In my travels with Stu, throughout the west, we always made it a point to visit city parks, and often these were Memorial Parks. Once, not so very long ago, we stopped at a park in a very small desert town. It was not defunct or depressed (as they so often are). The commercial buildings were dated and patched, but they were not vacant, and the advertising was new. The residences were small bungalows with weedy yards, but with bright flowers in pots or little plots. There were leaning fences, old model pickup trucks, and old people sitting on warped wooden porches – who either looked suspicious or friendly.
There was a plethora of children, wearing flip-flops and beach towels; evidently the city park pool had just opened. We “followed” the parade of children to the city park (sponsored by the Lions and the Rotary, of course) a plot of green grass, a grove of mulberry trees with purple fruit. It was a Memorial Park, of course, commemorating the fallen in the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam. There were names, family names - inscribed for more than one war. We walked to the nearest shady picnic table, a distance from the pool, and lay out our lunch.
Memorial Parks have much in common besides the memorials: grass and trees and restrooms that smack of jail cells. Often shoeless children; old, bowed men; young mothers with young children; stray, playful dogs. Always, the transient or vagrant or lost, sitting in the shadows, hoping for anonymity. Teens, seeking camaraderie, and people, just passing through.
Some park people are friendly, especially children who are being babysat by the park. They are talkative, inquisitive, and will volunteer to tell you anything; they have no secrets. They have a toughness and energy that is envy-able. They are comfortable in their own skins, and they trust their surrogate mother, the park, as well as the park people.
People who are new to the park read the memorial plaques. Their children do not climb on the monuments, and they do not use them for clothing racks or tables.
Parks make me sleepy; I like resting in them. Stu always preferred the hardware stores in small towns to parks; he found them relaxing, and occasionally, he went to the hardware store while I rested in the park. I only remember a few times when he bought something, but I think he liked the ambience of old hardware stores in small, thriving towns. It was a treasure hunt that reminded him of his child-self, making his first discoveries of tools and gadgets. He liked the smell of oily, wooden floors, he said.
During the lovely years when Stu and I visited Memorial Parks alone, I always longed for my children or grandchildren – even while relishing our time together – because parks are primarily for children and their random play. (Adults may be too goal oriented for parks. They are often ready to go as soon as they arrive.)
“Why is this name Memorial Park?” asks my grandson.
“'Memorial' means to remember,” I say, and I mentally prepare to answer the inevitable questions to follow.”
(What, no questions?)
And I promise myself that I will remember the feeling of his small hand in mine – that I will never forget the picnic with my Stu beneath the mulberry trees in that quintessential Memorial Park – or its reason for being.