It was a good day.
A good Memorial Day weekend, in fact, with our place packed and happy with a steady stream of guests who shared some beautiful beachday weather, along with the amazing selection of fresh seafood the area has to offer. I've always liked this particular holiday weekend a lot, starting with those days when Memorial Day meant the end of the school year and the beginning of the sweet, sweet days of summer vacation. Of course, as with almost anything good that happened to me in those days, I tended to over-anticipate things, hectoring my poor mother with a never-ending stream of questions and demands.
"What time are we going to the lake?"
"Are we having chicken?"
"Where's my fishing pole?"
"Can I take Shorty (my beloved dog, who specialized in running away and car sickness)?"
"WHERE'S FARFEL?" (my equally beloved inflatable fake dog/swim ring, named after the puppet who pitched Nestle's chocolate on TV in the 50s)
...and so on.
My mom, who probably should have also been known as Saint Alice, would gamely fend me off with a combination of vague promises and mostly empty threats.
"When your father is ready."
"Not if you don't leave me alone so I can cook it."
"Where you left it."
"Around your waist."
...and so on.
Eventually, I grew up. A little, at least.
And I learned there was more to Memorial Day than picnics, the start of summer and the first icy plunge into a muddy swimming hole.
For my mom and dad, it was the beginning of the season-long tradition of placing fresh flowers on family graves in an act of love and remembrance.
It was a day to offer respect and fly flags for those heroes who fought and died to give us sunny days, summer vacations and chicken dinners. A day to listen and learn and reflect and pray, as we visited the graves of those who went before us.
A day to remember.
I missed being home in Galva this year and visiting the city cemetery, where the majesty of the Avenue of Flags sets the stage for the speeches and salutes that mark the real reason for the holiday. But being where we are gave me yet another perspective on the day and its meaning for many.
Camp Lejeune is a massive, 246-square-mile Marine Corps base that includes 14 miles of beachfront just north of us. I've talked before about the frequent chatter of helicopters and thump of munitions that add a real reminder of the serious business these young warriors are preparing for. But it's only after you've lived here for awhile that you really realize how serious it is.
You see, most of those Marines are getting ready to go somewhere dangerous. And many, many families who live around here are waiting for someone to come home.
A week seldom goes by when the local paper doesn't tell of somebody who didn't. The Memorial Day edition of the Jacksonville Daily News included a front-page feature profiling three young widows who are spending their first Memorial Day holiday without their slain husbands.
"Last year, I thought, 'Oh, it's a day off,'" one said. "But now that I've lost my husband, I can appreciate the real meaning of it. Now, it's so much more personal."
But as heartbreaking as those stories were, there was joy this weekend, too, as 500 Marines from the first Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment came home from Afghanistan.
There's always an air of excitement when troops return to Lejeune. The exact day and time is never precisely revealed for security reasons, but you can tell something good is about to happen when you start seeing the signs appear on the fences near the gates of the camp.
Some are quite professionally done, while others are no more than spray paint on a bedsheet.
But the messages are always clear.
"Welcome home, son"
"We love you, daddy"
"I've missed you, honey"
And my favorite...
"Welcome back, Bobby. Hope you got plenty of sleep on the plane."
Our duplex shares a common wall with a vacation rental, which means our next door neighbors change every week. Many are vacationers who are here to enjoy the sunny beaches and a shot at some ocean fishing. But a couple of times, we've gotten to know families who have come to wait and greet their own returning heroes.
"Do you mind if I tap into your WiFi?" asked one mom. "We want to know the minute he gets here."
It was hard not to share in their excitement as they neared the end of a year filled with the mixture of pride and anxiety only a soldier's parents can feel.
It was easy to share in their joy when we got our first look at their Marine son on the morning of the holiday.
"James, come over here," said the mom. "Our neighbors want to meet you."
She turned to us.
"Isn't he pretty?" she beamed.
Megan and I shook hands with James, a tall, blond boy who looked more like he should have been getting ready for the senior prom than directing artillery fire in the middle of a war zone.
"Welcome home," we said. "Welcome home."
James' dad had a question.
"Where's a good restaurant?" he asked.
I piped up with the locations of a couple of my favorite seafood joints.
The dad smiled.
"That sounds good, but what James has really been dreaming about is a steak dinner," he laughed.
We offered our best guess and they roared away in the aged van they had brought along for the trip so that their entire family could be together as much as possible.
Megan turned to me.
"Now that's a Memorial Day," she said. "A memorable Memorial Day."