Garlands of Remembrance

As with so much in our national life, change has come to Memorial Day. Flags continue to fly, of course. Patriotic garlands still hang from porch railings and bunting flutters in the small-town breeze while veterans’ groups gather at cemeteries and march in parades. And yet, in ways both subtle and obnoxious, Memorial Day has become primarily a beginning-of-summer ritual, a time to focus on beaches and barbeque, mattress sales, movie-going and the first road trip of the season.

The meaning and history of Memorial Day is both more profound and more complex than most Americans realize. For several years after the end of the Civil War, commemorations spread across the South as mothers, wives and children of the Confederate dead decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers with flowers.

American writer and illustrator Howard Pyle wrote of Decoration Day for the May 28, 1898 issue of Harper’s Bazar [sic], just thirty years after the Civil War’s end.

At that time the outward signs of that flaming and bitter strife were still fresh and new. The bosom of nature, ploughed by the iron of war, had not yet healed. Everywhere were smoke-blackened and shattered shells, each, one time the patriarchal mansion of some great slave-holding planter. Woods and glades were thinned out by the storm of shot and shell that had torn through them with iron hail. In one place or another long rows – rank upon rank – of shallow mounds stretched up hill, along the level, through the woodlands, battalions of graves hardly yet covered with the thin young grass.
Upon a dozen battle-fields were great cemeteries, each consecrated with its baptism of blood, and there North and South lay in stillness, soldiers stretched side by side, in a fraternity never to be broken, because the Angel Israfel himself had set his seal of silence upon it all.

It was to these battle cemeteries, greater or lesser, that the women of the neighboring country brought their offering of flowers. There is something very full of pathos in the thought of those poor Southern women who had suffered so much and who had endured to such a bitter end – of those patient women of grief bringing their harmless offerings of flowers to these stern and furrowed fields of death, there to lay the fading things upon the bosom of each mound.
The North, it is said, was remembered at those times as well as the South. One cannot but hope this may be true, for it is beautiful to think of one woman of sorrows in the South reaching out an unseen hand to some other and unknown woman of sorrows in the faraway North.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued orders that on May 30th of that year all posts should decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with flowers – both North and South – thus formalizing what had become customary.

After World War I, the focus of the day was expanded to honor all those who had died in all American wars, and Memorial Day began to replace Decoration Day as a term of reference. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and placed on the last Monday in May.

Though Midwestern by birth rather than Southern, I learned to call the occasion Decoration Day and my family celebrated it much as Southerners would. On the weekend preceding the holiday, we traveled to family cemeteries to clear away grass from the stones, trim the bushes and plant fresh flowers. We often saw the town’s Boy Scouts working with the VFW to place flags on veterans’ graves, guaranteeing that all who had served would be remembered.

In our classrooms,  lessons included the history of battles or Presidential speeches. We made garlands of red, white and blue pennants containing patriotic images – the Tree of Liberty, the Liberty Bell or Lady Liberty’s torch – and words we were only beginning to appreciate. Freedom. Peace. Courage.

Always, there was show and tell. With World War II only a decade or so removed, tokens of that time were available to almost everyone. There were rationing coupons for gas and sugar, ribbons and medals awarded for bravery, photographs and correspondence from the front. Once, I took a letter from my Uncle Jack, who fought in the Pacific and never came home. Today, his letters have gone missing, but I have my father’s words to his brother.

We got your letter today and were sure glad to hear from you and that you are OK. It must be something over there. We kind of figured you must be up in the front, as we had not heard of you for some time…
Saw in the paper that the kid I used to ask you about was wounded over in Leyte. From that I figured you must be in there, too, as he is in the same division as you. Things must be bad there in more ways than one. From the papers it sounds like you are doing OK, though. Sure hope so…
Had you heard that Don was wounded? He was hit by a piece of flak. I guess his flying days are over from what he says. Sure hope you get through this campaign without injury. It sure must be nerve-wracking to fight all day and stand guard all night…
Take care of yourself and be careful. Hope this thing is over and you get home pretty soon. Write when you can…

Once school was dismissed on Friday, the routine never varied. Saturday morning was set aside for the parade. In the afternoon, we cooked for Sunday’s trip to visit my grandparents and on Sunday morning we went to church, where we listened as a Deacon read the list of congregational members who had been lost to war. We sang hymns that acknowledged the realities of worldly conflict, and listened to sermons touched with patriotism but also meant to comfort those still grieving their loss.

Memorial Day itself meant a return trip to the cemetery, where there would be a flag ceremony and a speech or two, traditions as firmly established and long-standing as placing flowers on the graves.

On May 30, 1896, Father John J. Woods, pastor of Holy Cross Church in Brooklyn, delivered some typical remarks which were reported in The Brooklyn Eagle. The day began with members of the Veterans and Sons of Veterans’ Mutual Benefit Union marching with a fife and drum corps past decorated houses and cheering crowds to Holy Cross Cemetery, where they heard these words included in Fr. Wood’s speech.

