“I see strange pictures in the flames, and memories bring tears;
I live again the yesterdays, and joys of other years.”
– Grace M. Walker
All my early memories of Memorial Day include a parade. From a flag-waving child to a clumsy Girl Scout and, finally, a synchronized marcher bearing my high school band’s stainless-steel, sun-blinding (to other marchers) glockenspiel – a pianist’s route to playing in the band – I marched, played, and relished one
of my small town’s
biggest celebrations of the year.
But beyond the parade, the chimes from the clock tower in the center of town and a speaker who bored us when we reached the cemetery, the true meaning of Memorial Day never quite sank in.
Men with large
families didn’t go to war all those years ago, which exempted my father from serving in World War II, and my younger uncles who did serve all returned safely.
This may explain why I was an adult before Memorial Day took on any personal significance.
Although our annual celebration seemed only to honor those who lost their lives while serving their country, when death from any cause began claiming those close to me, the
day became far more inclusive than just remembering the casualties of war.
Today in that small New England town, the clock tower still chimes, the band still plays and children still carry flags from Main Street to the cemetery and back again.
But now the family remnants who still live there also place flowers on the side-by-side graves of my parents, a few rows and generations behind those of two relatives who fought in the “War Between the States.”
The original purpose of this national holiday, however, was closer to that of my childhood parades than to the added meanings most of us now attach to this first warm-weather holiday of the year.
America first set aside a day to honor her war dead 146 years ago this month, three days after the close of a war that nearly tore our nation apart.
Appropriately called “Decoration Day,” as seas of flags and flowers
turned barren cemeteries into living tributes to the fallen, Union and Confederate armies united to remember those who fought for an ardent cause on both sides.
Fifty years later, a similar event honoring the heroes of World War I began in England. Included in the celebration of “Remembrance Day” was the selling of red,
artificial flowers to
benefit veterans of that war.
Before long, the “red poppy” tradition crossed the Atlantic where, even today, inspired by John McCrea’s 1915 poem, In Flanders Fields, American veterans’ groups still wear poppies on their lapels and remember:
“To you from failing hands we throw the torch;
Be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep,
Though poppies grow in Flanders Fields.”
Now, amid picnics and parades, Memorial Day still is a time to remember and celebrate not just an important, historic event, but important people, as anyone with someone to love them and cherish their memory will always be.