I usually have some idea of how I’m going to spend my day when I arise in the morning, but on Monday, July 17, 2017, I had no idea I would make my destination the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, Mich., about an hour’s drive on I-75, to visit my husband Bob’s gravesite.
I knew there was a lot of road construction on I-75, and I discovered an alternate route—which, to my surprise, was quicker. Once I got past Clarkston, the landscape became more like that of northern Michigan. The only negative was that I was driving alone. No matter how new your car is, as a woman you have concerns about mechanical breakdowns. But, fortunately, the trip was smooth.
As instructed, I took Dixie Highway to a dirt road called Belford, and before I knew it, to my surprise, in the distance I could see thousands of white grave markers glinting in the sunshine on a perfect 80-degree day. On the flag-lined road entering the cemetery premises, a chill came over me, just thinking about the soldiers of every religion and nationality resting here who had served this magnificent nation to preserve freedom and the American way of life.
The perfectly blue sky above held fluffy white clouds as I turned left into the cemetery. As usual, several funerals were being conducted, and mourners alighted from cars and hearses. The sound of the honor guard firing three rounds from rifles was sobering, marking as it does the conclusion of a person’s funeral.
It brought back the memory of Bob’s military funeral on that very cold March day in 2015, and then the mournful yet lovely sound of “Taps.” The flag is folded by two military volunteers and handed to the widow. The ceremonial gunfire conjured up the emotional atmosphere that had me fumbling in my purse for tissues to dry my tears.
I located Section 11 and noticed all the sod had been removed for a renovation project, and so the walkway between the markers was too narrow to accommodate my walker. I waved down a worker using a golf cart. I explained my plight, telling him that Bob’s grave site was many rows back. He volunteered to locate the site for me, and stationed two workers to remain there until I arrived.
That same gentleman walked with me while cautioning me to be careful on the unsmooth, rough soil. I reached Bob and could not control my tears. The three workers walked a distance away to afford me privacy. I repeated the Lord’s Prayer and spoke to my husband of 52 years. Those years, like any period of a marriage, had good times and some not so good. We got through health issues and Bob’s being shot and surviving our store holdup as well as three life-threatening fires.
I told Bob, “You’ve escaped this life and left me behind to fend for myself.” No answer was forthcoming. All the while the birds kept chirping happily, oblivious to the somber atmosphere the mourners were experiencing this day at the cemetery dedicated to our fighting men and women of wartime and peace.
I noticed the workers patiently waiting for me in the hot sun to end my visit. One of them volunteered to drive my car up the private path for my convenience. They opened the car door for me and saw me get settled again, telling me to be careful as a drove down the narrow path.
All through the ordeal of these recent years I have been very fortunate to be given assistance when needed, and some of the circumstances were so unusual, so strange, that they left me with the conclusion that those helpful people were angels who had been sent to ease my way.
Thinking ahead, I parked on the road to mark the spot for my next visit. I noticed the name “Cherry” in the first row, and knew to walk back 14 rows from there.
Bob’s marker has the Armenian cross on it and says, “Robert Joseph Kessel, June 17, 1934, March 1, 2015, Loving husband, father, grandfather.” (What it did not say is that he led an Armenian life, too) I realized then that I had made a serious, unintentional mistake of omitting “son.” Too often a man’s parents are neglected. As the mother of two sons and a brother (deceased), I disdain women who upon marrying a man pull him away from his family. (I am an authority on the subject.)
I drove away and parked by the cemetery lake. Oddly enough, now it seems everyone I talk to tells me their loved ones also are resting at the Holly site. It is a wise choice. It is always perfectly groomed. It is a place where you really feel comforted. Lazy waves, created by light winds, on the water’s surface. White water lilies in bloom among the green pods. Cattail weeds along the water’s edge. Lucky mallards in groups with their newborn chicks.
Two herons crossed the road in front of me, adding to my delight and surprise.
I asked Bob, the avid fisherman and boater, if the perch were biting as well as they did at his childhood cottage on Elk Lake in Lapeer, Mich., where he and his parents had spent idyllic summers ever since Bob was four. As an only child, he had a wonderful childhood. As a young adult, he and his buddies used the cottage after summer for playing cards and sipping brews.
Let’s remember the reason for this National Cemeteries sprinkled across this great nation. (What alarms me is the number of acres set aside for future burials—thousands more.) The men and women who fought for our freedom, in whatever capacity, now have deservedly arrived at a destination of tranquility, peace and quiet; no bombs, no tanks rumbling by, no air strikes, no foxholes, no desert, no jungles. They can hear the volley of rifle tributes and “Taps” to their comrades. They are now safe and at home, alongside their fellow soldiers of the army, navy, marines, and coast guard.
They served in WWI, WWII, The Pacific, Europe, Africa, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Thank God for war correspondents like Ernie Pyle and photographers who accompanied our armed forces putting their lives on the line to record battlefield scenes; and Hollywood, too, for all the films made then and now to remind us of their valor. The folks back home could bear witness to how freedom is preserved by Americans who fought to keep us safe. The films shown in theaters stimulated American citizens to save tin cans, buy war bonds, and sacrifice certain food items so servicemen could have them.
Today, we have service men and women who are physically and mentally impaired, confined for life in VA Hospitals. Many who come home do not receive the care they need or in a timely fashion. There is disparity of service received from state to state.
Bob had decided to donate his body to science for research at the University of Michigan. We had visited this National Cemetery a year before he died; when he was hospitalized, I told him if anything were to happen to him, his final resting place would be in Holly, and he smiled broadly, nodding in approval. It was a quiet place for a quiet, nonconfrontational man. Peace, quiet, birds singing, a nearby lake… it is a perfect place to recline and at night to look up at the stars.
I often envision Bob fishing in a wooden rowboat with his father, Bert, or swinging a golf club from one fluffy cloud to another, and at those Friday night fish fries where all the neighbors at the Elk Lake cottage pooled their catches for big group dinners. That’s why we always made a nostalgic trip out there every summer without fail. One thing he didn’t get to do before passing was to fish once more time in that lake where he grew up in the summer. Now he can breathe freely again and fish to his heart’s delight.
This column was written with love and admiration for not just Robert Kessel but all the men and women who served this nation in wartime and in peace, who welcomed our immigrant exiled parents to its shores, especially during the 1915-1923 Genocide of the Armenian Nation. The first-generation children born in America to those survivors of genocide served proudly in all branches of the armed forces.
To Be Continued…