Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day after its institution in the years following the U.S. Civil War, became a federal holiday in 1971. Observed each last Monday in May, it is set aside as a day to pay tribute to those fallen while serving in the U.S. military.
To far too many these days, the holiday is recognized as the unofficial start of summer, a three-day weekend geared to play. There’s nothing wrong with playing, with recreation, with spending time with family and friends, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the true meaning for “the day off.”
My Uncle Russell, who is my profile picture, died while serving during World War II. He didn’t die in battle. He didn’t even die on foreign soil, unless Ohio counts. He was killed in service to his country, however, still a teenager, and his name is listed on the West Virginia World War II Memorial in Charleston.
Obviously I never knew Uncle Russell, but he’ll always hold a special place in my heart because, had it not been for him, I may not be here. My grandparents’ house burned when Mom (Carole) was just a little one and Uncle Russell carried her out of the flames. For that, and for his willingness to serve, I love him, respect and revere him.
Dad (Claude “Fisher” Keenan) served in World War II as well, but he came home. He didn’t talk much about his service. Honestly I can’t recall him telling any service stories, except as an object lesson when one of us didn’t want to eat something Mom had prepared for us. He told us the story, more than once, of the people of France lining up outside the Army chow hall, waiting to go through the scraps the soldiers left.
My Uncle Gerald served in the Army, too, as well as other uncles and cousins. Gerald served in Europe and in the states, in California and at Walter Reed.
The end of Gerald’s service to his fellow veterans and his country didn’t end with his enlistment, however.
A coal miner by occupation and a leader in his church, for decades Gerald took on the burden, most often single-handedly, of providing upkeep at our family cemetery on the hill between Drennen and Zela in Nicholas County. It wasn’t a little task; it’s a big cemetery that covers quite a bit of land. It’s not just Keenans buried there either. It’s actually more like a community cemetery than a family cemetery.
Each year, from the days of push mowers until years later when he got a riding mower, he’d be out there for hours on end, making sure the cemetery was presentable.
He didn’t do it for money. I’m sure he never took a penny except for gas for the mower.
He didn’t do it for thanks, because those were most likely few and far between as well.
He didn’t do it for recognition, because it wasn’t known by many who took care of the cemetery. Or even considered by some. It just happened.
I’ve been thinking a lot over the past days and weeks about the Keenan Cemetery and all the other small cemeteries dotting the landscape that someone cares enough to put out the time and effort to care for.
Because this year, Gerald couldn’t take care of the cemetery.
Uncle Gerald, who’s nearly 83, has developed macular degeneration and has trouble seeing because of that and an eye injury several years ago. He has some other health issues right now, as well, and he just couldn’t do it this year.
Fortunately, some other folks have pitched in and taken care of the cemetery — mowing, cutting brush, etc. So if you visit Keenan Cemetery today, you won’t notice the difference. Visibly, that is.
As long as I live, though, I’ll think of my Uncle Gerald, out there in the sweltering sun, serving others. And I’ll be thankful, as well, of the ones who have stepped in when he could no longer continue that service.
If you visit a cemetery this year that doesn’t offer perpetual care as part of your burial package, think about the care the cemetery gets. There’s someone behind that, whether one man on a riding mower of dozens of volunteers; be thankful for their service to those who have served.
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