In the United States, Memorial Day was started in the late nineteenth century to commemorate the lives lost in the civil war. It was a day set aside to honor the dead, whether Union or Confederate and to take note of the costs of our devastating internal war. Over the years, the significance of this holiday has largely been lost. To most Americans, Memorial Day has become the official kick off of the summer season. It's the day you open the cabin, fire up the barbecue or open the pool. It's the day you can start wearing while pants or white shoes and not look dorky.
And yet--in many places, particularly small towns around the nation, the holiday retains a trace of its original meaning. This year both of my sons are in the high school marching band, so for the first time I became a (somewhat unwilling) participant in our local Memorial Day festivities. My biggest grumble was waking up at 7 am on a holiday, and then ferrying them hither and yon to get into uniform, line up for the parade, get out of uniform, and then to the after-parade picnic and so on. Waiting through the services at the town cemetery wasn't real high on my list of things to do on a sunny holiday either.
Until--I was there. First the parade--watching all the service members, present and past march, or in some cases ride by was unexpectedly touching. I sat with my dad, a WWII veteran who has never gotten involved in any of the organizations, and found myself urging him to become more active, to get to know his contemporaries in the American Legion. As he noted, there aren't that many of them left any more. And fewer every year.
The Viet Nam era verterans, once the young, rebellious generation are going gray now. They still field a motorcycle corps for our parade, and now the youngsters are those from Afghanistan, or returned from the current conflict. Perhaps the most touching group that marched was the Michigan Military Mothers. As a mother of teenagers myself, I can only begin to imagine the worry these moms must deal with on a daily basis.
Then at the cemetery there were the usual speeches by politicians which I largely ignored. But the presentation of wreaths, the Marine rifle salute, the fields of graves with flags and flowers--those touched me, made me think and made me feel.
So I come away with a renewed respect for the day, and a wish for us all. If we make a choice to remember the lives lost to war, to the cost of conflict, maybe we will one day become more reluctant to pay that price. The first World War was supposed to be the war to end wars. Obviously we messed that up somewhere along the way. But I'm glad my sons got a look at all those flags and flowers today. Maybe their generation, if they can be made to understand, will be the generation that finally gets it right.