When I was a child, many of the older people referred to the holiday we are now approaching as Decoration Day because it was a time to decorate graves of loved ones, especially of veterans. You seldom hear that term now. Now we call it Memorial Day. I like that term because it is much more important to cherish our memories of loved ones than it is to stick flowers on a grave — although of course we can do both.
Memorial Day is my weekend to revisit old haunts and visit the cemetery where my parents, brothers, and other relatives are buried. The Veterans of Foreign Wars conduct a service to honor veterans and that little cemetery probably has more than its share of veterans graves from the Civil War through the Korean War. I don’t believe there are any from Vietnam. I remember my brother and some cousins were veterans. However, it is also possible to “remember,” in a sense, people I never knew. My grandfather, a Civil War veteran, died long before I was born but I place a flag and flowers on his grave. A cousin I never knew was killed at Leyte during World War II.
One of my earliest memories of Memorial Day is going to the cemetery with my father at sunrise to place flags on the graves of veterans and then at sunset to retrieve them. The American Legion furnished the flags but my father always put them out. Is it irreverent to confess that I always found a patch of sheep sorrel in one part of the graveyard and munched a bit? After Dad died, my brother took over the job. Eventually an avenue of flagpoles was installed for large flags and nobody put small flags on the individual graves. For reasons I cannot fully explain, this bothered me. I began putting flags on my brother’s and grandfather’s graves. Then I acquired more flags — one or two at a time — until I had enough for all of the vets in the cemetery. I confess I do not go out at sunrise and sunset. I have been told that it is acceptable to leave a flag on a veteran’s grave at night, so I take them out and leave them for the entire weekend.
Another childhood memory involves a number of cousins who nearly always visited us on Memorial Day. They came to decorate their parents’ graves and then stopped to see us. In spite of the sorrowful overtones, it was a happy time.
We used to have a community reunion with a potluck dinner every year in the village where I grew up. Now it has been scaled back to every three years, I believe. You might think that has nothing to do with remembering the dead but it has everything to do with sharing memories and building memories.
Of course, Memorial Day weekend is also considered the beginning of summer and a time for picnics, swimming, and other forms of summer fun. Some consider this an inappropriate distraction from the “true meaning” of the day. I’m not sure I agree. If the day is a time for remembering, these activities can build memories that last a lifetime.
This Memorial Day, I hope you take time to honor those who have come before us, to cherish their memories, and to build new memories with those you love. I am reminded of an Ogden Nash poem, which goes, “When I remember bygone days, I think how evening follows morn. So many I loved were not yet dead. So many I love were not yet born.”
Make this holiday a day for remembering and may your memories be good ones.