Memorial Day in the US is a day to remember our fallen soldiers. It was always an emotional day for my family of origin, because my Mother lost her twin brother in World War II. Often, we would travel to Mom’s home town in southern Minnesota on Memorial Day to visit my uncle’s grave and to partake in the town’s festivities. I remember the parade that featured the high school marching band, the mayor in a convertible and various veterans groups. The parade would terminate in the town’s cemetery, where my uncle, and now my mother, too, was laid to rest. From the top of Colonel Culville hill in this beautiful wooded cemetery, various local politicians and clergy would address the gathered crowd. Every year, a local high school student would read the Gettysburg Address, that amazingly brief, quasi-poetic speech that memorializes the ultimate sacrifice made by all US soldiers killed in action.
Today, I’d like to memorialize the story of my Mother and her brother’s death. There are millions of stories like this, of families losing loved ones in war; this story is mine to share as a tribute to all families who today grieve the loss of a loved one in war. It is a story of love, of loss, and of life.
Jay (my Mom) and her twin, Irving, had a very close, even psychic relationship - they could communicate without speaking. They finished each other’s sentences. They were ying and yang, contrasts combining to make a whole. Irv had blond, curly hair and was handsome and athletic; Jay had straight brown hair, coke-bottle glasses and was a bit nerdy. They grew up on the family farm in a small rural community in Minnesota.
They attended a Lutheran college together for one year before the winds of war swept through southern Minnesota – even though their other brother was already serving in the Navy Air Force and Irv could have stayed home on the farm, he felt strongly about serving his country in its time of need. Irving enlisted in the Army to become a pilot for the US in World War II.
Unable to continue at the college where they attended classes together, Jay transferred to the university in Minneapolis. It was a desperately lonely time for Jay, who had never been separated from her twin brother. They wrote long letters to each other, and enjoyed their brief but rare visits with their family on the farm.
One night in November, 1944, Jay was restless. She couldn’t sleep, her thoughts constantly turned toward her brothers who were both on active duty. Irving’s safety most vexed her – where was he, and what was he doing? She tossed and turned, unable to sleep, fighting a premonition of tragedy. Before dawn the next morning, there was a knock on her door. She opened it to find her Uncle Reuben, who lived nearby, hat in hand and tears streaming down his checks. He whispered, telling her what she already suspected, “Jay, it’s your favorite. It’s Irving.”
Irving had been killed that night at George Field Air Force base in Southern Illinois, a victim of the haste with which this country had entered into the war, a victim of the haste with which the Army Air Force had assembled airplanes during the war. His plane crashed on take-off due to a mechanical failure and killed him instantly. Uncle Reuben took Jay home to her grieving parents. They buried Irving in the town cemetery, next to his best friend in high school, a soldier who had been killed in Europe 6 months before.
I can imagine that memories of that horrible night and the days that followed would come flooding back to my Mother on Memorial Day, as we stood there in the cemetery honoring the sacrifice that Irving made for this wonderful country. We always cried at the cemetery, just like I am as I write this.
Even though I cannot be there at the cemetery this Memorial Day, in my spirit, I am laying flowers on the gravestone of my Uncle Irving. I pay tribute to him and to all who have given their lives for their country, and for the families who mourn them.