For most of my childhood years, we spent Memorial Day driving several hours north to the small Wisconsin town where my father’s relatives were buried.
His father, who died when he was 16, was buried there. So were countless other relatives, whose names I have sadly forgotten.
We placed flowers on their graves, visited folks who lived nearby and drove back home.
It never occurred to me until much later in life that there was anything else people did on Memorial Day. We didn’t cook out or go out on our small boat.
My parents drank no more than usual, which was still a pretty good amount. Dad was never too far away from his brown sweating beer bottles, which we brought home by the dozens in wax-coated boxes.
My grandmother died when I was 11 and was buried next to her first husband. The Memorial Day journeys continued until my brother and I were old enough to be working or otherwise occupied.
As an adult, I have always lived too far away from the graves of loved ones to continue this tradition. On my mother’s grave in a small cemetery in Fox River Grove, I laid a single seashell tucked up against her tombstone.
She would have loved that her only daughter ended up living so close to the beach. In a life with an alternate ending, that’s where she would have wanted to be.
But my chosen profession — and oh, how I chose it — keeps me close to traditions like these.
I have covered many, standing solemnly back from those gathered, watching, listening, feeling.
This year, these cemeteries will be oddly empty, like actors and actresses performing in an empty theater.
Planes will fly over green acres marked by white squares and rectangles.
There will be no chairs, no canopies, no cars lining the narrow roads that carry people to their loved ones’ graves.
Speakers will intone to a camera, not a crowd.
I won’t flinch at the rifle salute, which is always expected but somehow still startling.
There will be no hallway between rows of spectators for the honor guard to march down.
The honor guard will present colors.