“Meaning of Memory”  by Mark W. Harris

May 26, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown


Call to Worship – from the Kaddish, the Mourners’ Prayer (after a poem by Zelda, adapted by Marcia Falk):

Each of us has a name

given by the source of life

and given by our parents

Each of us has a name

given by our stature and our smile

and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name

given by the mountains

and given by our walls

Each of us has a name

given by the stars

and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name given by our sins

and given by our longing

Each of us has a name

given by our enemies

and given by our love

Each of us has a name

given by our celebrations

And given by our work

Each of us has a name

given by the seasons

given by the sea

in all the changes of our lives.

Reading – from Victoria Safford, “Memory”


I taught once at a farm school in Vermont, where it was the custom on Memorial Day to visit all the little cemeteries in the countryside nearby. There were many of these—some in churchyards or next to open fields where churches used to be, some on windy hillsides, some hidden far back in the woods, overgrown with brush and brambles….These expeditions were led by the teacher at the school, a native of the town who remembered where all these forgotten places were. Children and teachers together piled into several cars and went to maybe six or seven graveyards in a day. At the entrance to each one, the teacher had us join hands in two rows of ten or twelve and then slowly walk the grounds, looking out for graves of veterans, many marked by little metal signposts but some so old we had to bend and squint and read the wind-smooth stones. They dated to the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the Civil War, the two World wars, and the Korean War; there were a few more recent monuments to men who died in Vietnam. All of these were interspersed, at peace again, with all the town’s civilians.


It was a very solemn kind of game. On finding the grave of a veteran, someone would call out, “here’s one, here’s one!” and we’d clear the leaves and branches off, replace last year’s little faded American flag with a fresh one, and then read out the name and dates. In some of these graveyards there was a little area set off to the side, with smaller stones with no inscriptions—this would be the “colored section,” where in the last century African and Native Americans were buried, or Jews sometimes, or unmarried women who died in childbirth, anyone cast out or unwanted. The teacher always put a flag or two in here, and we cleared all the graves because, he said, “Chances are, someone in here was a soldier; and all of them were people.” Before leaving every cemetery, we’d gather in a circle and some child would play “taps” on the recorder, and some- one would read a verse from “[In] Flanders Fields,” and then we’d stand in silence (the loud silence of birdsong and spring wind), till the teacher would say so quietly that you could barely hear him (he was very shy), “Let us not forget,” and we’d move on down the road.

The youngest children with us on those days were remembering things they had not yet even learned, names of people dead in wars they’d never heard of, vast sadnesses their minds could not yet imagine. But even they could grasp it: we were honoring these fallen dead so that someday there would be no more. Together, two dozen souls of mixed age and experience were remembering the future. It was a prayer, though none was spoken.



Terry Francona, the former manager of the Boston Red Sox returned to Fenway Park on Friday night for the first time as a manager of another baseball team in the wake of his firing a couple of years ago after the Sox imploded.  My father doesn’t know that Tito returned the other night, doesn’t know that he once managed the Red Sox, and even doesn’t know that he led the team to two World Championships.  Along with my mother Marie, my father Robert Harris does not know that I have served the church in Watertown for 17 years, experienced the terrible events of 9/11/2001 or the wonderful joy of marrying Andrea Greenwood and having three children with her.  My parents would have loved to have experienced three more grandchildren, and seen me happy in a relationship. They would have been ecstatic about Dave Collins’ big stolen base and Big Papi’s homeruns, well, maybe less so for my mother.  She probably would not know who Dave Collins is.  But she would have been happy if I were happy, that’s how Moms are. My parents died a while back; my Mom in 1988, and my Dad in 1991.  Sometimes I think about what they have missed, but still I carry them with me, and pass on their story. I usually visit them on Memorial Day, their graves that is, in South Cemetery, Orange, Massachusetts. But my brother, just back from a cruise, is not having his usually cookout, and so I will not return to that place where I grew up, went to high school, and fell in love with history.  My parents have a place there, a permanent address so to speak, where they grew up, played ball, went to school, fell in love, had kids, and made a life.  For good and ill, what I learned of family life, relationships, raising children, hard work, having a sense of place, and loving the game of baseball comes from them.

A bit of time has passed since my parent’s died, and I may have forgotten a few things about them. Yet memory is powerful.  Memory continues to bring meaning to our days.  You have heard something of their lives over the years, especially my father’s rags to riches story.  I can still see their hands; my Dad’s wonderful hand eye coordination stroking a tennis ball with his racket, as he once laced a baseball into the gaps and ran out a double, and my mother carefully adding water a teaspoon full at a time to her amazing pie crust that would cradle blueberries and banana cream and countless other ingredients, including plenty of sugar.  I think the inventor of Crisco died recently, and it made me think of my Mom, as I was transported back into our kitchen on a rainy day to watch those hands work.  Hands that once held me, took my hand, and showed me the way. My parents came from Orange and are buried in Orange; they were given their names there, made their names there, and died there, too, in nearby New Salem. Sometimes their lives seems so simple and timeless.

