In the United States, this past weekend marked the celebration of Memorial Day (on Monday), and the Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day is a day for remembering the men and women who died serving in the US armed forces. It is observed with parades, visits to cemeteries, and other solemn events at monuments, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The weekend is also celebrated as the unofficial start of summer with people traveling to the beach and attending other outdoor events, such as picnics and barbecues. Over the past few days, I’ve pondered this dichotomy. On NPR I heard the father of a son killed in Afghanistan say that he never faults people for having a good time on Memorial Day because it never meant anything to him until his own son was killed—and this man was on active duty at the time. (Link to the story here.)
I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a child, parent, spouse, or friend in war. I don’t know how I would react, or how I would grieve. Yet to those who are not grieving, the mixture of solemnity, remembrance, and frivolous fun that takes place over the Memorial Day weekend seem fitting to me because that is what life is about, isn’t it? It’s solemn moments of remembrance, honoring and sharing memories of those gone but not forgotten, and then going on with life and creating new memories.
I’ve also pondered another aspect of Memorial Day—how do we honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country without condoning war itself? As far as I know, there is only one veteran in my family, my mother’s father. His duty to his adopted country is ironic because he fled the country of his birth to escape being drafted into the Tsar’s army—or at least that’s the story I’ve been told. Whether that story is true or not, it is true that Russia was going through a turbulent time, and such times are often even worse for Jews. My grandfather must have left Russia just before the war and revolution. In any case, he did not serve in the country of his birth. He had only lived in the US, his adopted country, for a brief time before the nation entered WWI, and he was drafted. I never spoke to him about his early life, or about his service in the US navy. I imagine it was not something he particularly wanted or chose to do. If someone were to ask me if I was proud of him for his military service, I would say yes, but since I know nothing about his service, I am more proud of him for having the courage to leave his homeland and travel across the ocean (the recent movie, The Immigrant is a vivid portrayal of the perils of immigration in the early 1920s just after WWI), of learning to speak, read, and write English, of making a living during the Depression, of raising two wonderful children, my mother and my uncle, and of living a full and rewarding life after the tragic death of my grandmother in a car accident. He was the driver.
He was a fun grandfather. He took my little sister and me for long walks when he visited us and played games with us—the type of activities he did not have time for when his own children were young.
I’ve been thinking about war recently. There has been a recent bounty of material on WWI, which began one hundred years ago with the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 in Sarajevo. It was the war that brought soldiers to the hell of trench warfare. It was the first war to use particular forms of machinery, such as machine guns and flamethrowers, as well as poisonous gas. The war decimated the young male population of countries throughout Europe, and left thousands of men physically or mentally damaged—“shell shocked,” as it was called then.
For my current book project I’ve been reading and writing about the American Revolution. It was a different type of warfare from WWI, with different causes and different aims. Similarly, WWII was different from WWI. Each generation fights over different territory; each invents new ways to fight, but the result is still death. I’m an idealist, but not totally naïve. I understand that there have always been wars, and that people will always argue whether they are “justified” or not. I honor those who have served in both war and peace, but I don’t think war should be glorified, even if necessary to fight evil. There is nothing glorious about war and killing people.
The British war poet, Wilfred Owen, who fought during WWI, and who ultimately died in combat, expressed these sentiments better than I ever could; he also captured the absolute horror of war in his poetry. His poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” ends with these words:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
(You can access the full poem here. )
We memorialize wars publicly with monuments and parades, but we build private memorials in our hearts and minds. We remember what our loved ones enjoyed or disliked, what they wore, said, and did. So perhaps moving from war to memories of food here is not such a stretch. After all, people often bring food to those who are grieving. The preparing of food brings comfort to those who wonder how to help or what to do, while eating and sharing meals brings its own comfort.
Thinking about my grandfather, reminded me of these cookies pictured below, which I have probably not made in twenty years. They are labeled “Aunt Rae Cookies” on my recipe card, named for my grandfather’s second wife. My mom told me though that all of her aunts made similar cookies. They are dry, rather bland cookies. My grandparents and their relatives did not like sweet, gooey treats. Their cakes and cookies tended to be dry and only slightly sweet—something to have with tea. Memories have compelled me to try them again. So in memory of those long gone, and with the memory of my own teenage self learning to bake and collecting recipes, here are the slightly updated version of Aunt Rae Cookies. Although they are not “Wow” cookies, they are strangely addictive. I “tasted” one, and then ate three more. The recipe has ingredients, but no real directions. Also, I’m not certain if I didn’t count correctly, or if the cookies simply needed an extra cup of flour, so it might be 3 cups or 4 cups. OK. I’m not a professional. I’ve added some flavoring—vanilla and almond extract—to the recipe, along with some finely ground walnuts, and a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon. I think I would add more nuts next time. Enjoy with a cup of tea, coffee, or a glass of wine—and your own memories, of course.
Aunt Rae Cookies
3 (or 4) Cups Flour
1 Cup Sugar
2 Tsp. Baking Powder
¼ tsp. Salt
¾ cup Vegetable oil
Optional: Flavoring, Ground nuts, cinnamon and sugar
Whisk eggs until light, whisk in sugar, oil, and flavoring, if desired. (I used about 1 tsp vanilla extract and ½ tsp. almond extract). Stir in flour, baking powder, salt, and nuts. I used about ¼ cup finely ground walnuts and almonds. Drop spoonfuls of dough onto parchment paper lined cookie sheets. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Bake at 350° for about 10 minutes.