My nine-year old has always been into video games and Nerf guns. He also frequently asks about JFK's assassination. Therefore, I've often wondered if I'd unwittingly birthed a sniper rather than a precious little boy.
This Memorial Day weekend, however, changed everything.
"Mom?" my boy asked. "Where are the shells from Grandpa's funeral?"
I put my fork down. He was asking for the shell casings from two 21-gun military salutes: one given during my grandfather's funeral and another from the funeral of my husband's grandfather.
"I'm making a memorial. For Memorial Day," he said. Natch.
"They're upstairs," my husband said. "On the bookcase in the glass mug." I'm pretty certain my husband resisted the urge to say, "They're special, so please be careful." Well, at least I know I did.
Ten minutes later, my boy asked, "Do we have any flowers?"
When I'd planted impatients in the yard earlier in the day, I found myself with a few leftovers, so I'd left them on my neighbor's doorstep. Walking my son to the neighbor's door, I handed him a small, plastic container with four young plants. "Here," I said. "These actually need a home." He took the flowers as I tried to contain my growing curiosity.
My boy disappeared into the basement with the shell casings and the impatients and a picture of JFK he'd printed from the internet. Five minutes later, he emerged and announced, "It's ready."
His JFK Memorial was a sight to behold. My boy had lined the shell casings around the photograph and in front of the flowers. All of this was neatly arranged on the red brick of our faux-fireplace -- complete with 5 blazing candles I'd lit earlier.
My boy knelt in reverence before his shrine, looking far too sweet to be reminded that JFK hadn't actually died during war. The last thing he needed was Wikipedia's definition: a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.
"Mom," he said, looking up at me. "Do you like it?"
I looked into his eyes, the blue-green eyes that opened for the first time on April 21, 2003, one month after the U.S. declared War on Iraq.
"I love it," I said to this boy who never knew life before 9/11.
"Do you want to say something with me?" he asked, the look in his eyes saying I don't know how to start this, but I need to.
"I'd love to," I said. I knelt down, facing him, our foreheads touching.
"JFK was my favorite president," he said, looking up at me. His eyes pleaded: Is this the right thing to say?
"He was a wonderful president," I said. I made the sign of the cross and he did the same. "Dear God," I said, looking at the ink-jet version of the 35th president who'd been assassinated four years and six months before I was born. "Please bless John F. Kennedy and continue to watch over him in heaven. We're so sorry he was taken so early from us, and from his wife and children."
I began to make the sign of the cross, but my boy stopped me. "Can I say something now?" he asked.
I looked at him. "Of course you can," I said, my prayer hands back in position.
"Dear John. We're sorry you had to leave us. And Lee Harvey Oswald...he should be ashamed. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right." My boy's tears rolled down his cheeks.
Tonight was not a night to correct his facts on American holiday factoids...or that more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in the war my boy was born into.
"Amen," he said, wrapping his arms around my neck.
Later, after my husband came downstairs to admire the memorial, he and my boy blew out the candles in the fireplace.
"What are these?" my husband asked, picking up a small medallion next to the shell casings.
"They were with the shells," our son said.
"You know," my husband said, touching the colorful ribbon, "I have something to show you."
They emerged from the office with a leather suitcase I didn't even know we had.
"Where was that?" I asked.
"In the cabinet above the door that we never use. I'd forgotten my grandmother gave this to me after my grandfather died."
Inside the worn leather trunk, neatly folded, lay the Navy uniforms worn by my husband's grandfather during World War II. Our boy stood in awe, touching the dark wools, the creases in the olive khakis and the fabric badges.
As he tried on the jackets and hats, our boy stood taller, flushed with honor and pride.
His Memorial Day memorial had been a success.