I spent Memorial Day in Metuchen, a small, improbably idyllic Central Jersey town.
It’s a walkable town with houses of different sizes, dating from different periods, of different colors and shapes, with well — but not intimidatingly well — maintained gardens, huge old leafy trees that distort the slate sidewalks that only sort of cover them (some homeowners have given up and replaced the slate with cement, but that bulges too), bright flowerbeds, and a small, interesting downtown with only local stores and no empty storefronts.
It’s got a colonial-era cemetery right on Main Street, with very old graves, some of them no longer legible, others a fascinating look into relationships both with people and with objects. We see the relationships, the tragedies of small children struck down and the miracles of unexpectedly long lives. We see how many of the men buried there were Revolutionary War veterans. And we see how precious stone and workmanship must have been — all of the stones have carefully engraved lettering, and the letters all seem to be the same size, but words break oddly. “Beloved Mo” on one line, and “ther and wife” on the next, as if the material and the time were too precious to waste.
It’s a really old cemetery and a really old town.
On Memorial Day, Metuchen put on a parade, and we joined the crowd to watch.
The marchers were delegations of police officers and firefighters, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, ROTC groups, local librarians, teachers, veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and everything else that followed.
And it was everyone.
There were babies pulled in wagons, and babies sitting on what must have been their great-grandparents’ laps as they stared out at us with those little-kid stares. There were white people and black people, Christians and Muslims and Jews, Southeast Asians and Indians, men and women, girls and boys. The teenagers in the ROTC groups were particularly striking. We had time to look at them as they did their drill routines, and we saw that they both represented everyone and melded entirely into one unit.
There were the reminders of September 11 that reduced many of us to tears — but then I already was a puddle from the emotion, and from the earnestness, and from the vast diversity in this one small town.
To look at these hopeful faces — old and young faces, with features from all over — was to remember what it was that has made America what it is, and to hope that some day we will overcome the mania that is affecting and dividing and enraging us now and remember e pluribus unum.
Out of many, one.
It’s easy to believe in that as you stand on Main Street in Metuchen, in a postcard-perfect street on a postcard-perfect day. But Main Street in Metuchen is not Disney World. It’s not perfect, of course, and it doesn’t pretend to be — but it is real.
So can the hope of a happier, kinder future be real. We just have to work toward it.