Memorial Day is a day of remembrance in the United States, where we honor the memory of the many who have died while serving in the military. Where I live, as in many towns across the country, there’s a local memorial day parade featuring veterans marching, floats with patriotic imagery, and military vehicles making a slow crawl down main street. While I salute the men and women who have served, having members of the military within my own family, as a social justice conscious person with an eye for absences, I can’t help but wonder about the many ways in which women have also sacrificed and paid the multiple costs of having loved ones serving and dying in the military.
My favorite novel, Nilda by Puerto Rican author Nicholasa Mohr comes to mind. On another forthcoming post I will tell you more about this particular book and its impact on me, but for the purposes of today’s post, I’ll focus on the plot of the novel and its relevance for Memorial Day. The novel is set in New York City during the years of World War II. The story begins just a few days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and ends just a few days after the end of the war is declared in headlines. But the focus of the story are not the soldiers serving in the war, or the politics behind the war, or the experiences in the battlefields. Instead, it focuses on the daily lives of a Puerto Rican family, particularly the women in the family. The mother, Lydia, struggles every day to keep her large family, which includes four sons and one daughter, an ill husband, and an elderly aunt, safe from the threats of violence in her poverty stricken neighborhood. As we follow her and her daughter, Nilda’s story, we see them endure the humiliation of the welfare office, the abuse of police officers, and the racism of the school system, while her sons are also risking their lives fighting in the war, serving their country.
Through Mohr’s narrative we see the experiences of the war that are usually missing from the mainstream war narratives, the incredible worry over her children’s safety, the despair over whether they will have enough money to pay for their necessities, and the painful contradictions of having sons serving in the war fighting to preserve the four freedoms espoused by President Franklin Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, while having so many of those freedoms denied her at home.
Where are these women’s histories? Where are their stories of valor and sacrifice? Where are their parade floats? I expect to feel their absence once again at this Memorial Day’s festivities. But thanks to the work of women writers like Nicholasa Mohr, they won’t be absent from my thoughts. I will save one of my most heartfelt salutes for them.