In Memoriam

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He hated tattoos, my paternal grandfather. He died when I was 11, but I remember a conversation, one of many had during summer visits to their home, when he told me of his aversion of tattoos.

You see, he was there, at Buchenwald. He walked into that stinking pit of hell, wearing Army fatigues and the face of a boy forced into manhood at the end of a rifle. He spoke Hungarian and a little German, so he was a useful translator, telling the stories of this living nightmare, from the mouths of skeletal survivors to the ears of horrified soldiers.

He hated tattoos because they reminded him of what he saw there, at the end of the war. He hated them because they represented years of his life that even an ocean and 40 years failed to erase. He never spoke of what he witnessed in the camp, or of friends lost in battle, though I learned later from my grandmother of many fellow soldiers killed while he fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

He did his duty to God and Country, and when it was over, it was over. All that remained, all that was shared from that time was his hatred for tattoos. He may have survived, but a part of him died at Buchenwald in 1945.

I had only seen my mother’s father cry once. He cried at her funeral. That hot June day when the sun blazed overhead, my seven year old self confused and overwhelmed by the sadness swirling around me. Six-foot-three and a career military man, I never saw him cry until her death. His baby girl.

The tears came again on another hot day. This time I was 14 and we were in Washington DC on vacation. After two tours in Vietnam, I knew the first place we were headed once we arrived at the national mall: the Wall. It stands like a gash in the earth, twin pieces of stone rising up and fading sharply. So simple, yet so overwhelming. All of their names. Those 58,202 soldiers who died a world away from their families and homes. A few of the men, he knew. He paused longer by some names than others. But silently, for more than an hour, he slowly moved along The Wall. At the end, the tears came. How could they not? The enormity of it strikes your heart and moves even the strongest of stoics.

I grew up in a family where you stop moving when the flag goes up or down. You put your hand over your heart for the national anthem. You d0 not move a muscle during TAPS. Every year, you celebrate Memorial Day for what it is: a memorial of those men and women who died serving our nbso online casino reviews country. (And once you celebrate that, you go on and eat all the hot dogs and brisket you want.)

You may have disdain for those in power who start wars in which their children will never fight. You may abhor violence and pray fervently for an end to all wars. You may even hope that you live to see the day when the military needs to hold a bake sale to buy their weapons. I do.

But Memorial Day is not about me. It’s not about my politics or my view of how the world should be ordered. This day is about them, those men and women who “gave the last full measure of devotion” and died doing what they believed to be right. They held nothing, not even their lives, back from their country and their God. Theirs is a sacrifice for which we must always be grateful, even when we are outraged that it was demanded of them at all.

At the Memorial Day service I attended every year when I was a child and teen, someone would read a poem, In Flanders Fields. I close with it as a tribute to all those men and women who we remember today.

In Flanders Fields
– Lt. Col. John McCrae

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord. And may we always remember their sacrifice.

Sarah Babbs

Sarah Babbs

Sarah Babbs is a married mother of a toddler girl, writing from Indiana where she moved for love after growing up on the east coast. Sarah and her husband, a lawyer, lead marriage prep classes for their parish in addition to daydreaming about becoming lunatic farmers. During stolen moments when the toddler sleeps and the laundry multiplies itself, Sarah writes about motherhood, Catholic social thought, and ponders the meaning of being a woman "made in the image of God". Her website is Fumbling Toward Grace.

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5 Responses

  1. What a beautiful tribute. Thank you so much. My own reaction to the Wall from
    the 18 months served along with a hardened Marine friend who stayed longer was the same. We were very disappointed. It wasn’t big enough.

  2. What a beautiful post and tribute to your grandfather! I cannot even imagine emotionally what that must have been like to liberate the camps…

  3. That was indescribably beautiful. I cannot begin to thank you for that.I spent 8 years as a bugler for the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps. I was never deployed, but I stood tall, playing TAPS at Arlington National Cemetery on many occasions. It never got old. It never got tiresome. Every single time I watched the flag handed over to a grieving widow or family member, I shed a tear. I wanted every note I played to be another farewell to a life lost oftentimes way too early. I couldn’t actually look at the people as I played, as they all usually broke down at the sounding of the first note. I’ve also walked among the American graves, the little white crosses at the site of Belleau Wood, France at Aisne-Marne cemetery. This day is an absolute tragedy. But it is necessary to remember those that gave their lives and those that didn’t, yet still went through unimaginable hell and left part of their hearts on those battle fields of yesteryear. Rest in peace…

  4. Sarah and her husband, a lawyer, lead marriage prep classes for their parish? It is the duty of priests to instruct those preparing for marriage.

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