Memorial Day

When I arrived at Ms. Ezersky’s apartment mid-Sunday morning, she announced that she’d barely slept the night before. She had spent six months preparing a tribute for a Russian actor and friend and presented it on Saturday in Brighton Beach. The first words out of her mouth were: “He was like Spencer Tracy or Laurence Olivier, but few even knew who he was, like so many other great people.”

I had just come from a Memorial Day parade in Greenpoint, where there are two living World War II veterans. My three-year-old son especially enjoyed the trumpets and bagpipes–also a small American flag handed to him by a girl scout. I was moved by the procession and the distant lyrics of “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.” Most of all, I was touched by a petite woman who must have been in her nineties–she was wearing a navy blue suit with white gloves and a pill box hat. I was aware that she had come from a time when people dressed properly on such occasions as a form of respect and assumed that she may have lost someone (or several loved ones) in war.

Presidential elections were also held in Ukraine on Sunday amid continued violence. In so much of the Russian literature I’ve read with Ms. Ezersky (and hold dear), nineteenth century writers in exile decry the oppressiveness of the state and the very real fight for freedom in their own lives–the need to clear some space in their own minds and hearts in the face of atrocity and loss. One of my favorites is Lermontov’s Native Land, where he begins by saying that it’s not the Russian government he loves or the anthems, but the endless swaying forests, the birch trees, the people dancing in a little cottage past midnight. I also love the following poem by him:

“Farewell, dirty Russia, country of slaves, country of bosses, farewell to your blue military uniforms and the people devoted to it. Perhaps, the walls of the Causcasus will protect me from your pashas, from your all-seeing eyes, your all-hearing ears.”

For poetry written more than 150 years ago, the sentiment feels timely and prescient. Whenever I ask Ms. Ezersky about the current events in Russia and Ukraine, she shrugs and says “It is the same as it always is. People want to be free.” I have been touched over the years by her insistence and urgency in remembering great artists as well as statesmen and friends of all trades who have fought for this in their own lives and for others. To me, it is something to treasure on Memorial Day and through many small acts on countless other days throughout the year–quietly or publicly, in any country, in the air, on land and sea.

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