Sunday, May 26, 2013

Remember The Meaning of Memorial Day

The original meaning of the Memorial Day holiday seems to take second place to those who would celebrate the three day weekend only as a time of picnics, boating, outdoor barbecues--the gathering of friends and family as they enjoy three days in a row off work and/or school

All that is fine, but I would hope that parents teach their children what we are recognizing on Memorial Day. Once celebrated every May 30th, it is now recognized on the last Monday of May. It's a day set aside to honor the memory of those who died while in service to their country. Originally named Decoration Day, the day was meant for those still mourning soldiers killed in the Civil War to visit cemeteries and decorate the graves with flowers. Wives, mothers, sweethearts and perhaps children made a solemn procession to the grave of a loved one. Fathers, brothers and friends came, as well. 

It would seem quite natural to have packed a picnic lunch to be shared nearby after the visit. Maybe this is how the picnic tradition came about. Some families still visit graves of relatives on Memorial Day, bring flowers or small American flags to place on the grave.

As a child, I remember celebrating on the day before Memorial Day every year at our grade school. Each class selected a boy to carry the American flag and a girl to carry a bouquet of flowers grown in some class member's yard. The classes lined up, then strode purposefully and quietly across the street to the Carroll Playground where we spent our recess time on other days. At one end of the playground, there was a tall memorial stone honoring those soldiers who were from our town that had died in WWII. The names were on a metal plaque, letters raised. The American flag fluttered in the breeze on a tall silver flag pole next to the memorial. As each class paraded solemnly by, the sweet-smelling flowers were laid in front of the stone. I remember the trees that shaded this grassy area. No playground dirt here. We gathered in a large group and sang a patriotic song. Then, the school principal, Mr. Schmidt, made a short speech. I can hear his deep bass voice telling us we must always remember what these service men and women gave for us. It impressed me every year as a child and still does.

I've visited three American military cemeteries in Europe, two in France and one in Luxembourg. On Memorial Day, I think about those visits and the emotional impact of seeing the rows and rows of standing crosses in the carefully manicured grounds. So many lives lost and so many families grieving. I wrote about one of those visits in a story published a couple of years ago. You can read Soldiers and Angels here.

This past March we visited the American military cemetery in Normandy, quite close to the landing beaches that played such a dramatic part in bringing the end of WWII closer than ever. The day was cold and rainy, penetrating to our very bones. As I stood within our group of tourists listening to the national anthem, followed by a volley of gunshots and finally the mournful sound of Taps, tears mingled with the raindrops on my cheeks. I could not have spoken a word around the lump in my throat. Those Memorial Day ceremonies at our old school playground were brought to mind. Mr. Schmidt's words about always remembering had not been forgotten.

I hope that you will remember and honor those who gave so much for their country  on this Memorial Day. Enjoy the picnics and barbecues, the time with family and friends, but please remember the meaning of this day.

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