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 bands stainless-steel, sun-blinding (to other marchers) glockenspiel, I marched, played, and relished one of my small towns biggest celebrations of the year.
But beyond the parade, the chimes from the clock tower and the speaker who bored us when we reached the cemetery, the true meaning of Memorial Day never quite sank in.
Men with large families didnt go to war 60 years ago, which exempted my father from serving in World War II. And my younger uncles who did serve all returned safely, which 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, Memorial Day became far more inclusive than just the casualties of war.
Today in that small New England town, where the clock tower still chimes, the band still plays and children still carry flags from Main Street to the cemetery and back again. The family remnants who still live there 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 formal 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 135 years ago this month. Seas of flags and flowers turned barren cemeteries into living tributes to the fallen, and coined the name Decoration Day. It was three years after the close of the Civil War, and the Union and Confederate armies had united to remember those who fought for an ardent cause on both sides of Americas most 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 practice of selling red artificial flowers to benefit veterans of the war. It wasnt long before the red poppy tradition crossed the Atlantic. Even today, inspired by John McCraes 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 in beauty and remembrance, 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 is still a time to remember and to celebrate not just an important event - war, tragedy, death - 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. She also sings with the Columbia County Choral Society, which performed at Columbia Countys Red, White & Blue Veterans Celebration May 24, 2003. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.