Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day

Hello, internets. Welcome back -- physically, mentally, whatever -- from the holiday weekend.

Sugar and I took a last-minute trip to New Hampshire with Womb Buddy, stayed in the 200-year-old house she moved to after leaving our hometown when we were both little. I visited in the summers for a few years, sliding in the swimming hole under the covered bridge, getting locked in a horse stall full of kittens, and generally living the country life, oblivious to the fact that W.B.'s parents' marriage was collapsing. (The packet of old photos I found at my parents' house this Christmas suggests I was oblivious to everything except kittens. One picture of a person in the whole batch: a fuzzy me, holding a kitten.) Until last summer, I'd never been back, though I picture the house and its yard whenever I read Madeline L'Engle's Wrinkle In Time books, remembering lying on the glacier-scraped granite outcropping to watch the sky as Meg lies on the stargazing rock.

The house is different in some ways, despite its familiar creaking floorboards and narrow stairs. Parts have been remodeled, and its denizens now include W.B.'s step-mother and step-siblings. But the town is old and small and slow to change. There is still no mail delivery to houses, no stop light, no noise or light at night. Its valley of green fields and shuttered houses is still watched over by blue mountains, the postcard-perfect New England town.

On Monday, we walked down the road to visit a woman we met last year, who with her son raises alpacas and shetland sheep for wool. Last year, her fluffy tom cat herded geese away from us as we walked the road towards the swimming hole, and she insisted on taking us out back to meet the animals. We loved it, of course. She's a single mom, and she explained that this is an inexpensive way for her to keep her son close -- the animals themselves were gifts from 4-H. We wondered, a year later, if they'd still be at it, if her son ever was as invested as she, if he might have grown older and started racing dirt bikes or chasing girls.

Thumper and the Bug
W.B. and Thumper, July 2009

We found the shepherdess at work in her front garden, spending her birthday putting in new perennials. She was happy to see us and happier still to usher us back to the barn and pastures, where her son showed off two-day-old lambs with evident pride. The alpacas were overdue for a visit from the shearer, who is behind in his work. Our favorite ram, Thumper, died of bloat over the winter, but nevertheless, the little farm carries on.

Mostly, he looked happier than this, but I chose this picture because OMG I AM HOLDING A LAMB!

We continued down the road, over the covered bridge, and into the old part of the cemetery, where flags marked graves of those who served in wars all the way back to the Revolutionary.

Mill Cemetery, Meriden, NH

The cemetery is beautiful, shaded by ancient maples, in sight of lupin-covered hillsides. It is not so hard to think of spending eternity on the high banks of the fast river there, visited by hikers on their way down from the mountain behind it. We hiked there this weekend, as most of those buried here must have at one point or other. The forest shifts from dark hemlock to brighter groves of beech and maple. Where sun creeps through, forget-me-nots cluster around the path. From the bald on top, you can survey the valley.

View from French's Ledges

Hiking in the eastern mountains this time of year always makes me think of a college housemate of mine, who hiked the Appalachian Trail the summer after she graduated. I remember how excited she was for the trip, and also the quiet confidence that ran under her talking about it, the knowledge that she had the skills for the trip but also the right mindset, that she knew well how to break big projects into steady, determined days.

That attitude was typical of Roselle. She was so steady in every way, like a sturdy tree you know will always be there to be counted on. She was pre-med, and it was clear that she excelled in school not by lucky flashes of brilliance punctuating long weeks of sloth but by day after day of orderly studying. She got her work done without panic, and yet never shook her head over those of us who were grasshoppers to her ant when it came to laying up stores against the coming winters of exams and final projects. Her professors noticed, too:
"Roselle was smarter and more capable than the rest of us, and she held an almost tender benevolence toward others. She did not ask anyone else to work to the high standards she herself was working to achieve. "
Tender is the word exactly. She paid attention to you in such a quiet way that you could easily miss it, until you sat with her at dinner and discovered she remembered everything about that play you were in, that joke you told once. When I watered her plants while she flew to Texas for a med school interview, she brought me back a packet of bluebell seeds, having remembered a small picture of a blue-blooming field I'd had up on my wall.

If Roselle was a more diligent student than most of us, she seemed thrilled with the clownish ways we were different from her. If I close my eyes, I can hear her sudden, full-throated laugh, surprised at whatever we living room layabouts had invented to amuse ourselves while she studied in the dining room, somehow untroubled by the cacophony we regularly raised. And we all loved her. Of all the women I lived with those four years, Roselle is the only one I can think of no one's complaints about (unless you count her old roommate's assertion that she closed her dresser drawers too loudly in the early mornings). There simply wasn't anything to complain about.

Roselle died in Iraq in 2007. She was an Army doctor, and had volunteered for overseas duty because others in her group had small children. She was by all accounts tender and devoted as ever.

