This Thanksgiving weekend, how do we remember family and friends who have died?

“For some, perhaps for too many, the remembrance of a loved one lost to COVID-19 (or to any other cause), will be reduced to a posting on the Internet,” writes John Vukmirovich. | AP Photos

Was there a vow made — a promise? Act on it! Wednesday, on Oct. 14 past, was one of those fall days I live for. The morning was cool, the sky was pipesmoke gray. There was a slight breeze, and many trees were showing their colors.
When we are young, October is the month for pumpkins and apples; of warm, sweet kitchen smells; and of full moons and Halloween. Now, at my age, October is also the month to visit cemeteries.
Holy Cross Cemetery lies in repose in south suburban Calumet City. While traffic whirs by on Burnham Avenue, the spacious and well-maintained grounds are blessed with a hushed air. And at times, there’s a touch of poetry in the sound of the wind high in the trees: Henry Vaughan’s, “They are all Gone into the World of Light,” John Donne’s, “Death, be Not Proud,” or Whitman’s, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

My father, mother and kid sister are buried there, side by side. I try to make the trip there twice a year, in green and blue spring and in red and brown October. But this spring was, for obvious reasons, a challenge unmet. While I’m there, I clean off the headstones and edge around them. And of course, I allow myself a good cry.
Some might consider such a journey to be morbid, but I don’t. I was there because of a promise my father asked of me at a different cemetery (Oak Hill in Hammond, Indiana) after both of his parents had died, as well as my sister.
It was in the late 1970s, and we were tending to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves, and when we had finished weeding and watering, he asked me, with heart-heavy words, to promise him something.
The day might come when you won’t live around here, he said. Although it might be hard for you to do so, try to come out here and take care of them (his parents). He then he went on to add that one day he and my mother would be gone, too. It was his way of saying, “Please don’t forget us. Promise.”
Years later, just before my father died, he asked me to renew that promise, as would my mother just before she passed away. Without hesitation, I agreed both times.
My parents were survivors of the Great Depression and the war years, and they struggled under great burdens, but they endured and exhibited humor and courage as they faced their personal and familial adversities. And they were blue-collar through and through. Knowing my parents for who and what they were, how could I refuse?
This Thanksgiving weekend, our thoughts are not as focused as usual on turkey, pumpkin pie and family gatherings. We live in a violent, divided nation. And of course, there’s COVID-19.
Rates of infection are rising again here in Illinois and in neighboring states. The country trembles, as it did in the fall of 1918, during a world-wide influenza outbreak that claimed, by some estimates, 600,000 American lives. For us, in our time, more deaths will, unfortunately, occur.
How then should friends and family honor the lives of those who have died?
Was there a vow made — a promise — between yourself and a loved one? What did it involve? Who did it involve? What task remains to be completed? Think hard, and let your conscience guide you. Once you recall that promise, no matter how deeply it was buried, act on it — act! — no matter how simple or onerous it may be.
For some, perhaps for too many, the remembrance of a loved one lost to COVID-19 (or to any other cause), will be reduced to a posting on the Internet. I would not consider that to be an affirmative act, but rather an evasion of responsibility — a promise unkept.
Some might feel that a promise ends with death, but this is not true. Often those are the most important promises to keep, as they provide structure and focus, purpose and meaning to our lives.
As for myself, come next spring, when lilacs bloom and the world is again filled with light, I’ll return to Holy Cross, and to Oak Hill.
I made a promise, and there’s nothing as satisfying as the warm knowledge that a promise has been kept.
John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer, researcher and book reviewer.
Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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