By Nancy B. Kennedy
A few months after we’d moved to our new house, still asleep one Sunday morning in May, my husband and I were jolted awake by the sharp sound of gunfire.
My husband bolted out of bed and tore to the window, ready to defend his family from attack. But we lived in the tiny town of Hopewell, New Jersey. Norman Rockwell would have been happy here! What possible threat could be shattering the early-morning peace of this quintessential small town?
The house we’d bought in town was old—it’s on a map from 1887 that hangs in the town museum. Rummaging around in our attic, we’d found a newspaper from 1917 in the eaves.
It is a small, sturdy Victorian house, but it has thirty windows. As the shots continued, we stumbled from window to window, trying to grasp our situation. Finally, reaching our back windows, the scene unfolded before us.
The backyard to our house borders the cemetery of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church. There, squinting in the bright sunlight that glinted off the dewy grass, we saw a line of uniformed men standing at attention between the rows of graves.
Of course! It was Memorial Day weekend. This was a 21-gun salute! The priest had offered a prayer, a bugler had played taps—which we had apparently slept through—and then the shots that woke us began, the reports bouncing off houses and echoing across the hills of our valley. As the last shot died away, the men stood silently for a moment, and then, slowly and respectfully, they dispersed.
This ceremony is repeated every year at each of the three cemeteries in town. After finishing at our cemetery, the men set off for one at the center of town where in a plot bordering the Old School Baptist Church, John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, is buried. From there, the veterans head to the expansive hillside cemetery where many of us “townies” will one day reside.
My husband and I had chosen to live in Hopewell because of the many joys of small-town living. Among them was the annual Memorial Day parade, one that we’d attended even before moving here. In fact, over the years, I’d been to many such parades. Before we were married, my husband was a volunteer for several rescue squads and he marched in more than his share of parades. Today, as an ambulance driver for Hopewell Borough’s rescue squad, he once again marches.
Of course, I had always set up by the side of the road for these parades and clapped for his squad and fire department. And I duly applauded the veterans who marched or waved from the windows of slow-moving cars. But Memorial Day had never meant much beyond this to me. I loved the day’s traditions—flag-waving, fireworks, picnics and parades—but, as a remembrance of those who have died in military service, the rituals of the day didn’t really run deep.
My nonchalance ended on that Sunday morning in May. That simple ceremony in the cemetery behind our house touched my heart in a way that no hometown parade or fireworks display ever had.
In the 20 years that we’ve lived in our house now, I’ve made it a point to waken early on this day, dress hastily and walk out into our back yard. There, I stand silently for this brief ceremony of remembrance, right there between my tomato garden and our son’s trampoline. When it’s over, I wave to the small band of veterans and then head back in, slowly and respectfully, to make coffee and get ready for church.
Nancy B. Kennedy lives in Hopewell Borough with her husband, John, and their son, Evan. Her most recent book is "Miracles and Moments of Grace: Inspiring Stories from Military Chaplains" (Leafwood, March 2011). Visit her website at www.nancybkennedy.com.
COPYRIGHT © The Times of Trenton 2011 Date: 2011/05/29 Monday Page: A09 Section: EDITORIAL