The news of her death was a shock. When another housemate forwarded me the email she'd received, I thought the dead Smithie in the subject line must be Madeline L'Engle, who died close to the same time. I didn't expect it to be someone I really knew -- but why not? Exactly how naive am I, that I expected to go without losing a friend with our country at war for so long? Did I think that the pins I'd worn (paltry activism), the letters I'd written (never enough) would somehow protect me? Did I think this was all just an intellectual debate? (Answer: of course not. Knowing how our volunteer army works, I instead counted on my race and class to insulate me.)

Soon, nausea set in. The Army would not release the details of Roselle's death, only that she'd died in Kirkuk not long after arriving there with her unit, that her death was not combat-related. Another soldier in her unit, a man, died the same day. I hate what I know of what women are too often subject to in our military. I hate that they are often raped, hurt, killed by their fellow soldiers, that the military doesn't seem to care enough rid itself of its old habits of misogyny (that seems too weak a word). Rape is twice as common in the military as in civilian life, a statistic all the more disgusting because the Army purports to teach unit cohesion, to protect one another. I hate that the only big name who ever seems to talk about this publicly, to admit that it exists, that it's not just isolated incident after isolated incident, is Garry Trudeau. Shouldn't we be reading about this outside of the comics section?

I didn't know that's what happened to Roselle, of course. I knew it could have been anything. A munitions accident in a warehouse somewhere. A car crash. A fall down a flight of stairs. But knowing that it was far from outlandish to imagine her attacked by a comrade is unacceptable.

The Army has since released its report. They say that she was overwhelmed, unprepared. That a senior officer berated her, that she told a fellow officer that she couldn't do it anymore. That she returned to her barracks and shot herself.

I can't tell you how difficult I find it to square this story with the Roselle I knew, who seems just like the one described by medical school classmates and hospital colleagues who wrote messages of condolence after she died. Yes, I know that suicide is often an impulsive act, that there is no "type" of person who attempts it, that it can happen out of the blue. Maybe she was sent overseas without proper training, a less awful negligence on the Army's behalf. Maybe she was that thrown by whatever was said to her, though that's hard to imagine. I keep trying to build a version of Roselle in my head that allows me to believe this story, but it hasn't worked yet.

Instead, I am left with doubt and with anger at an Army that promises to take care of its own. At an Army I can't trust to tell the truth, when it has tried so hard to cover up or ignore other problems. At a war we had no business starting, made possible by jingoism and racism and calculated lies. It's not politic, I realize, to say such things on Memorial Day. We are to wave the flag and believe sacrifice makes every cause noble. We are to "Support the Troops," which means ignoring the kinds of support the troops may actually need, if the real circumstances of their service don't lend themselves to blockbuster movies. But Roselle didn't heroically give her life to keep us free and I refuse to forget her that way.

We college housemates, classmates, teammates, and friends of Roselle pooled money to have a tree planted on campus in her honor, a Cladrastis lutea "Rosea" -- pink-flowered Yellowwood. Sugar and I saw the young tree this month, growing on the street where we all lived together. It takes several years to begin blooming, but when it does, it sends out surprising, wisteria-like clusters of pink. I hope it will stand watch on our street for many years, steady and lovely and sometimes laughing with flowers.

Thanks to Tom Gill for the picture of a blooming Yellowwood.

Pictures of Roselle's tree are up here.


  1. Such a sad thing that happened to your friend. So well-written - I could just imagine her. And what you say about the army - Heaven help us - SO true. So sad. So wrong.
    Poor Roselle.

  2. Thank you. For reminding us what the real deal is. I refuse to forget anyone that way. Thank you for reminding me.

  3. Sounds like a beautiful weekend.
    And how incredibly sad about your friend. She sounds like she was such an amazing person.

  4. Ok now that you have taken me into a movie scene or a book scene- OMG how awesome is that picturesque little place??? Seems you guys had an awesome time.

    So sad about Roselle, may she rest in peace. Sadly I think it happens waay too often and it shouldn't. xoxoxo

  5. That was a pretty mind-blowing journey you took us on, from a bucolic little slice of heaven to a horrible, deeply saddening little slice of hell. Thank you for sharing this story about a woman who was clearly amazing--I'm so sorry she's gone--and for writing something real about Memorial Day--I'm too chicken-shit to take on Big Issues.

  6. what you wrote about your friend is a very beautiful remembrance.

  7. I read this yesterday and haven't stopped thinking about it since. I knew this story was going to take a tragic turn, but didn't expect it to go quite where it did. I will likely always think of Roselle on Memorial Day from now on as well.

  8. I am so very sorry to hear about the tragic loss of your friend.

  9. Thank you so much for the time you took to tell your story of Roselle. Memorial Day is indeed a fitting day to reflect on the costs of war. Not every sacrifice is a willing one, or a noble one, or one which the entity (the cause of the war itself? or in this case, the U.S. Army?) is deserving of. Anyway, regardless, thank you for memorializing Roselle.