I was holding up pretty well. Fortuitously, whenever I began to feel the pain creeping up, someone would come by and smile and hug me and laugh about the red dress and how much that would have meant to Aunt Helen. Family members from near and far, Aunt Helen’s friends and fellow nurses from the Navy hospital on base where she worked as a civilian for years and years before she retired, funeral home staff, some people I didn’t even know.
It was warm, but not yet uncomfortably so just yet. Standing in front of the funeral home this morning, smoking a cigarette in my blue pinstriped suit with only a red silk tie to symbolize her defiance, I was still holding it together.
Watching my cousin gave me comfort. She wore her loudest red dress, great big tropical flowers on it, bright red nails on fingers and toes, and a red sweater. It was a beautiful dress on a beautiful woman, and more than that it was a great big “Fuck you – Love, Mom” to anyone brazen enough to consider opening their yap about it. She was simply stunning.
Though she was the most redly dressed of us all today, a quick glance around told who was saying what with their wardrobe. Red hankies, red socks, and even a pair of red sunglasses flashed here and there. It was quiet solidarity, and it was moving.
I was relatively calm inside until I saw them. It was only when I saw those nine faces that I began to lose it.
I’ve mentioned that Aunt Helen was a Marine once, back in the 1950s. It was a new thing for the Corps to have women in uniform alongside the men, and the Corps had a bit of trouble adjusting to the unique issues presented by women in the ranks. Aunt Helen was a pioneer of sorts, and as was mentioned by the Catholic priest / Navy Chaplain later in the day during the funeral service, she helped pave the way for women in the Marine Corps today.
Aunt Helen was married and pregnant within about eight or nine months of her enlistment. Having no real idea what the hell to due with a pregnant Marine, the Corps in those days issued immediate medical discharges to Marines who found themselves “in the family way”. They eventually got over that, but it took a while.
Aunt Helen was never really sure if she had been in long enough to have earned any military honors, never felt like she deserved VA benefits and never inquired about them because of it. During the several conversations she and I had about that, she always mentioned that were she entitled, the one thing she’d really like was to have the casket draped in the flag to mark her service. It was there last night, and it made me smile.
I was just thinking about what a pleasant day it was to be buried, when nine young faces came from behind a building on the corner of the cross street fifty meters away. Nine young people, eight young men and one young woman, dressed in matching green, all in step, solemnity and duty etched on faces too young for such things, crossed the street and turned in our direction.
Silently they half-stepped all the way to the funeral home as I began to fall apart. In formation, they made their way to the front pews of the chapel, and in formation they took their seats and stared straight ahead like honorary statues until the service was done. Together they stood and marched out at the end, together they waited at the back of the hearse for the casket, and together they ushered Aunt Helen inside.
Like a well oiled machine they ushered Aunt Helen out of the hearse at the military cemetery called Montford Point, and as a unit posted her casket with full honors. In unison they marched off to their staging area, and in unison they took up their rifles and waited.
There was Taps, there were salutes, there was folding and presentation of the flag, and there were condolences from the Corps.
And there were twenty one gun shots to mourn the passing of a United States Marine.
From whence came the art: