Memorial Day has always been rather personal for me, and looking back at the day over the years reminds me of what it has meant to my family. Having had family members in the military since the Spanish-American War (1898), I was always around people who served our country in times of war. Their outlook was (and still is for those who survive) decidedly different than those who never wore a uniform or endured life under fire.
My father is a World War Two veteran, and when I was growing up it was not unusual for us to attend a variety of functions at the local Veterans of Foreign War Post (ours was located in Ridgewood, New York). At that time the Post was buzzing with life. There were members from World War I (like my grandfather), World War II, Korea (like my uncle), and even some “young” guys from Vietnam (like my cousin).
The women (my mother and aunts among them) populated the Ladies Auxiliary which not only advanced the mission of the Post, but sold Buddy Poppies to raise funds and also did good works in the community. They also handled the Voice of Democracy Contest that allowed young people to write about freedom in their country every year and receive awards for it.
Every Memorial Day was a big event in my family. My father somehow or other always got elected to walk the route as Uncle Sam. Someone once asked why he would want to hike in hot weather in that get-up, and Dad said that it was better than trudging across a war zone loaded down with equipment. That had to be an answer the “real” Uncle Sam would understand and appreciate.
The parade route was always a sea of American flags being waved up against the blue sky. When I was little I recall standing on the sidelines with my Mom, waiting to see my father marching in his costume. When I got older I stood on the sidelines with my grandfather, and my mother joined my Dad and marched as Lady Liberty. Every year their picture would appear in the local newspaper marching together side-by-side.
After the parade and laying of the ceremonial wreaths at the war monuments, the marchers and their families returned to the Post for a big bash. Pitchers of beer and soda lined the tables, hamburgers and hot dogs smothered in everything were consumed, and music blared all afternoon long. There were so many kids running around, my cousins and I always got a chance to have fun. The pool tables in the basement were a nice attraction too (when we got a little older).
In later years Mom could no longer participate in the parade (due to an increasingly bad case of rheumatoid arthritis), but we continued watching from the sidelines as Dad and my uncle marched. The numbers did thin out each May, with the World War I vets slowly disappearing, and my grandfather passed on when I was 18. That was the start of Memorial Day never being the same.
I remember him talking about life on a submarine during the war. They were forever searching for German U-boats. Of course, this was not a glamorous life by any means. Cramped, dark, and hot all the time, my grandfather still felt he was serving his country and did it and never complained later on. He always said the food was good, and he survived, and many guys were not able to say that.
Years later when I went to the parade with my own children, I was shocked by the depleted ranks. Some of World War II vets sat in cars, but the veteran marchers numbered less than one hundred (when there used to be over one thousand in my youth). Luckily, school bands and other organizations filled in the gaps and it was pleasant to watch, especially the many fire trucks covered with flowing flags and tributes to their own, soldiers of a different type who marched into buildings on 9/11 and never returned.
In the last five years Memorial Day has taken on an added meaning for me because my mother passed away the day after it. So each year I try to remember the good times we had on Memorial Day, and I recall my mother in her healthy days wearing that flowing gown dressed as Miss Liberty. As I picture her torch in hand a smile on her face, I know that is how I wish to remember her on this day.
Yes, Memorial Day has changed over the years, but its spirit remains the same: to honor those fallen in the service of their country. So I’ll raise a flag and wave it high in the air this weekend, and in doing so I will be honoring not only all those lost in wars but the families who have lost loved ones.
And somewhere my Mom still carries the torch as she did in life, brightly burning a light through my darkness to illuminate what matters most of all. Thanks, Mom.
Photo Credit: VFW.org