This is the season of sad memories and happy expectations. We celebrate Memorial Day to honor the men and women who have given their lives for their country. We celebrate graduations to honor the young men and women who go forward to a new life.
Yet as a grandparent, graduations are often a time filled with memories. How fast those four years of high school or college have gone. I remember the boy who just graduated from college as the one who dove into the cottage cheese and deposited most of it, not in his mouth, but in every crevice of his high chair. It seems like only yesterday. Now he came walking down the aisle with thousands of other students. What happened to all of those intervening years? And what will his future be like? A granddaughter will soon be graduating from high school and off to a university far away. Yet all I can think of is the time she first stood up with the help of the living room coffee table and was completely delighted. And the time I accompanied her to a birthday party around a big pool. She told me she could swim but once in the deep end cried she could not and I had to jump in fully clothed. Now that she is off to a new place, her life is hers to live and it’s not as easy for family to dive in for a rescue. We are proud, very proud of our grand kids and all of the young men and women who graduate with them. We know they will do well but know the future is more complicated than it was for us.
We spent Memorial Day 3,000 miles away from home in a small New Jersey town with a big history. There was the typical Memorial Day parade with veterans, a student marching band, children waving flags and a group of men dressed as revolutionary soldiers. They marched along the main street for about a mile to a battle monument which honors George Washington. There the community gathered to hear a speech from a veteran. Not one wearing the typical American Legion hat. Not one wearing a uniform. But a young woman with long hair and a short skirt. She wore a bracelet which she never removes with the name of the soldier who took her place on the day his life, and not hers, ended. She was called to administrative duty that day in Afghanistan and her colleague volunteered to take her place on the mission. To drive her truck and sit in her seat. On the way back, he rode over a land mine. She told us she was not injured physically but her mind has been troubled ever since. She always thinks of her fallen comrade with grief and guilt. Several times she told us it should have been her, not him. You look at this beautiful young woman and it is hard to think of her as a battle-scarred veteran. But she is. Now, out of the military, she devotes her time and energy to helping other traumatized veterans like herself.
She spoke against the backdrop of Gen. Washington’s successful military battle against the British. He is on his horse wearing a cloak but he looks weary. His soldiers hover around him, many of them ill clad and barefoot. It is winter and you know how much they have suffered. Every war is tough for those who fight it. It is awful for the young men and now women who give their lives or lose their limbs or minds over the dirty business. Some say there are good wars and bad wars. I guess that’s true. After World War II and the Korean War, America’s wars all seem to be bad. But the sacrifice is the same, good or bad. As the young woman reaches the end of the speech, I gaze at the revolutionary soldiers immortalized in the statute. They share the same misery as our troops today and yesterday. But at least they won.
The world my grandchildren and yours enter is very different from the one we inhabited. Instead of nuclear war, the immediate threat comes from terrorists and suicide bombers. Instead of competition from within, our students now have to compete on a global scale with the best and the brightest. Everything seems more expensive and too many necessary things unaffordable. But despite the many challenges, we must look forward, confident our kids will succeed.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.