It seems to happen every year when Memorial Day comes around again – people do not understand why we celebrate this holiday. They confuse its significance with Veteran’s Day or Armed Forces Day, or they just assume it is a holiday to (and someone once said this to me) “remember it’s the start of summer.” So each year I feel compelled to remind people what it is all about.
It is not about barbecues, going away for a three-day weekend, hitting the beach, or getting great deals in the stores because they have Memorial Day sales – actually it bothers me regarding any major holiday when retail attaches sales to it, especially days like Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day because the notion of a “sale” in no way respects the significance of the day.
Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day and started after the Civil War as a day to decorate graves of those lost in that war. The name changed to Memorial Day after World War II, though not officially until 1967, and became a federal holiday celebrated on the last Monday of May in 1971.
Anyone who comes from a military family knows the meaning without having to ask. For those like myself whose father came home safely, we cannot forget the contributions of the many who did not. Those families who lost friends and loved ones who served mark the day with solemnity – and everyone else should observe it at least with reverence.
No matter how you feel politically about things, those who serve in the Armed Forces are far above the minutiae of parties, politicians, and pundits. My Dad once said that when you are on the battlefield you’re not thinking I’m a Democrat or a Republican, you’re thinking I’m an American and I’m fighting for the country that I love. I have never forgotten that.
When Dad visited the grave of a boy who grew up next door to him, he did so to honor a friend but also as a favor. That boy’s mother had also asked him to send a picture because she would never be able to go to France to visit the grave. Dad sent the photo home with a note telling the woman that her son died a hero. Of course, the young man lay in a field of heroes – young people lost before their time but not lost to time.
Last year when I took the journey to Normandy with my family for the first time, I became overwhelmed by the enormity of the loss commemorated in those fields. The sea of white crosses and Stars of David spread out under a beautiful sky, and standing in the middle of the rows it is almost unfathomable not to be moved by how many gave their lives so we at home could keep living ours.
My children had heard stories about Papa in the war and how he came into France on D-Day, but now they understood the ramifications of that and how fortunate we were that he survived. I mentioned to them that we could multiply that by how many other families were so lucky, but then visiting this place reminds us that many families were not.
So Memorial Day is for honoring those men and women who served our nation and lost their lives. This holiday is meant to respect their memories and be grateful for their sacrifice. Buy a “Buddy” Poppy if you see a veteran selling them on the street and wear it, because when other veterans or the families of those lost see it, they will know you understand the meaning of this holiday.
If you can go to a parade and wave a flag. Once again, this rises above divisive politics and means you are honoring those who are the best of us. My Dad used to march in our local parade for many years – at first in his uniform and in later years at the front of the parade dressed as Uncle Sam. He and every person marching in that parade were doing it for those who were lost. Waving the flag, cheering, and clapping your hands supports those marchers you can see and the ethereal ones walking beside them.
Maybe one day I won’t need to remind people what Memorial Day is all about, but until then I will keep on doing so. Those who died for all of us deserve nothing less.