clock is ticking.”
Yikes! That was sobering. But who can tell what kids think? They seemed to be listening. Were they?
Once I walked into a house of friends when they were showing videos of one of the graduates when she was four or five and climbing on and behind a couch.
“Do you remember that day?” I asked Lucy, certain that she would say yes since to me if felt like yesterday.
“No,” she said.
Time flies. She’s three times that age now.
A few days after the graduation, the Friday afternoon before the dreaded Memorial Day weekend, I walked into the Sentient Bean feeling a little adrift, a little off.
That’s when I saw another friend whose father, 98, had been in the hospital. He was a grand man, curious, bright, inventive. At my Chanukah party one year he garnered the biggest crowd.
When his wife died, my friend moved him from New York to her Thunderbolt house, where he read biographies, took walks (transferring pennies from one pocket to another to keep track of the number of times he circled the complex) and enjoyed a gin and tonic or two every night.
To personalize his hospital stay and to remind the nurses and doctors this was a human being and not a statistic, Susan pasted photos of him and his late wife, of her, of her daughter Emily on his room door.
“My father died a few days ago,” she told me.
More tears. Another transition. We talked awhile about funeral homes, burial plots, “renting” a rabbi. When I got home I emailed her the poem read at my uncle’s funeral. It was written by a Navajo girl. It seemed appropriate for him, for transitions, for the time of year:
DO NOT STAND AT MY GRAVE AND WEEP
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle Autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight,
I am the soft stars that shine at night. Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.