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Seaborn: Remembering Memorial Day

Posted: May 28, 2017 - 12:20am

"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 left-foot, right-foot Girl Scout and, finally, a synchronized marcher bearing my high school band's stainless-steel, sun-blinding glockenspiel 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 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" on the only side they understood.

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 149 years ago this month, three years 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 of that terrible war.

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."

Though decorations still shroud their graves, casualties of wars involving American fighting men and women from Civil War days to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are honored now on "Memorial Day," the last Monday in May instead of the original, fixed date of May 30.

Now, amid picnics and parades, the long week-end away from work and schools still in session, 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.

Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer, and the author of "As Long as the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County's Past." E-mail comments to seabara@aol.com.

 

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