Places of burial and sacred places have been on my mind recently. I have given a couple of historic walks in nearby Mt. Auburn Cemetery, and just this past week visited Swan Point Cemetery in Providence to conduct a service for Virginia Howe’s mother.  Both of these cemeteries are among the first garden cemeteries in the country, places of beauty and renown, where loved ones have been laid to rest amid the flowers and trees and rolling lawns.  Yet cemeteries have always been a place of fascination for me.  In rural settings one often sees small, private sites that are family plots of ten or twelve graves.  Sometimes you see carved faces on ancient granite, or weeping willows on marble.  I once saw three heads impressed on a stone to mark the death of triplets, or perhaps there are soldiers who died in some far off war, like our own minister Arthur Fuller, killed at Fredericksburg, and returned to the Fuller family plot at Mt. Auburn.   There was much emotion attached to these sites once, but now we may only see vaguely familiar sounding names from history – like Murray, Channing and Howe.

Cemeteries become sacred places to us because we say goodbye to our loved ones there, to rest eternally, alive in memory and mind, and in the history we remember and write down for others.  We have made them places of beauty so that we can feel assured of the beauty of life, and what we shared with others.  In Orange I see the names Harris and Verney and Hawkes, but where will my place be?  This question was raised at a recent meeting of my study group.  Part of our topic for discussion was a sharing of our own heritage to help us understand racism, diversity and privilege. Some family members are travelers, and others stay close to home.  Some cross barriers of race and class, are embraced or disowned.  They may have disgraced themselves, had babies out of wedlock or even lived on the street.  The study group plan was that we would understand why we struggle with issues of diversity and label some people “other,” and that we would understand better if we knew our own family’s heritage. I lifted up the factory worker in Malden, and the starving Civil War prisoner in Richmond, and the “crazy” red headed actress in New York. Thousands of places and people in our history forgotten or denied.

But then someone asked, do you have a place?  A place?  They meant a permanent place where the address will not change some day. My parents are in Orange, but I have no particular connection there. I had thought if we moved to Maine then I would want my ashes interred in the cemetery in Rockland.  Andrea’s grandmother is there, and some other relatives of hers, but what about me?  I want a marker for historical reasons, but for how long are we remembered?  And what if we don’t end up in Maine?  Could I be a stranger in a strange land? We all long for a place to be remembered, or people to hold us in their hearts.  Many of us remember our loyal member Martha Urban who, before she died, said how she wanted some place where she could be.

It is hard to think about not having a place.  We want to give Martha a permanent place, because we want to remember those we care for.  I want to know that I have a place where my family can place a marker. But times passes and memories fade, as we pass into history.  I learned a new fact a few weeks ago when I was walking through Mt., Auburn.  I was told that in Italy and Germany and perhaps other places in Europe, there is not enough space for burials of bodies.  As a result, when you bury a loved one, you are only renting the spot for 25-30 years, enough time for the body to go back to the earth from whence it came.  Then the spot is given to someone else.  There is nothing permanent about place for the living or the dead.

This reminds us that everything changes and passes on into the future.  For some this might be a spur to make ourselves known in the time we have, to make a contribution to society by nurturing children or writing a book, because the way leads on to the generations who follow. This longing to be known in some tangible way is illustrated in this story from Stephen Butterfield about his father.  He writes, When he was old I tried to introduce him to the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness; I thought it would ease any anxiety he might be having about the imminence of death.  “Ultimately,” I began, “you never were.” “Maybe not,” he said, peering over the rims of his glasses, “but I made a hell of a splash where I should have been.”

We don’t want to hear that we never were, but instead prefer the splash.  If all politics is local and personal, so too, is meaning.  We find purpose not in being great, but with the people who gave sustenance to our days – those whose hands we touched in the places and times we hold dear. When the Boston Marathon bombing occurred, many people had a very personal response.  Perhaps this was because they had been runners or spectators who were there, or were first responders who went to help.  But if you did not have that kind of experience of running or being injured, or even knowing someone who was there, it still felt personal.  When I first heard the news of the bombing in Maine, my memories darted back to years ago when the Marathon was an important event in my family’s life. While I have never been a competitive runner, the marathon itself holds a special place n the hearts of people all over the world, the runners and their families, of course, but especially in the hearts of these people who line the course, and cheer on the runners.

There is a sacred quality to public rituals like this. These events represent touchstones to our lives, and we are hurt when these events are ruined by violence or desecration.  Years ago I lived in Newton, and for that period when my son Joel was in grades 1 through 4 we went to the Marathon every year, stood along Commonwealth Ave. with a supply of bottled water to hand to the runners, and watched the athletes gives their all to win the race.  Athletic competition has always been a big part of my life, and to be there to see runners from all over the world with a little boy who was overjoyed with the pleasure of helping them keep hydrated brought happiness to me.

