It was July 4th, and I was out looking for American symbolism. I was hoping the American holiday would present interesting photography opportunities. As a military vet, I knew cemeteries were often decorated with rows of American flags on patriotic holidays. I drove across town and pulled into a cemetery not far from my home. I parked my car and quietly walked the grounds. It was a peaceful morning and most of the surrounding town was still asleep. Being that it was so early, I assumed I was alone. I would soon discover that I was wrong. As I made my way into the cemetery mausoleum, I noticed an elderly man standing motionless. Not wanting to disturb this man, I quietly walked along the parameter walls keeping a respectful distance between us. Along the way I read the final words of loved ones etched in marble facings.
I eventually passed the elderly man. I made eye contact with him and whispered hello. He remained still, his eyes locked upon the marble wall before him. Like a soldier, he quietly stood guard. After some time, he reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a large, worn cloth and began carefully wiping the marble facing of the burial space in front of him. His movements were methodical. He seemed to place thought into every gentle pass of his cloth. Whoever lay behind that small marble wall meant a great deal to him.
After watching him for several minutes, I wanted to meet him. I wanted to talk to him and hear his story. I wondered…would he be willing to talk to me? Do I have the right to disturb him? I hesitated for a second, but then approached him and cautiously said hello once again. He turned towards me and looked into my eyes for what seemed to be entire minutes. Eventually, his face presented a small, guarded smile. He had a gentle kindness about him. He calmly pointed to the marble facing and said his wife had passed away three years ago. He said she was the most beautiful woman and he loves her desperately. His words were a subconscious admission of love, loss and longing. Hearing his words made me feel vulnerable. Will I be in his shoes someday? Suddenly, I missed my wife. After a long moment of reflective silence, he again smiled and said his name was Frank. We shook hands. I tried to recall everything he had just told me, but I was still recovering from the way his words kicked my brain.
We stood together and talked for quite a while. Speaking with a sense of achievement, Frank told me he had been happily married for “53 plus years” and that his wife meant everything to him. He told me that he and his wife had purchased a home and raised five children together. Frank had spent his working years in the aerospace industry and proudly spoke of his involvement with the U.S. Space Shuttle program. His job had often required him to travel far from home – sometimes for weeks at a time. Occasionally, his wife would accompany him on his out-of-state business trips. While Frank worked during the day, his wife was the happy tourist in whatever town they happened to be visiting. “Those were really enjoyable times” he said.
Frank’s wife passed away on August 19th, 2008. Frank told me that he goes to the cemetery to visit her every single day. “Come hell or high water I’m gonna visit her” he said. “Not doing so would be a mortal sin in my book.” I later learned that Frank is always the first visitor to arrive at the cemetery each morning.
As we spoke, I noticed Frank had several cleaning cloths and a small brush (used to remove fine dust from the raised lettering on his wife’s grave). He explained that his wife had kept their home spotless throughout their entire marriage. He said keeping her grave spotless was how she would have wanted it. “It’s the least I can do for her now” he said.
After speaking for about an hour, Frank told me that he needed to leave for the day. Wanting to give him the opportunity to say goodbye to his wife privately, I shook his hand and walked away. After spending a few more moments at his wife’s grave, Frank too began to walk away. He took several steps and then stopped. He turned so that he was once again facing his beloved wife. As if reaching for her, he raised his hand and slowly waived at her. He gently blew a final kiss. For a moment in time, they were together again. He whispered a message of loving reassurance and reluctantly walked away. Tomorrow, and each day after, Frank will return to this place and do the same.
Later that day, I kept thinking about my time with Frank and all that he shared with me. I remember thinking that Frank is the American dream personified. He had worked very hard his entire life and loyally served his family and his country. Although his life was never perfect, he achieved prosperity, family, love and a lifetime of memories. I had started my day looking for American symbolism. I think I found it.