I often wonder how many different answers I’d get if I asked random people on the street what Memorial Day means for them. Far too often when I contemplate the question, sadness overwhelms me when I consider some of the answers I might get.
When I was a small child, Memorial Day meant a parade, ice cream and visiting the cemetery to put flowers on family graves. Looking back, I remember my mother calling it Decoration Day and that meant decorating graves even though they were just great grandparents and not soldiers who had died in battle. When I got older the day still meant a parade, but by then I was marching with the high school band and sitting on a sunny slope listening to the local dignitaries make speeches. I began to realize that it wasn’t just about decorating graves. But it still wasn’t very personal.
As a young adult, half the men in my generation served in a country few of us knew anything about and the other half were protesting the draft, the war and the unfortunate soldiers who answered the call. What a difference compared to the unity of purpose of the Greatest Generation! My brother was one of those unfortunate young men who had unmentionable things shouted at them and thrown at them when they finally returned stateside, scarred forever by a war we could have won, but didn’t have the political will for. A childhood friend lost his life flying his fighter jet off a carrier in the South China Sea. High school friends died fighting, tending to the wounded and flying helicopters. I finally began to understand what Memorial Day is really all about. Later, when I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC for the first time my gut-deep reaction to that shiny black wall made it all very personal.
Today, the advances in medicine and emergency care are saving more and more of our young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from the ultimate sacrifice of war, but there are still far too many who leave grieving parents, heartbroken wives and husbands and children who will never know their fathers or mothers. Today is a day for honoring those who have fallen in defense of an ideal. The ideal of Democracy. The idea of America. And in faithful service to each other.
There will always be parades and grand speeches. There will always be barbeques, beer and friends enjoying an extra day off from work. The beaches and parks will teem with people looking for fun and relaxation. Merchants will grab the opportunity for extra sales. But while your heart is thrumming to the beat of drums as the band marches by, while your mind wanders as the speeches begin to repeat themselves, while you’re pursuing your day in the sun or dickering over the price of a new car, take a moment to remember all those we have lost. Starting with that first brave soul who lost his life facing the might British Army across a village green in Lexington Massachusetts. Remember the sailors who finally trounced the seemingly invincible British Navy in 1812. And the thousands who fought over keeping America whole during the Civil War, the men in the trenches of WWI and the thousands who died in so many far away places in WWII, the men and women of my generation who struggled in Southeast Asia and all the little wars in between. And especially remember those who stepped up to volunteer, both before and after 9/11, giving up so much to defend us against an enemy who would like nothing better than to wipe America off the map.
Memorial Day is a day of remembrance. Honor those who have fallen in the defense of freedom in every generation. Today, when all the hoopla is over, I’m going to the cemetery alone. I plan to touch the top of each headstone and thank each one for their sacrifice. RIP. God bless you. You are not forgotten. What will you be doing to mark this day?