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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Friday, May 28, 2004  

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year-
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…

For the Union Dead
, by Robert Lowell

* * *

They come with dandelions, since dandelions are plentiful in the last week of May and may be picked with impunity. They arrive around 9:30 in the morning, and as they walk underneath the wrought-iron gate that is three and four times their height, they abruptly stop hopping or skipping or trying to step on the heels of the child in front of them.

Suddenly, they are attempting to behave like grown-ups. They disperse into small groups, but they walk slowly among the tombstones and markers, pausing when they see a name that they know, squatting when they discover a relative. The boys stand with their hands clasped before them, replicating the way they've seen their fathers and grandfathers stand, while the girls sometimes hold hands.

Every year on the first school day after Memorial Day, the children of the Lincoln, Vermont, elementary school walk about a mile from the red cedar building that houses the school to the village cemetery. The school is east of the center of town, and the cemetery is to the west.

The result is a rambling parade through the village: 106 students, kindergartners through sixth-graders, 14 teachers and administrators, and perhaps a dozen members of the support staff. They walk across the narrow bridge spanning the New Haven River and then past the line of Gothic Revival homes built a century and a half ago. They pass the gray clapboard general store and the brick monolith that serves as the town hall. Then they wander around the hill upon which sits a church built in 1863, and down the short street that once housed the village's modest creamery. They walk right past my house. And, all along the way, they stop, bend down, and pluck the dandelions they will use to decorate the graves, many of which will have small American flags…

"Of memory and hope," by Chris Bohjalian

* * *

A week before the battle of Bull Run, Sullivan Ballou, a Major in the 2nd
Rhode Island Volunteers, wrote home to his wife in Smithfield:

July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington DC

Dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days - perhaps tomorrow. And lest I should not be able to write you again I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am no more.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing - perfectly willing - to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly with all those chains to the battlefield. The memory of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them for so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and see our boys grown up to honorable manhood around us.

If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name...

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have sometimes been!...

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be with you, in the brightest day and in the darkest night... always, always. And when the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath, or the cool air your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again...

Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the 1st Battle of Bull Run.

Listen: "Ashokan Farewell," by Jay Ungar

* * *

Memorial Day Images: Ft. Benning, Ga. * Brazoria, Tex. * Hilltown, Pa. * Wichita, Kan. * LA * Aztec, N.M. * Postcard, early 1900s


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