What does this holiday really mean?
Mention Memorial Day, and I usually imagine a three-day weekend I can spend outdoors to usher in the summer. I think of going out in the boat with my husband to enjoy some fishing and taking in some much needed sunlight. Being 40-something, or as some call the current 40-50ish crowd, a Generation X'er, many of the holidays we celebrate don't have the same meaning as those who are older. They remember when and why some holidays were established, whereas I don't.
That is until a few years ago, when one Memorial Day weekend my husband, Dave, and I went to visit his grandmother. After spending the morning helping her lay flowers at the graves of her deceased relatives, I began to understand the true meaning of this holiday.
When we arrived at her house, she brought out a box full of well-worn, but still colorful plastic flowers. She asked us if we wanted to help her place them at the cemetery. I agreed with a smile, but inwardly, I cringed. I never did like cemeteries. They always creeped me out; all those bodies decomposing six feet underneath my feet. Ick.
But I figured the little cemetery was small enough I could endure an hour walking over dead people and help place fake flowers at a few graves. After that, I could enjoy the rest of those three days as they’re supposed to be.
I soon found myself enraptured by Grandma's stories. As we passed a grave where she didn't place a flower, she pointed and said, "I used to play bridge with her. She won more often than not." At another, a massive, intricately carved black granite tombstone, she pursed her lips with disdain and said, "I never understood this. His wife spent about 10 grand on this tombstone, but he was a drunk and beat her all the time." Silence reigned at a corner section of the cemetery where all the infants were buried. Dave and I hung back as she placed a flower at the small white granite stone with a lamb carved on top. There sat the grave of her fifth and last child, a girl who lived only eight days before succumbing to what is best known as "RH factor." The somber mood only deepened when Dave laid a bouquet of flowers at his own mother's grave, a woman to this day I regret never knowing.
I knew none of the people buried at that cemetery. Some of the faces I could imagine, and some I didn't have to. Quite a few had porcelain black and white photos recessed into the tombstones. Many iron crosses stood tall in lieu of granite, most built with excess iron such as remnants of wrought-iron fences and even bed posts. As I walked past the names and dates and listening to stories of the deceased, not only did I find myself having a good time in what I used to think was a depressing place, I also left appreciating the history the cemetery had to offer.
And I understood, finally, what Memorial Day really means and it's importance.
Or so I thought.
I set out to do some research on Memorial Day, specifically its history and add a shortened version to this article. I found http://www.usmemorialday.org and after reading through its pages, I discovered that although my understanding of Memorial Day was closer than it had been, I was still way off.
This website explained not only the history of Memorial Day, but it also addressed the problem of how over the years the national day of mourning the deaths of our soldiers has turned into a day of celebration.
The VFW tribute speech presented on Memorial Day, May 27, 2002, put it most eloquently: "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."
At the time I originally wrote this, the VFW had advocates in the House and Senate: Mr. Inouye of Hawaii and Mr. Gibbons of Minnesota, respectively. They each introduced bills calling for the restoration of the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30. They hoped doing so will return this important day to its original significance instead of using the last Monday in May as a reason to celebrate the beginning of summer. As we can now see, the bills never gained traction.
While I learned from Dave's grandmother the importance of remembering those who have gone before, that should not take precedence to, or even be observed alongside, Memorial Day. That day should be set aside to remember and honor those who have, as General James A. Garfield said on the first observance of Memorial Day in May of 1868: ". . . summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and virtue."
Those who have created this website and the VFW don’t ask for much. They merely want to see all Americans spend one day out of 365 remembering our war dead, whether it's pausing for few moments of silence, attending commemorative ceremonies, placing flags at grave sites, flying the flag at half-mast, or wearing Bobby Poppies.
After what hundreds of thousands of men and women have done, from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, spending one day to honor them is not much to ask. In fact, it's nothing when you consider what they sacrificed for us and for their country.