How many people, getting a reprieve from work or school for the day, host barbecues or go hiking, to the river, or the beach on Memorial Day without ever stopping to think about why we have designated it as a National Holiday? According to Wikipedia, a memorial “is an object which serves as a focus for memory of something, usually a person (who has died) or an event. Popular forms of memorials include landmark objects or art objects such as sculptures, statues or fountains, and even entire parks.” The purpose of Memorial Day is to memorialize our American soldiers that have died in the line of duty. In recent times, people have begun to include well-deserved recognition of military personnel who are currently serving during both Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day tributes. However, the idea behind Memorial Day which was once also known as Decoration Day, was to commemorate fallen soldiers by placing flowers upon their graves.
The unofficial beginnings of this holiday began when women across the nation, but primarily in the South, started marking unknown Confederate and Union soldier’s graves, many of which were unknown and unmarked, after the Civil War. Since they would spend several hours placing wreaths on graves, and transportation was much slower at that time, they would take food to sustain them during the day, hence the linkage of picnicking to the day. I still recall how, when I was a little girl, my grandmother would make the trek over the mountain to the cove where my ancestors settled in 1808 to visit the graves of her relatives on Memorial Day. While they had not fallen in the line of duty, some of them were veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces. I accompanied her a couple of times to the old cemetery, where we would stand in silence at the foot of the graves while she prayed or meditated or contemplated and I wondered when it would be time to go back home, so we could cook hamburgers. The process usually took awhile though, because there were always others that she knew there, who had also brought their red-white and blue silk dime-store flowers to the graves of their relatives. Social butterfly that she was, we always had to stop and chat with each one of them and catch up on the gossip since the previous Memorial Day, which is indicative of the social element that has begun to become an ingrained part of the day.
As an adult, I have spent many Memorial Days gathered with family and friends eating barbecue, hamburgers and hot dogs. Sometimes I was at the lake, at a ball game, or, if the weather was bad, I might have gone shopping to take advantage of the sales that somehow seem to permeate every single holiday. Personally, I think it is not a true holiday unless the stores are closed, which gives everyone an opportunity to celebrate. That being said, I do like a good sale, but just do not want them to detract from why we have the ability to take off of work and go shopping!
Regardless of where I am or who I am with, due to the fact that I was raised in a very patriotic family (six of my ancestors served in the American Revolution), I have always made it a point to make certain that there is some mention of why we have the holiday, and to take a moment to reflect on those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms, which is their lives. These brave men and women, were each someone’s father, mother, sister, brother, niece, nephew, son and/or daughter. There were no doubt prayers asking for their safe-keeping offered up as they marched off to war. There were many heart-broken wives, sweethearts and Mommas awaiting a joy-filled reunion that never transpired.
If we pause from our fun-filled activities a moment to actually make a journey to a cemetery on this day of memorials, we see rows of peaceful graves carpeted with green grass marked with tiny American flags and the occasional overdone spray of store-bought flowers. We stop for a moment and offer thanks for their sacrifices, but do we ever actually know what that means? Do we gloss over what must have been very painful and sometimes horrific deaths so that we can hurry off to a game of flag football? Do we neglect to acknowledge the lives of their family members that were forever altered so that we can cut into the summer’s first iced cold watermelons? Do we ever think, for just a moment, about the sadness, fear, and agony that must have accompanied the final breaths of often too-young men as they spilled their very life blood on a battlefield?
Sometimes, even the best-intentioned of us forget to remember. Though I posted a reminder on my social media page as a call to all to pause long enough to reflect on the true meaning of the day, heard the preacher mention it in Church yesterday morning, and have seen media reports about it all weekend long, when I asked the blessing of food at my table last night, I had a lapse that dismays me. As I gave thanks for my table laden with hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, and baked beans, I neglected, as I said the blessing, to mention these fallen citizens to whom I owe a debt I cannot repay. I am writing these words because I could not let this day, officially Memorial Day, pass without calling attention to the place of honor that they, above all citizens in my beloved country, deserve.
It may not be practical for every person to go out and participate in a grave marking ceremony, though many volunteers still effect these rituals across the country. It may not be feasible for each citizen to erect engraved granite monuments. It may not be viable for everyone to take off of work and picnic with family or friends. But it is certainly an attainable goal for all who reside in this still great country called the United States of America to pause, even if only for a moment, on this day to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the freedoms that have been earned on our behalf by people who fought for them, but who did not live to return home to enjoy those freedoms themselves.
These soldiers, whose lives came to abrupt halts, deserve more honor than the winners of the race at the Indy 500, the Kentucky Derby, the Iron Bowl, the World Series, or the Super Bowl. They deserve more accolades than the volunteers that give their time in the community, the politicians in Washington, or the businessmen who own high rise buildings and jet airplanes. They deserve whatever Memorials we can offer, including this day of honor, because they are heroes of the highest possible sort. They are the ones that fought and gave of themselves until there was literally nothing left to give. They are the ones that made it possible for the poor kid born into the ghetto to rise up and become a millionaire, for the protestors to picket in support of their causes, for the children to spend their summers playing baseball or going to the swimming pool. They are the reason that we can hear a military plane pass overhead and not run for cover. They are our Country’s reason for survival, and I with a grateful yet heavy heart contemplate their sacrifices, and salute them all this Memorial Day weekend.