Kitchen, The Back Porch

Thoughts on Memorial Day

By Sheila Johnson

Korean War Memorial, Washington, DC

It was over ten years ago. We were heading back from a charity fundraiser celebrating powerful women.  I had served as the co-chair of the event, and it had been a rousing success.

Among the attendees had been Queen Noor of Jordan, actress Naomi Judd, and the now Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. The music, meanwhile, was provided by former lead singer of the Doobie Brothers, Michael McDonald.

But the star of the night turned out to be U2 front man, Bono, who stole the show with his comments about strong women, including a wonderful tribute to the importance of the lioness to her pride. Bono told how, when the males of the pride were sleeping off a big meal or maybe lazing in the cool shade, it was the lionesses who continued to hunt for food. It was the lionesses whose maternal instincts compelled them to constantly protect their cubs.  And the lionesses who were always alert and always on the lookout for danger.

The Dublin native even seemed to give a somewhat Irish growl every time he spoke the word, “lioness.”

All in all, it was a wonderful evening in celebration of strong and powerful women.

But on the way home something happened I’ll never forget.  We were on a country road no more than a mile or two from my farm, a road lit only by the light of the moon and the bright headlights of my SUV.  My driver at the time, who I’d known for years, suddenly slowed to a complete stop. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked from the back seat as we sat with the vehicle idling. 

“Look,” he said, pointing through the windshield.

There in the road ahead, I saw her.  A magnificent deer – a doe – who stood in the middle of the road at an angle.  It was as though she was trying to prevent us from advancing any further. 

“What the heck is she doing?” I asked. 

My driver repeated, “Look,” this time pointing to the side of the road just ahead.  There, slowly bleeding to death in the tall grass, was a small fawn.  He or she had clearly just been hit by a car and was now only a few moments from taking his or her last breath. 

It was then that my eyes drifted back to the mother, who continued to stand across the road defiantly, just inches from our SUV – its chrome grill and twin headlights no doubt looking to that deer like some demonic and mechanical killing machine.

Yet she didn’t flinch.  She didn’t move.  She stood there utterly defenseless, yet somehow defiantly daring us to try to advance even one inch.

That’s when I looked into her eyes.  There I saw it.  It was a fix of fear and pain and purpose, a steely sort of maternal resolve that made me reflexively gasp as I peered into the eyes of a mother whose child was dying and who was powerless to stop it.

I buried my head in my husband Bill’s chest and told my driver in a half-whisper, “Please, drive around her.”  

I tell you this story now, because less than two weeks ago it was Memorial Day.  And, for reasons I’m guessing you already know I thought of that fateful night on Memorial Day as I sat there drinking my morning coffee and looking out over the rolling hills, the glistening farm ponds, and the road on which over a decade ago I watched a mother lose her baby to violence, even as she risked her own life trying to protect it.

I thought of the incident because, while on Memorial Day each year we honor those who’ve fought and often died for our country and the freedoms we hold dear, we rarely – if ever – take a moment to remember the mothers of those many brave and fallen soldiers throughout the years.

Because, as hard as it must be for a young man or woman to leave everything they knew behind and to travel a half a world away to fight and stand willing to die in defense of freedom and human rights, it must be even harder to be the mother of such a person. And it must be excruciating to watch silently and powerlessly as the thing you love most in the world is removed from the safety of your arms and placed directly in harm’s way.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Fort Myer, VA

We honor our soldiers on Memorial Day, in other words, but we never seem to think about the mothers of the soldiers.

The ones who, during World Wars I and II, would have opened up their front door to find a young man with a telegram in hand, one from the U.S. War Department, that always opened with the chilling words, “We regret to inform you…”

And the ones who, these days, live in constant fear of the morning or afternoon when a young officer or two will ring her front doorbell and she’ll greet them warmly and with a half-smile, even as a chill runs down her spine, because she’ll know deep down inside why they’re standing there.

I suppose if there’s a point to this essay it’s this: next Memorial Day, let’s make a promise to ourselves – both as individuals, and as a country – to not only remember the brave young men and women who’ve given so much to so many.  Let’s also remember, and give a silent prayer on behalf of the mothers of those brave souls, who – just like a certain deer whose fate and mine happened to intersect so many years ago – would give their own lives if it meant keeping their children from harm.

God bless you, my friends, and a happy belated Memorial Day. Here’s to our freedoms, here’s to our soldiers, and here’s to Gold Star mothers everywhere who, with no fanfare and little acknowledgement, continue to make it all possible.