Hearing about the marathon made me see my son, and also made me angry that such a wonderful event that brings so many people together for a meaningful time was desecrated, and then further marred by massive injuries and the loss of life, including one boy, no different in age than my son Joel was when he watched the race those years gone by.  So the bombing was a tragedy in that lives were violently attacked, but it was also a kind of sacrilege.  The ritual of the race, the family gatherings, the pageantry, the competition all were taken from us.  How do we re-consecrate the ground where all these happy memories of family joy and individual performance and achievement were marred?  Lincoln had something to say about this when he dedicated the ground at Gettysburg. One of the few things in my life I have committed to memory besides passages of scripture, the Gettysburg Address, given four months after the battle, attempted to reconsecrate the ground where so many lives were lost.  There was a public gathering, words were spoken and a ritual reenacted. Of course there was a higher purpose in those words about creating a nation that was united in freedom, where we still know that being responsible citizens and family members holds true in creating communities that last.  The last time I was at Gettysburg I wept as I stood on Seminary Ridge remembering the loss of life in war, saying a prayer without words that war would be no more, and peace would prevail.  Lincoln had that dream of freedom and an end to war.

While it is not a nation trying to recover from war and rebuild, the reconsecration of our public rituals where they have been desecrated is important.  People need to gather in public places with their families and have fun. They need to remember the heroes and villains who have gone before. They need to cheer a noble effort, and see the courage to overcome a handicap.  They need to go back to where death and violence have visited us, and keep trying to find peace, to live in community with others, and to make a splash with their lives by celebrating life with joy and gratitude, helping their neighbors, reconciling with enemies, and building up our communities.

Each of us is given a name by our parents.  Sometimes we stand rank by rank with other runners, and sometimes we stand in rank with soldiers, sometimes we are fellow church members, or family members at a reunion, and sometimes our loved ones are in rows of stone in cemeteries.  We are all the unknown people who are living our lives with the family heritage that made us, people who loved us as best they could. Flawed though they may have been, we have made our way as parents and lovers, workers and teachers. And today we remember those who gave us our lives and names, and we take our place beside them.

This afternoon I will go to Fenway Park with one of my sons, like my father did before me.  It is a special place because I love baseball, and it is a grand old park where I have been many times. The green field reminds us of the beauty and possibility of summer, and of our lives. Here we reenact public rituals.  They connect the generations and families, and they are fun.  The experience may not go on forever, God knows it won’t, and neither will the memory of my parents or me.  And the splash that occurs there won’t really be Big Papi’s homers, it will be the relationships I remember from being there watching a game I love – sitting next to my Dad and knowing I was cared for, sitting next to my son Joel, and hearing for the first time that he intended to marry a woman he loved, and was it okay? And today, I will be there with Asher. We’ll have a hot dog or some popcorn, and we’ll love the cheers and amazing plays. They may win or lose, but I won’t really care because I’ll feel my Dad’s hand holding mine, and I’ll see Joel looking into my eyes seeking approval, and I’ll see Asher right now asking me a million questions, and as much as I might complain, it will be a joy to answer every one. What are those numbers out there, he might ask, looking high above the right field crowd to the façade of the stadium, 1,4, 8 and 9 Yaz and Williams, 27 and also Number “42,” the name of a new movie. It is the story of the breaking of the “color barrier” in baseball. The shame of racism desecrated the game and the stadiums, and placing the number 42 in every stadium, and once a year on every player’s uniform is an attempt to restore the pure integrity of the game, and the human struggle for equality. It is a way to reconsecrate what was lost.  Usually events have a bigger impact on us when we discover our own personal connection to them. I have a baseball program from the first game Jackie Robinson played in Boston against the Braves, my Dad’s team.  The sacred connections are from the relationships we have made, some lost but remembered, some still flowering, and others yet to be.   The violence of the marathon, the dead at Gettysburg, the terrible fury of racism in a game we adore, help us understand the suffering in life in new ways, and today we lift up the names of those who stood by us, taught us, protected us, served us, or entertained us giving life some joy, some love, and some meaning.  On Memorial Day, we try to restore meaning where it has been dimmed or lost or desecrated and we lift up the names of special places and times and people who gave our lives significance, and we say the names, pause in silence and as we give them life in death, we remember them as holy.

Closing Words – from Frederick Buechner: 

“Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer.  It is a looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still.  The people we loved.  The people who loved us.  The people who, for good or ill, taught us things.  Dead and gone though they may be, as we come to understand them in new ways, it is as though they come to understand us – and through them to understand ourselves – in new ways, too….”