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How to find the healing words? Widow of a Baltimore guardsman faces a daunting Memorial Day speech

When the request showed up in her email, Peggy Marchanti didn’t hesitate to accept.

“I would be honored!” she wrote. Then she began to worry.

It had been years since she spoke publicly about the death of her husband, Maj. Robert Marchanti II, and since she last faced a crowd. The Baltimore widow had taken to traveling on Memorial Day, avoiding just such a ceremony.

Now she had agreed to give a speech at the biggest event around.

With three days left, the mother of four sits at her kitchen table and worries. She buries her head in her hands. What should she say? What if her message falls flat?

“I have to keep telling myself, I’ve been through the worst thing,” the 55-year-old says. “This is nothing … this is nothing.”

The ceremony at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens is enough to intimidate any man or woman. Each Memorial Day, some 1,500 people pack the Timonium cemetery, organizers say. Monday’s lineup includes a keynote address from a brigadier general, remarks from the county executive and a state senator.

Then all eyes will turn to Peggy Marchanti.

“I hope I can get people to understand who he was, and how wonderful he was,” she says. “He would do it for me.”

Of course, her husband, she says, would have been unfazed. He was always in the spotlight, ever since they were teens working at Friendly's — he washed dishes; she scooped ice cream — and he climbed on the roof and snapped the gold-painted cow off the weather vane.

As they say, a soldier can die twice: once on the battlefield, once again when he’s forgotten. So Peggy Marchanti will tell the crowd of “Bob,” the rowdy boy she loved and married and lost. She’ll tell it frankly, too. It wasn’t all roses.

They had broken up when he enlisted, but they were back together when he left for basic training. He joined the Army in 1984 and the Maryland National Guard two years later.

Married in 1987, they moved in with her parents up Belair Road near the county line. It’s the home she lives in today, with all its memories, even the doorway where they first kissed.

He graduated from then Towson State University and began 17 years as a gym teacher at Baltimore County schools. Peggy attended Community College of Baltimore County before the babies came: three of them, including twins, in 17 months alone. In those years, he worked two or three jobs, tutoring in summers, even answering calls to a National Guard hotline.

“A really hard-working couple,” says Aaron Marchanti, their oldest son and a firefighter. “He was a real blue-collar-soldier type of guy, a little rough around the edges. She’s passive and sweet; he’s very assertive — that balanced them.”

By 2011, Robert Marchanti was working full time for the National Guard. He had served in Kosovo, but it wore on him that he didn’t have the combat patch from Afghanistan. He called himself a “slick sleeve.”

Don’t worry, he told her before leaving. He was deploying to a “green zone” near government offices. He would be safe, he told her.

In February 2012, NATO forces burned copies of the Muslim holy book and incensed Afghans. Maj. Robert Marchanti was working in a ministry building in the heart of Kabul when a gunman showed up.

“Bob was the one who answered the door,” she says.

Now seven years have passed, and she sits at the table remembering. She twists her silver wedding ring, her second one. She threw her first ring during one of their fights. Her second ring was engraved with vines, a reference to the Book of John: “I am the vine; you are the branches.”

She laughs at the ups and downs of their 30 years together.

“I definitely softened him up,” she says. “He hardened me up.”

She wants other grieving families to know they’re not alone. She too knows how it feels to find two soldiers at the door, to have people coming and going in the swirling days of grief, to feel like you’re inside a fishbowl.

Once she never imagined she could speak in front of so many people. But during his funeral, she surprised herself. She fixed her gaze on one friendly face in the crowd, just like he had told her long ago.

On Monday, she will follow his advice again and seek out a friendly face. She will wear his dog tags around her neck. And she will tell her story, their story — that of a couple who fought hard and loved hard.

To those who know her, she’s as tough as any soldier to be in the crowd.

If you go

Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens will hold its 52nd Memorial Day ceremony Monday 10 a.m. at the cemetery at 200 E. Padonia Rd. in Timonium. The ceremony is free and open to the public and will include music, speeches, a wreath laying and 21-gun salute. For more information, call 410-666-0490 or visit www.dulaneyvalley.com.

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

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