Sail Forth- Steer for the deep waters only. Reckless O soul, exploring. I with thee and thou with me. For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared go. And we will risk the ship, ourselves, and all..  —Walt Whitman

W alking down the tree-lined streets of Hillsdale, Michigan, I was overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia. Though my relationship with this small town of about 8,000 people is only about six years old, I found myself lost on its streets in a tsunami of Americana.

My journey to this moment began about a week ago with a Memorial Day venture through five different cemeteries and 150 years. I’m not always good about remembering. In fact, I’m often guilty of forgetting. The now is much more pressing. Tomorrow is far more urgent. Thank you Sally for pulling me into the past for a few days. Our cemetery tour was a trip to remember our own – my grandparents: Howard and Celia Buis as well as Barkley and Joyce Berry; Sally’s grandparents: Bill and Evelyn Huff plus Roy Sr. and Velma Watson as well as their son and Sally’s father, Roy Watson Jr. The day was full of stories; and remembering.

Along the way, we encountered long forgotten aunts and uncles, great grandparents, family friends, neighbors, and complete strangers. Though few of the individuals whose graves we visited were killed in the line of duty, we tasted a different kind of patriotism and connected with a very intimate form of Memorial Day. We also walked into our personal version of Americana; a place where our memories meld into a story that is more than just ours.  A story built not just on our own memories, but on the memories of others.

Wikipedia says that Americana encompasses “artifacts…related to the cultural history of the United States” or “guiding beliefs” that characterize our nation. Our American ethos, or set of ideals, is built on our national identity, one tied deeply to our collective memories: freedom, loss, trial, victory, purpose, opportunity. We hold these memories within the context of our broad national identify but also within our identities as communities and more acutely within the identify of our families. Our stories are fabulously complex narratives built layer upon layer across geography and generation.

Standing among the tombstones, I was drawn into the drama, tragedy, and triumph surrounding me. Beyond the known family stories, the names, dates, and other artifacts on and around the many graves told other tales. Soldiers, families, Christians, business owners, artists, animal lovers, and myriad other identities etched in eternity. The cemetery reflects the fabric of our nation in an image formed by what is no longer there. Human impressions made upon the canvas of time; shadows left by what we can no longer see but know was once there.

On this street, on this day, I’m struck by the convergence of our Americana. Memorial Day crosses line the main street, marked with the names of local heroes killed in the line of duty: WWI, WWII, Korea ,Vietnam. Flags surround the county courthouse calling attention to our legacy; our American ethos and its memory. Old buildings signal a brighter age yet still find usefulness in an era in which the small town no longer serves as the social and cultural center of our nation.

Time and distance and progress mark the landscape of our country. When we stop for a moment and remember, the distance and time seem less remote. When we pause to listen, the words and events and lessons feel more relevant – maybe even timely. When we let ourselves feel that past, progress and all of its consequences don’t seem quite so inevitable.

Today, walking with my grandson, now 11 months, my connection to that past and the future it engenders feels complete. My part in the story cast in relief beside yours and his and theirs. My grandson’s part now only just beginning and I realize that the tale is truly ours. Ongoing. Unfinished. Optimistically possible. This is Americana, and we are its stewards.