There was a time when Memorial Day was celebrated on May 31, regardless of when that day fell on the calendar. Thus it was in 1957. I had just completed the third grade after a rather adventurous year of moving from Houston to San Jose to Los Angeles to Corpus Christi and back to Houston. My father had begun working for Tenneco and we were living in a rented house in southeast Houston. My parents were thinking of closing a deal on a home in Braes Heights and we were all excited about meeting up with all of my aunts and uncles and cousins on Memorial Day at the beach.
My mom had spent most of May 30, preparing foods like potato salad and baked beans as well as her famous homemade barbecue sauce that my father would use on the burgers that he planned to grill the next day. We were beside ourselves with the anticipation of launching our summer vacation with our relatives. We knew that it would be a day of playing in the waves, fishing and crabbing on the pier, rollicking on the playground and listening to stories from our hilariously funny family members. It felt so good to be back in Houston after having been so far away for so many months.
My brothers and I went to bed before our father arrived home that evening. Mama explained that he had to complete a project that was due right after the holiday. He was a mechanical engineer and I was so proud of the work he did. I knew that if he failed to come home for dinner what he was doing had to be very important. I twisted and turned for a time but finally fell into a deep slumber with dreams of the fun that lay ahead. I did not awake until the sun peeked through the blinds in my bedroom window.
When I opened my eyes and acclimated myself to the new day I heard my mother talking on the phone in the hallway of our house. She sounded as though she was crying and her voice broke now and again. She seemed to be answering questions about my father and her answers were strange. She used past tense verbs which immediately alarmed me. Somehow without ever asking I had the idea that something dark and terrible had happened. I lay in my bed listening and grew ever more worried.
I finally crept into the kitchen searching for a glass of water because my anxiety had caused my throat to become dry. I was both surprised and alarmed to see my Aunt Valeria puttering about. Now I was convinced that this was not a good sign. I sat down at the kitchen table without saying a word while she nervously began attempting to explain to me that my father had died. It was difficult for her to get out the words and her eyes were filled with grief. I sat motionless and stunned as though I had not understood what she was saying, but truthfully I had figured things out before ever entering the room. I felt for my aunt because she literally did not have any idea what to do and I had no energy to help her. I suppose that we were both in a state of shock.
There have been few days in my life as terrible as that May 31, 1957. It has now been exactly sixty years ago since my life changed so dramatically. I was one person on May 30, and became someone completely different on May 31. I was only eight but I felt eighty, and in many ways forced myself to become an adult so that I might deal with the tragedy that so altered my world. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to lock myself in my room forever. I wanted to run away. I wanted to tell my father one last time how much I loved him. I wanted to scream at him for going away from us. My emotions were a jumble that left me bereft for months. I wanted to know exactly what had happened but never really would. I could only draw inferences and surmise what might have brought his brilliant life to such a crashing end.
Based on conversations with my mother and stories in the newspaper my best guess is that after working late my dad went out with some of his coworkers and had a few celebratory drinks. I suppose that my mother became angry when he finally came home and they had a fight. Perhaps he left in a huff to attempt to calm down. He decided to drive to Galveston. He was on his way back home on a freeway system that was still under construction. Instead of being on the main road he was on the feeder. There was a deep unmarked ditch directly ahead of his path. He was driving as though he was on a highway when he was in reality heading to a death trap. Too late his car slammed into the cavernous depression. The front of the auto was crushed and caused the steering wheel to slam into his chest stopping his beating heart. He died instantly and so did a little bit of everyone who loved him. It seemed such a meaningless end.
Of course I eventually adjusted to the reality of the situation but a profound grief lay under my thin veneer of courage. I was never quite the same after that. I worried more and often found myself avoiding adventures lest I be the source of more pain for my mother. I grew up almost instantly while somehow being in an eternal childhood. A piece of my heart would always be eight years old and every Memorial Day it would hurt again. I would experience a lifetime of questions and what ifs. I learned the importance of empathy because I had needed it so on that day and there were special people who provided it for me when I most wanted it.
I have friends and acquaintances who have also suffered unimaginable losses. I suspect that those who have not had such experiences don’t quite understand how we never really and truly get over the pain. Our wounds heal but now and again something triggers an ache. In my own case I have so much more that I want to know about my father. I would give anything to experience an adult relationship with him. I wonder if the images that I have of him are just a creation of my mind. I want to hear his voice for I can no longer remember it. It would be nice to share stories with him and see his reactions to my accomplishments. I would so like for my children and grandchildren to know him.
I have a friend whose husband died suddenly. She has young sons who are suffering. When I read of their hardships I literally feel their pain and cry for them. They are lucky to have a wonderful mom who allows them to express their feelings, so I believe that like me they will one day have the courage to move on with life. It is what we do even when we think that surely we too will die.
Sixty years is a very long time. I am almost twice the age my father was when he died. My memories of him are all pleasant for he was a very good man. They have sustained me again and again. It doesn’t really matter how or why he died, but only that he set the world afire while he was here. He loved fiercely and squeezed every ounce out of life. He left his mark and I have told stories of him all throughout the years. He still lives in me and my brothers and our children and grandchildren. Sometimes I see him in my brother Pat or my nephew Shawn. His life had great meaning and we continue to keep his spirit alive.