Can we please not call it Memorial Day
Memorial Day took away my favorite holiday. I’m talking about Decoration Day.
In 1967, President Johnson declared Memorial Day an official American holiday. In June of 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which locked Memorial Day and 3 other holidays into always falling on Mondays, so we could have our 3 day weekends and Decoration Day was officially consigned to the dustbin of history.
What’s the big deal, you might ask. Same holiday, just a different name, right? Not quite.
Here’s what was different about Decoration Day - it was the thirtieth of May so if it fell in the middle of the week, you didn’t get your 3 day weekend, and if it fell on a weekend and you were a school kid, well, too bad for you, kiddo. It was OK, Decoration Day falling all over the place. People weren’t always looking for the 3 day thing and it was never about convenience.
And what else, all the stores closed for the day. That’s right. The stores and the malls (if there were any of the latter,) were closed on Decoration Day. There weren’t any Decoration Day clearance sales.
Decoration Day didn’t mean you couldn’t have fun, you could, a lot, but before the fun, there was duty.
See, the original intent was to honor the men who’d fallen in the Civil War.
And something else, and this is I think what I loved the most about Decoration Day - in Mom’s interpretation, it sprang up spontaneously, out of the people. It’s origins are somewhat obscure but with more than half a million men killed in the war and with all of them killed right here in the U. S. of A., there were a lot of graves and most of the graves, sadly, were unmarked, mass graves and too far away for the home folks to honor the fallen, even could they locate them.
So the folks, north and south, but mostly south, since most of the graves were down there, the folks began to pay tribute to the dead with flowers and prayers and it was spontaneous, how it spread. It wasn’t a specific day. It was different days in different places. Folks, women, mostly, would go out to the graves and it might not be their own loved ones, but it was southern soldiers, and those ladies, what they did, and I like to think they did it without having to talk about it, they looked over at those mass graves of the Union soldiers and decided, well, those men deserved something too. The southern women began putting flowers on the Union graves, something for those Union men and for their folks, many of whom never even got word of how and where their men had fallen and some of whom waited and watched for years, never believing their men weren’t coming home.
Growing up, we had a routine on Decoration Day. Church, first, then to behind the house, to the lilac bushes to cut flowers to take up to the graveyard and with so many folks going up there on the hill with lilacs...
I swear I can smell lilacs whenever I enter a graveyard, even if it’s winter.
We’d clean up around our own family graves and it wasn’t just for the soldiers, it was for all our buried folk. We’d place the flags and the flowers, and the kids didn’t run around crazy in the graveyard like they did in so many other places. They got it was somber.
My brother and myself, we always felt special. See, we had our own fallen soldier, the uncle we never knew, killed in Korea, the forgotten war. (Just try telling Dad to forget it.) Uncle Mike died somewhere south of the Chosin Reservoir, his body, like so many others, never recovered. We never let on to the other kids how Uncle Mike wasn’t really down there beneath his headstone and we always believed, like Dad and like those Civil War widows and orphans, that Uncle Mike would someday come walking through our front door. I still refuse to believe Uncle Mike won’t 1 day come home, but if he does, he’ll be in his 90s and Dad won’t be there to greet him.
After we finished with our own folks, we’d go up into the oldest section of the cemetery, to those 3 soldiers buried side by side, none of them over the age of 21 and all dead on the same day, the third of July, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett’s Charge, the day, the moment, when the war was decided. There wasn’t any cleaning up to do around those 3 graves, or flags to place. The Legion or somebody took care of them, but we could stand there reverently, my brother and I, and visualize those men, skeleton soldiers in their blue uniforms and we’d think about how the fathers of those 3 men, upon hearing of their deaths, had gone to Gettysburg to fetch their boys home.
So if I seem a bit out of sorts, come Memorial Day, don’t think of me as some unpatriotic curmudgeon. I don’t dislike Memorial Day, not really. I like parades and carnivals and fireworks and I love candy apples, and I like the feeling of how summer is back, finally. It’s just, well, when I go to the graveyard on Decoration Day morning, and I will, I just don’t want to be the only live person up there.