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The Meaning of Memorial Day
- Memorial Day History - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
The history of Memorial Day
Memorial Day has always been a day when we run into speeches or written material about the meaning of Memorial Day, so what I've written here is, in a lot of ways, nothing new. After all, as far as I can tell, there have, for some time, been a lot of people who do seem to forget the reason that Memorial Day has been established. Talking to a lot of people who are somewhere in the area of my age (I'm a second-wave Baby Boomer), I've come to believe that the meaning of the day has become yet more forgotten over very recent years. I just thought I'd write something that would let me feel as if I've done some little thing by way of doing of my part in aiming to keep the meaning of the day from being forgotten.
When I was a kid my mother always emphasized that Memorial Day is a "different kind of holiday" than others we celebrate or observe. She would frequently talk about how Memorial Day is a "serious holiday", and say things like, "It's a day when it's OK to have a good time and enjoy get-togethers with family and friends, because that's one of things that the people we remember fought for. Still, it's a day when we remember and honor those who lost their lives in service to their country, so it's not a day like the Fourth of July is, with big loud celebrating and fireworks."
With my siblings and I having been born not all that long after the end of World War II, it was clear to me that pretty much everyone around me treated and viewed Memorial Day the same way as I was being raised to treat and view it: It was, as my mother had so often pointed out, a "more serious" holiday, but also one on which people should feel very good about sharing and enjoying with friends and family at gatherings like the traditional backyard barbeque. In climates like that of New England if Nature was being particularly cooperative Memorial Day may even mean a picnic at the beach.
In any case, known for being the first warm- or hot- weather holiday involving outdoor celebrations and get-togethers, and with May 31 having been established as its original date, Memorial Day kind of "ushered out" the month of May (even if, at one time, a few days early) and ushered in the month that brings us Summer, June.
This had been the general "flavor" of Memorial Day ever since I was a kid and for a couple of decades into my adult life. There would always, of course, be reminders from someone or something not to forget the meaning of Memorial Day, but I think many of those reminders were more the result of having so many people alive who had been personally touched by the kind of loss of life that is remembered on this holiday. In 1970 my father (a WWII veteran) was still only 59, and right through the 70's my mother was only in her fifties. America still had in it a whole lot of people old enough to have lived through both World War I and World War II, not to mention other wars.
In more recent years, though, so many of those people are no longer with us. Sadly, we have continued to see the loss of lives through service to the country, so it isn't as if we no longer have people who have been personally touched by such loss. It is, however, a "narrower" group of people who have been. Those of us who haven't been personally touched by it (and particularly, perhaps, those of us who have our own children who are old enough to serve) certainly feel in, our own way, the loss and sacrifice of those who have lost lives this way; but so many of us have, at least some degree, had "the luxury" of being that much more removed from the meaning of Memorial Day.
In more recent years, too, I (and some other adults that I know) have noticed that there seem to be some signs that the meaning of the day has become increasingly forgotten. Some of those signs are some types of flashy holiday decorations that show up in stores. A particularly noticeable sign may that the apparent increased use of firecrackers/fireworks" on or around Memorial Day. Having grown up so aware of the meaning of Memorial Day, it is an oddly sad thing for me, and those others to whom I referred, to hear the sound of firecrackers/fireworks just before or during Memorial Day weekend.
You see, one reason my mother spoke so much about the meaning of Memorial Day was the before she married my father she had been married to a young Marine who was killed in World War II. Her brother had been injured during the War; and, of course, she was married to my father, who, like so many other veterans, said little to his children about some of what he'd seen or lost while he served. My family, my parents' generation, and my generation lived during America's 1950's, 60's, and 70's still very much under a shadow cast World War II. That shadow, of course, faded to some degree by the 1970's, but I think it remained, and will continue to remain, to some degree as long as there are so many people who were touched (first-hand, but also "once removed") by that time, and loss, in American history when those sacrifices were so widely shared by Americans.
I didn't, and never will, know my mother's first husband. I know he was 24 when he died, and I know it doesn't take a lot of great knowledge, wisdom or depth to grasp the loss of a life that was so brief and a future that could have otherwise been so extended.
