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The Bonds of Christmas
By Rosalind S. Helderman and Nurith C. Aizenman
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Friday, December 26, 2003

Cane in one hand, an old lawn chair in the other, John Guiffre, 88, made his way slowly to his car yesterday after a long talk with his wife. He visits her often, usually on Sundays, but always on Christmas.

Sara Kathryn -- Sal to her husband -- died in 1996. Ever since, Guiffre has made the drive from Laurel to Arlington National Cemetery to spend holidays with her.

"I woke up this morning and said I'm not going to see anyone else today -- this is my Sal's day," he said.

The cemetery, open 365 days a year, is full of family on Christmas. They come in groups and alone, carrying wreaths and poinsettias and little Christmas trees. They wear jeans and special holiday clothes, carefully wiping the thick Arlington mud off their nice shoes before getting in the car to leave.

During his times with Sal, Guiffre said, he closes his eyes, says a Rosary and carries on long conversations with his wife of more than 50 years. When he bought his newest car, he let her know he chose Air Force blue, her favorite color.

Guiffre served for 20 years in the military, first in the Army Air Corps and then in the Air Force. Drafted during World War II, he served through three wars without suffering a scratch, he said. Since the 1940s, though, he's blamed his bad knee on all the nights he spent sleeping on the ground in Europe during the war.

Now that he's gotten older, his eyesight is failing, too. It's hard for to him to shuffle the 40 yards from his car to Sal's headstone. Week after week, year after year, he comes anyway.

"It's a long walk for me now, but I make it. She made a lot of sacrifices for me," he said.

Carolyn Watson, 48, is the only one of her four sisters living in the Washington area, so she comes to Arlington every holiday on behalf of all of them, she said. Her father, who was a captain in the Air Force, died just two days before Christmas in 1997. Watson usually brings her cell phone and calls her mother from his gravesite.

"We're a very close family, so this is a particularly hard time," she said.

This year, there was a new grave for Watson to visit, just across the road from her father's. Her friend, Chief Warrant Officer Sharon T. Swartworth, a legal administrator with the Judge Advocate General's Corps, was killed Nov. 7 in Iraq. Watson, a legal administrator in the civilian world, knew Swartworth through a professional organization.

"We weren't real close, but we had parallel lives," Watson said. "Sharon had a little boy; I have a little boy. She and I are close in age, and it's very hard for me to understand."

Posted: 26 December 2003