My favorite non-religious holidays are the wing-span encompassing Memorial Day weekend, Independence Day, and Labor Day – otherwise known as the American summer. We are now on the cusp. Regardless of the celestial ordering of the seasons, this period of the year seems to always zoom by too quickly.
The Fourth of July is rightly the apotheosis of this glorious season, the rightful celebration of our nation’s freedom — the country to which Abraham Lincoln rightly referred as “the last best hope of earth.”
I have been a particular Memorial Day celebrant since I was a boy. Summer and I were made for each other.
Cookouts on the deck; backyard croquet and badminton games until the sun winks its close of day; early morning sunrises and late evening sunsets that reveal God’s endless palette of oranges, purples, and yellows in the western sky, pitched against the summersong of crickets and cicadas; a cool glade of trees on a molten afternoon; frozen custard and especially on almost any seaside boardwalk; the way a newly-clipped lawn looks with its symmetrical lines through the rainbow-arch of a sprinkler. My list is endless.
This year, our Covid-Summer, means that regular and beloved seasonal traditions may have to be winnowed, tailored, or withdrawn — enjoyed in Spirit if not in person.
There are six activities I particularly enjoy during this season. With all of them, I associate some of my favorite people.
First, is an organic draw of sand and surf. My wife and I are genuine beach people. We love the many moods of being seaside at all times of the morning, noon, or early evening. Languid days of gentle breezes across the water; sitting beneath an umbrella with a cold Coke or iced tea and a great book; the feel of one’s feet in the sand or dipped into the glacial ocean water of the mid Atlantic; the angle of the sun across an otherwise azure sky, cloudless and near-perfect; and the faint sound of someone’s pleasant taste in music faraway across the beach. This is the sea as idyll.
Second, is a passion for tennis that has only become more boundless the older I get. I have always loved the game, and living in the Roger Federer era – even as he defies gravity by continuing to be competitive as he approaches his 40th birthday with a panther-like grace and rodent-like speed – has been a signal delight. My tennis partner Bill and I never tire of one another’s company, and our Saturday morning matches are anticipated all through the week. It is his camaraderie, sportsmanship, and unbending gift of friendship that make being on the court such a pleasure.
Third, is a nearly equal passion for golf, even as my ability to drive the ball has decreased as I ‘mature.’ I’ve been blessed with marvelous golf partners through the years – Rich, Tom, Eric, and Pat. My favorite will always be our eldest son. We have played so many games across the years that if I had saved all the score cards I would be able to wallpaper Buckingham Palace. I distinctly remember his remarkable trajectory and mastery of the game – realizing for the first time that the young pup to which I had introduced the game was, of a sudden, giving his father driving, pitching, and putting tips – a touch of quiet grace.
Fourth, is the sheer joy I feel when I am in a sailboat gliding across the water when the man I consider the most adroit skipper on the East Coast, my friend Doug, is firmly at the helm of the Flying Scot sailboat. Our Sunday cruises, usually two hours in length, are the joy of joys, often accompanied by mutual stories of great sails of the past. I recall lyrical words of my late friend Bill: “Ah, but the sea always has something lying in wait for you … you have shortened the sail just a little, because you want more steadiness than you are going to get at this speed, the wind up to twenty-two, twenty-four knots … you are moving at racing speed, parting the buttery sea with a scalpel, and the waters roar by … triumphalism … and the stars also seem to be singing together.” Just so.
Fifth, not all the best summertime activities take place beneath a canopy of stars or a cavalcade of willowy clouds. One of the preternatural blessings of otherwise blazingly warm days is to sneak inside to a cooler clime and enjoy listening to great classical music with our youngest son, himself a musician. When we first began our occasional listening sessions, I often recommended my musical pinups: Handel, Haydn, Bach, and others in the Austro-Germanic core. Our son showed me that the Romantics – Mahler, Rachmaninoff, et al. – successfully stirred the soul in dramatically new ways, and he was right. There is nothing I relish more than finding a quiet time to bid the world adieu and enjoy with my son some of the greatest music ever composed.
Sixth and finally, as Memorial Day weekend dawns, I realize with heartsickness that I will have to curtail my 30 year tradition of visiting the Vietnam Wall, the Lincoln Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery during this start-of-summer weekend because of the Covid-induced closures of the National Mall in Washington and our greatest national resting place across the Potomac River in northern Virginia.
I have felt humbled to pay homage to the valiant, chivalric, and gallant heroes who defended, preserved, sacrificed, and extended our national peace, security, and freedom. Theirs was uncommon valor. The most memorable visits were the ones with my best friend, my dad, himself a Navy veteran.
The tradition had been unbroken: to locate my uncle’s name on the labyrinthine Vietnam Wall; to ascend those vast marble stairs to read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural while marveling at sculptor Daniel Chester French’s iconic masterpiece of the president who gave his life to preserve our union; to have surveyed with moistened eyes the thousands of little American flags adorning each Arlington grave in that final resting place of heroism animated by an iridescent beauty with lasting purpose, and then concluding the visit with a hushed gratitude at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This is humanity at its most noble and sacred.
This year, with millions of others, I will instead remember in silent solemnity and prayer, and with limitless gratitude, a timeless and elegiac moment on the cusp of summer where the eternal and the temporal intersect – what T.S. Eliot rightly observed as an intimation of immortality.
Their sacrifice now rightly trails clouds of glory where once they had been the living embodiment of the tip of the spear of liberty.