Funny how you can remember something from childhood one way, and then a long time later realize you’re only remembering the surface. When I was young my daddy always insisted I go to the annual Memorial Day Service at a nearby Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It wasn’t even “our” church. It was where his parents were buried.

I dreaded it every year. Not just because I always got antsy about sitting quietly, while adults droned on and on about…anything. It was mostly because I was expected to be…well, I’m not sure what they called me. Being a flower girl is a wedding thing, but that’s essentially what I was. I wore a pretty pastel dress and walked down the aisle, scattering flower petals as I went. I was the opening of the ceremony and lived in fear of tripping, or dropping my basket of petals, or starting before the music did, or heaven forbid all of that in one fell swoop of falling, swooping, out of sync aisle marching, flying flowers disaster. Apparently living in fear tempts fate to go the other way around, because nothing bad ever happened. Nothing bad at all, except that I was so nervous and focused on performing perfectly that I entirely missed the point. The whole thing hadn’t been designed to make me a ball of walking stage fright. It wasn’t about me at all.

I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t until quite recently that something reminded me of those petal strewing walks down a church aisle and for some reason I started really thinking about it. We often see things so differently through our adult eyes. Things a child knows to be true may be vastly expanded upon once the child matures enough for even a little clarity and wisdom. I was suddenly struck by memories of the stillness in that church, the sincerity and solemnity of the people there. While I worried that I’d make a fool of myself, the other people in that lovely big white building were thinking of the loved ones who were no longer sitting beside them, holding their hand, wiping away their tears. They were remembering their beloved, their fallen, their lost.

I’d always assumed my daddy was sitting with such quiet dignity, sometimes with a hint of a smile, sometimes near tears, because he was so proud of me. Which I’m sure he was. But it went far beyond that on that particular day, in that place, with those people, most of whom we barely knew. There were other people there as well. The cemetery was full of them. Only they were memories.

I mentioned already that my paternal grandparents were buried there. Some of their close family too. Shadowy mental figures for me, of people I’d never met and knew little about. There was one though, with a reputation that transcended a mere name on a tombstone. My daddy’s little brother who went off to war and never came back. I wish I could have known this brave sailor, who was lost at sea and memorialized with a headstone over an empty grave.

J. B. McCage, Gunners Mate Second Class. U.S. Navy.

I don’t know much about him. When my daddy, Gerald McCage, was 12 years old, his father died in a car accident. He left school to become the man of the house, farm the land, and help his mother raise his younger brother, sister, and a niece. All that responsibility kept him at home when WWII broke out, but J. B. went to war.

It’s my understanding that he was lost at sea on August 23, 1943, when his ship collided with an ammunition ship near New York, his body never found. I heard the story of a nearby banker learning of the telegram about to be delivered and volunteering to take it out to the farm himself, out of sympathy and respect for my grandmother and the family. Even before I ever wrote a word of fiction, I would imagine the banker in his nice car and business suit driving along the road, billowing plume of summer dust trailing in his wake. He would pull into the  driveway, step out and put on his hat, only to take it back off to break the news, yellow telegram in hand. My grandmother would emerge onto the porch, perhaps in an apron and dusting flour from her fingers to shake hands, then those fingers flying to her lips on a wave of grief. What a horrible time that was, for the world at large and particularly for the ones left behind to live in dread of those fragile pieces of paper that changed their world forever.

No, those afternoons in that church were not about me at all. My daddy was there to honor his brother. So was I. I just wouldn’t realize it until I was too old to offer my daddy the words of comfort that would have made his heart just a little lighter. As it is, I can only hope that having his little girl there with him, taking part in the ceremony that commemorated his sailor lost at sea made it a little more bearable for him. Helped remind him of what his brother fought for. And that he knew me well enough to understand that someday I would grow up to be very proud to have been the little girl who scattered the petals in remembrance of her brave Uncle J. B., on a Memorial Day in a new century.

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