The scent of the lilacs reminded me of my grandmother. ‘Double French White”, she would brag. They were the size of small trees and shaded her front porch steps. Remember me, she said, kissing me goodbye for the who-knows-how-many-th time as we stood on those steps. Remember I love you and I pray for you every day, she said again. Yes, Gram, I answered again. She wasn’t convinced, and she shook her curly white hair. So young, she said again, her blue eyes looking back and forth into mine. Why do they take the young ones? She had started crying when earlier, I said excitedly, because we want to go! So I just smiled this time and shrugged. In the end, she let go of my forearm and sighed.
My brother honked the car horn. One more goodbye kiss and I walked the rest of the way down the steps, back straight, uniform freshly pressed. I didn’t look back until the car was pulling away. She was still crying, smiling, waving.
These lilacs I was smelling now—they weren’t “Double French White”. These were the old fashioned, purple ones, the kind you always see in the old grave yards or next to the foundation hole that marks the spot of an abandoned farmhouse. They were crowded into a quart mason jar, in front of the headstone. One stalk fell out as the breeze puffed at them.
It was hot and the breeze felt good. I heard a flag flapping in the breeze and looked toward the noise. Another ‘young one’ was holding on to a polished wooden standard of an oversized flag. He had the bottom of the pole stuck in the dirt, braced against his instep. With one arm straight out he was grasping the pole with his white-gloved hand, just below the bottom of the last stripe on the flag. He swayed a little as the breeze tugged on the flag.
I remembered that! I remembered being the guy who held one of the flags for Honor Guard. The Lieutenant would always bitch me out afterward, for letting the flag sway, as if there was any way to keep that from happening. Yessir was the only acceptable answer, to his face. But everybody knew he was just blowing smoke. At the end of the debriefing, you could see he was proud of us and congratulated all of us for having done an excellent job, making the Army look good.
This guy was doing ok until they played taps. Then he began to cry. Just one tear ran down his left cheek. It could have been the breeze, making his eye water—it was blowing from that side. But then the other eye began leaking and then his chest heaved way up, like he was taking one really deep breath. And then he lost it, almost dropped the flag. Wiped his eyes with his other sleeve. That wasn’t gonna go over well with his Lieutenant. He managed to pull himself back together though, and carried on.
I don’t usually stay for the speech and all the stuff after, but I found myself looking at the gravestone after everyone left. They usually pick somebody old and famous—there are a lot of them buried here. It’s that kind of town, that kind of men, that kind of cemetery. But this grave was fairly new. The stone was still rough to the touch, fresh cut. No moss on it, no chips or cracks from frost over the years. Even the dates were recent. I looked at the name. It kind of gave me a shock: same as mine.
Then in a rush it all came back. Boot camp, the Drill Sergeant screaming in my face. Then that same Sergeant, looking grim as he read the whole platoon our orders to ship out. The rush and confusion of airplanes, trucks, and unloading our gear. And the bullets that whistled. And the punch, the hot pain, the confusion. Hearing my buddies and not being able to answer. I remember smiling at them, trying to. Trying to.
And then, I was back on Gram’s front porch, smelling the “Double French White” lilacs, seeing the tears in her eyes. And trying to smile. Trying.