The month of May holds two strong memories for me. School let out in Iowa as Memorial Day approached. When I was young, this meant no more teachers’ rules and homework until after Labor Day. For those of us in the High School Band, May was also the month to march out to the Hampton Cemetery where the community held a brief ceremony to honor local residents who had given their lives in defense of our country. We donned our uniforms and white buck shoes for one last time, fell in line behind the flag bearers, played a few patriotic tunes, and, despite Mr. Feeze's orders, broke rank to scramble after the shell casings that flew about when the honor guard fired a salute over the cemetery pond.
I have participated in Memorial Day observances in New England and in Upstate New York, and have observed how common and comfortable the rituals are. Scholars of American religion tell us that Memorial Day, like July 4th, is a hallmark of our national civil religion, a ritual that transcends denominational and sectarian differences and instructs us about being "Americans." Choose your community, especially in small town America, and I will show you bands marching, preachers praying, politicians orating, and flags flying. As a boy of 14, I enjoyed Hampton's effort to create a collective feeling of respect and reverence for those who went off to fight on some foreign field and never returned. I liked the sound and fury of it all, the display of color, and, yes, the theater. The sight of W. W. I veterans, fewer with each passing year, raising bony hands to salute the flag touched me, while the recollection of W. W. II veterans stuffing themselves into uniforms that no longer fit still brings a smile.
The Memorial Days of my youth were usually sunny and bright. School was out, and we marched along in a grand almost giddy manner. We were, after all, young and immortal. We clarinets had the tricky passages of John Philip Sousa's marches down pat. We had nothing to fear as we entered the cemetery gates and wound our way up to the knoll where carpenters had erected a wooden platform the previous night. A half hour later our mood had changed, at least mine usually did. It has taken me some time to understand this transformation. Only recently have I located the source of my discomfort. She always sat in the shadow of the male politicians, military officers, and preachers. She had no role to play in the festivities until it came time to present her with a folded United States flag. She was called "The Gold Star Mother."
In those years a "Gold Star Mother" was a local woman whom the authorities had selected to honor because she had lost a son in one of the World Wars or the Korean War. We had no "Gold Star Fathers," though I am sure that fathers grieved just as much as mothers over the death of those to whom they had given life. Perhaps because men made wars, they felt it necessary to give women this small part in Memorial Day observances.
Now that my mother lays at rest not far from the knoll where we honored Hampton's "Gold Star Mothers," I can understand why I usually left the cemetery with some thing gnawing at my youthful spirits. I was not yet of draft age, but had I been the Selective Service Bureau might have called my number and sent me off to a place of death, and mother would have had no recourse but to watch, and wait, and then weep--just as the "Gold Star Mothers" did. What does the month of May mean to a "Gold Star Mother? How do you reconcile for her Mother's Day and Memorial Day?
All of this came home to me when I was far away from home visiting the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle, Scotland. Opened by the Prince of Wales in 1927, the War Memorial was designed to honor the laddies who died during the Great War of 1914-18. Like most tourists, we were pressed for time, so I could only page through the memorial books that listed each Scottish soldier, his place of birth and place of death. From Scotland’s farms and villages, young men went off to die, often in places they and their parents had never heard of. I knew none of the names inscribed in this book of the dead, yet I felt that same tug at the heart I had known when leaving the cemetery after Hampton's Memorial Day many years ago. "The Gold Star Mother" is a universal figure. A Scottish mother and an American mother on Memorial Day walk the cemetery in need of no cultural translator. When they cry, they cry a universal language.
Neither Memorial Day nor Mother's Day are church festivals. We have no rituals, no readings, no theologies specific to May's special days. The great theologicans wrote and preached a "Theology of the Cross," not a "Theology of Glory." Every "Gold Star Mother" reminds us to temper the rhetoric of glory that puffs up a nation, making war seem sane. There are no good wars, no good deaths--save one. The "Theology of the Cross" teaches us that if we are to glory, we do so not in "the might of arms" but in Him who wore a Crown of Thorns, in Christ Jesus, the King of Kings who died on a cross.