There are many things Memorial Day is not but with which it has become associated – the unofficial start of summer, a reason to have big parties and barbecues, a time to visit beaches or jump in swimming pools, and an excuse for all sorts of retail sales and promotions. These things have become American traditions, but they ignore the true meaning of the holiday.
The most important part of celebrating Memorial Day is honoring those lost serving their country in the military. We are remembering their service and sacrifice. That is the most necessary and compelling reason to observe this day.
I remember the parades I attended with my parents and grandparents when I was a child. My father (dressed as Uncle Sam), uncle, and grandfather would march in the parade, and I would stand on the sidelines holding my mother’s hand while waving a flag in my other hand. The thumping drums of the marching bands still pound in my heart; the gleam of the sunshine on the uniform brass and buttons still flashes in my mind.
My grandfather always called Memorial Day “Decoration Day,” and when I got a little older I asked him why, and he said, “Because it was the day we had to decorate the graves of our family and friends lost in the war.”
I saw some of his old pictures from those Memorial Days after the Great War (World War I) – they are now sadly disintegrated – and every house on the street had American flags flying and bunting hung on the windows. Those buildings were in the background as the focus of the photos was on the soldiers marching down the avenue in their doughboy uniforms.
One time when I was about nine or ten I made the mistake of saying “Happy Memorial Day” to my family members as they arrived at our house to go to the parade. My father took me aside and said, “Son, Memorial Day is not a happy holiday.”
“It’s not?” I asked. “But we always celebrate it.”
He sat me down and said, “Look, remember when Uncle John died last year.” I nodded my head sadly. “Well, on the day he died this year, we wouldn’t go up to Aunt Julia and say ‘Happy Anniversary of John’s passing’ now would we?”
“No, I guess not,” I remember saying. “That’s not a happy day at all.”
Over the years after that my Dad told me other stories from when he was in the war and about the friends that he lost. One was his neighbor Johnny, whom he had known since he was a little boy.
My grandmother wrote to him and had an unusual request for my father. Johnny’s mother asked if my father could find out where Johnny was buried in France and take a picture of the grave. Dad was deployed in the Bomb Disposal unit working out of the chateau in Fontainebleau, and he was able to discover where the grave was located – Les Gonards Cemetery near Versailles.
Dad and a buddy got in a Jeep and drove to the cemetery. When he saw Johnny’s grave he felt compelled to kneel down and say a prayer, and his friend took a photograph of the moment. A month later my grandmother wrote back that the photograph meant so much to Johnny’s mother.
Now, so many years later, grand parades are filled with pomp and circumstance, and they are a tangible way to honor those lost. I have taken my own children to our local Memorial Day parade, and they are fascinated by the marchers and the bands just as I had been as a boy, but I need to keep reminding them of the significance of this day.
Thinking back, I do recall returning to the Veterans of Foreign Wars lodge after watching the parade each year, and as everyone gathered to eat and drink and talk, I remember seeing the reverence on the faces of those who were remembering their lost friends. This was not a festive party but rather one where people reflected upon their own brushes with death as well as on those who were gone.
One time I remember a visiting retired Army colonel coming to the reception after the parade. A rather large and muscular man, he sat at our table to eat because my father was the post commander at that time. He had a chest full of ribbons and medals on his uniform. He said that it was nice to meet all of us, and I said, “Same here; you are a real hero.”
This big fellow’s lips quivered a bit, and he leaned forward and whispered to me, “No, son, I’m not a hero. The heroes are the guys we left over there. The ones who never came home. They are the real heroes!”
I have never forgotten those words, and I think that encapsulates what Memorial Day is more than anything else – the men and women who served their country and made the ultimate sacrifice.
If you can do so, attend a parade or other event such as an airshow or wreath-laying ceremony that celebrates those whom we have lost as they served in the military. Your appearance supports those men and women who returned home and it honors the memories of those they have lost.
If you cannot manage to do any of those things this weekend – whether you are swimming in a pool, attending a barbecue, sitting on a beach, shopping in a store, or driving for a weekend getaway – try to remember the real reason why we have this holiday at the end of every month of May.
Perhaps you can think about a kid from Queens, New York, named Johnny, who left to fight for his country and now lies in a cemetery in France. All his mother had left was a picture of his grave, a place she could never visit to place flowers there and cry her tears. All she had was that photo and sweet memories of her boy. That truly is what Memorial Day is all about!