In those more recent years (those years in which I've noticed the increase in gaudy decorations and the sounds of firecrackers/fireworks around Memorial Day), however, I've started to see Memorial Day in a light that increased its meaning for me even in an age when it can appear that the meaning of the day is becoming increasingly forgotten.
I look at the life, self, and family that I've built over decades of adult life. I look at my siblings and what they've built and become. I look at the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my parents and the selves, lives, and relationships that make up who/what they are; and I look at this whole family of siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and lives that exist as this family even though my two parents have been gone for years now. I think of the things that connect family members and the things that define the "mini-world" of family within the larger world; as well as the history and promise of the individuals within a family, but also that are shared within it.
This whole "mini-world" that is my family is the legacy left by my parents, and none of it or us would ever have existed if one young man had not lost his life and future. Had he not been killed, the legacy of my two parents would not exist. Another legacy would have existed in its place. There's nothing productive in imagining things that didn't, and won't, ever happen; and there's certainly no use in spinning wheels over anything other than what actually is. Still, it's kind of odd-feeling to know that I, and everyone in our family at this point (the grandparents and their siblings are all gone now) would not exist if that one young man had not lost his life. If you're wondering if I'm somehow torn between being happy that my whole family exists and feeling bad that my mother's first husband was killed, I'm not torn at all. It's more than possible for people to feel two different things at the same time. The only reason I even allow myself to indulge in pondering that fact that I exist only because someone else does not is that when I see all there is, and has been,, that has resulted from my parents' life together; it's hard not to notice that depth and scope of what that young Marine lost besides, of course, his too-brief life here on Earth.
This isn't to say that this young man (or others like him) did not leave a legacy. Nobody should infer such an insult from what I've said here. The point is that people like this one young Marine should have had the chance not only to leave more legacy, but to live it at least as long as so many other people get to live their own. While I once thought of this young man I'd never know as someone who was too young to die; and while, as I got a little older myself, I'd come to think of my mother's first husband as "some other mother's son"; today I look at my own mature and growing family and more acutely feel that depth and scope of the sacrifice of some other mother's son who never got to be some other son's, or daughter's, father or grandfather or great-grandfather.
When people think about the kind of sacrifice made by those who lost their lives serving their country, some people may more easily grasp that depth and scope more than others. People do, of course, often know how to grieve, or at least acknowledge, the loss of what will never be. It's a little more complicated to do that, though; and sometimes people have to have a fairly good idea about what "what will never be" would have been, you know?
On Memorial Day we honor the lives and sacrifices of those who paid that "ultimate price" (words we so often hear around Memorial Day). The countless lives and sacrifices we remember on this holiday are lives and sacrifices not just remembered by individuals, but shared by a nation.
Still, untouched as I've always been by the kind of loss experienced first-hand by others, I can't help but notice an odd kind legacy left behind by one young Marine; which is that sixty years after his death, at least one stranger who never knew him would nonetheless think about the meaning of his life and the depth and scope of his sacrifice. This young Marine - this "stranger-yet-not-quite-a-stranger" - was far, far, from the only person who has ever died in service to his country. The numbers of all those people who have ever served their country and either died doing so or else gone on to live their lives are pretty much staggering. My own father was one of them, and I don't forget that. Neither have I ever assumed there weren't things he experienced, or sacrifices he made, because of it.
It's just that when Memorial Day comes around it's pretty hard for me not to think (at least a time or two, or three) about this one individual whose life did not touch mine, and yet whose loss of life is essentially the very reason I and so many others in my family exist at all. When I'm reminded of this stranger who never really seemed completely like a stranger to me, mostly because of my mother's occasional conversations about him (and about losing him); the meaning of lives lost too soon because of war seems to mix with the awareness of futures and legacies that would never come to be, and somehow make clearer, highlight and magnify the true meaning of the holiday we call, "Memorial Day".
One individual who died too young, one individual future never lived, one individual legacy never left behind - multiplied how many times throughout the course of our Nation's history. This is what the holiday is about. Enjoy the gatherings and ushering in of Summer with family and friends, and enjoy them in peace and with the freedom to do just that; because the sacrifice of lives, futures and legacies has been the price paid for a collective future and legacy shared by all who call this nation their own. Maybe hold the fireworks, firecrackers, and gaudy party directions for the Fourth of July, though. This day - Memorial Day - just isn't really the time for those things