I had just finished watering the flowers when I saw them.
There they were, two older people and a mentally challenged younger man, trudging up the hill with a basket full of flags and markers. The older man and woman were consulting a map, then stopping periodically to place a marker in the ground and insert an American flag into it. After placing each flag, they'd stop for a moment and look at each grave. Maybe they were saying a prayer, or maybe they were just resting a moment.
I picked up my keys and watering can and walked down to meet them. I introduced myself and said, "I want to thank you for what you're doing."
The woman said, "Honey, we do this every year. You must have someone here."
I responded that I was visiting quite a few people, but I had just been planting flowers at my parents' grave. My dad, I told her, had died in March.
"Oh, honey," she said again. "Was he a veteran?"
I said that he was indeed, and the man said, "I'll go take care of him right now." And the trio started up the hill.
The woman and I chatted a bit as I led them to my parents' grave. Her name was Mary Costanzo, she said, and she and her family were affiliated with the American Legion on the city's southeast side. I knew the building well; it was right down the street from the spot where my mother had grown up. The house was torn down years ago, but I still see the neighborhood in my head.
Mary had a bum knee, she told me, and her husband was getting older. Their son had some challenges that sometimes made life difficult. But by and large, she said, they had so much to be thankful for that placing flags at the cemetery every Memorial Day was "the least we can do."
Mary's husband placed a marker in the ground on my dad's side of the stone. My new friend Mary put her arm around me, and we both cried as we watched the flag move in the breeze. "I lost my dad five years ago, honey," Mary said. "It never really gets easier."
More than the flowers that adorned the stone, my dad would have been proudest to be identified as a veteran of World War II, the war that nearly killed his brother but provided their immigrant family with official recognition as Americans. And my mom, a young woman left alone with a brand-new baby when my dad put on his uniform and shipped out, deserves to be proud as well.
I don't believe war is really the answer to anything, and I grieve for those who are still feeling the acute losses of sons and daughters, spouses and parents. But all ideologies aside, I want so badly in 20 years to be a person who goes to the cemetery and places flags on the graves of strangers because it's "the least I can do." People like the Costanzos remind me to be more conscious of the things I need to change in my life to get there.