When a gun went off during my uncle’s burial Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery, I flinched.
It had been a long time since I’d witnessed a military funeral and I had forgotten the long-standing tradition of an honor guard’s firing off three volleys from their rifles.
Because of COVID-19, they were about 50 yards away and practically out of sight. All of the uniformed service members wore black face masks. Instead of handing the carefully folded American flag that had covered my uncle’s casket to his grieving widow, it was placed on a low table in front of her.
I watched the whole thing from the side, trying to maintain six feet of social distancing. As a lone bugler way off in the distance played Taps, I blinked back tears. We were finally saying goodbye. My uncle died in July at age 93 from congestive heart failure at a nursing home just outside Washington, D.C., but because of a cemetery backlog, we had to wait three months for his burial.
It had been the late Charles Robert Armstrong’s final wish to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, the prestigious burial ground where more than 400,000 service members and their families dating back to the Civil War also are interred.
For a proud Black first lieutenant, whose military accomplishments during World War II and the Korean Conflict were never fully recognized by a newly desegregated military, being buried with full honors at Arlington was the ultimate homecoming.
Afterward, we milled about and joked about my uncle’s penchant for retelling old war stories, especially the one when he was injured while leading soldiers during the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge in October 1951. After that, doctors amputated his right leg below the ankle to save his life. The Army awarded him a Purple Heart for being wounded as a result of enemy action.
After so many months of quarantining, it felt good to be around extended family again. I promised my uncle’s lone, surviving son that I would stay in touch. Relatives always say that at times like this, but I really meant it.
If I’ve learned anything during these challenging months watching as the death toll has risen, it’s the value of spending time with loved ones.
I used to take that for granted. When I was growing up, there were always a whole lot of people at our house, including my uncle, who often stopped by on his way home from church. Later, I enjoyed having friends in and out of my single-girl apartment. After I got married, I moved into my husband’s house, where his father and young son already lived. Our home was a gathering spot.
The pandemic put a stop to that. My husband is fine with not having many visitors, but I’m a social creature. During the holidays, I look forward to inserting the leaf in our dining table to expand it and setting it with my parents’ china. Although I’m not the greatest cook, I try and replicate Southern favorites like my paternal grandmother’s corn bread oyster nut dressing.
Not this year, though. More than 250,000 Americans have died because of COVID and infections are expected to continue surging. So, we will heed health officials’ urgings for Americans nationwide to keep Thanksgiving celebrations intimate, preferably with no one outside your household.
So, it will be just the two of us sitting down for a traditional feast because, yes, I’m still going to cook — collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potato souffle.
We will miss our good friends who often join us. They haven’t invited us over to their houses, either. We are not even expecting my stepson.
It will be a little lonely, but at least I got a dose of family love on Thursday when we gathered at my uncle’s graveside. That will have to suffice for now.