“Where in the history of the world can be found any preamble or constitution as that of America? Its enunciation carried hope and consolation to the downtrodden and afflicted of every country, its promulgation and realization by a handful of valiant patriots sent consternation to cruel tyrants and earthly potentates, and proved that more than a human hand guided the destinies of the young republic.
The corner stone of this republic was laid in the noblest blood that ever flowed in battle, for it was shed for principle and God-given rights that no tyrant or power can stifle, much less destroy.
Our forefathers grabbed the sword and musket not to extend their territory or possessions, not to further ambitious objects, but to protect their heavenly gift of liberty. ‘Who will dare,’ cried they to the world, ‘deprive us of our right to seek happiness? Who will dare fetter us by unlawful and excessive taxation? Who will deny us the right to worship our Creator according to the dictates of our consciences? None, unless at the loss of our fortunes, our lives and sacred honor.”

In the days of my childhood and youth, the final event of our Decoration Day celebrations always was a concert by our City Band. Battle-scarred or whole, old or young, bereaved by conflict or blessedly untouched, we gathered to hear the familiar songs – to sing along with Cohen’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, to clap and toe-tap our way through Sousa marches and to smile with tolerance at the amaturish but enthusiastic children singing “God Bless America”.

Inevitably, there were tears as the program concluded with The Battle Hymn of Republic. Peter Wilhousky’s arrangment still can bring me to tears. It reminds me of a time, not so long ago and perhaps still recoverable, when people of every political stripe, of wildly varying economic status, of every faith or of no faith at all were willing to set aside differences in order to stand together in awe before the majesty and mystery of nationhood – a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  

As we come to our own Memorial Day celebrations, as we honor those whose graves we decorate and cherish the memory of their service on our behalf, perhaps we would do well to remember that lives, too, can be decorated, draped with the best garlands of citizenship –  selflessness, integrity, honesty and valor. 

If we choose such active remembrance, we may yet ensure that our dead have not died in vain, that our nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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80 thoughts on “Garlands of Remembrance

    1. Dr. Dea,

      Thanks to my parents, my teachers and assorted communities, our national heritage became important to me. It still is. Communicating the vibrancy of tradition and the critical nature of our foundations can be difficult in this 140-character culture, but I try.

      Thank you so much for your gracious comment. I appreciate it very much.


  1. A much better use of our time to remember those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” for their country than heading for the sales. Although a goodly number of us will be making burnt offerings in the back yard over the family grill. . . .

    1. WOL,

      Well, of course it doesn’t have to be either/or. It never was for my family. Part of the fun of the three day weekend was combining lots of food and activities with the remembering – the storytelling. The parades were exciting, the cemeteries were pretty, but the talk was flat interesting.

      What intrigues me most now is to realize that there were nearly as many traditions associated with Memorial Day as with Christmas. There was special music, there were special foods, there were certain thing that you “just did”. There was a lot of security in that, too – perhaps part of the reason it was so important to our parents, who’d just come through an extremely insecure time.


  2. We must have grown up in the same time frame–as we too called it Decoration Day and it was time to visit the cemeteries, clean up the graves of our loved ones and put in flowers. Even today, the small town I live near, has the parade, down to the cemetery, where guns are shot over the millpond and floral wreaths thrown onto the water to honor the sailors, then another tribute at the soldiers memorial. Every veteran present is presented a red carnation–then the band moves back to the center of town where they put on a concert–then a baseball game after that. This is a town of less then 1,000, but we still do it right!

    1. Judy,

      And isn’t it fun! Small towns often do a better job of celebrating because almost everyone is involved. The proportion of pure “spectators” is much lower.

      I was intrigued by your mention of the floral tributes for the sailors. I don’t remember coming across such a thing – but of course, we didn’t have any millponds, either. Cemeteries on the plains and prairies can be lucky to have any trees, let alone water features. We did have sailors, though – one of my uncles was in the Navy.

      You mentioned carnations – do you remember the poppies? The Veterans always sold them, and everyone would wear one. And every year, we re-memorized “In Flanders Fields” and some unlucky classmate would get to recite the poem aloud.

      What I remember now about the artificial poppies we purchased is that they were handmade – the stems were wire, and they were wrapped with green crepe paper. I wonder who made them?

      In any event – happy weekend! I hope it’s a fine one!


    1. Z,

      I see that civic celebrations are part of your weekend, too. Happy Independence Day to Ecuador! The longing for freedom and self-determination know no boundaries, do they?

      There is a Memorial Day Foundation now, dedicated to helping the country reclaim some of the meaning of the day. One activity they encourage is stopping at 3 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day and remembering those who have given their lives in service. A national moment of remembrance is such a small gesture for such a large sacrifice!


    1. montucky,

      Indeed. So many freedoms we take for granted were purchased by the sacrifice of people we know only as members as that huge, anonymous group we call our “service men and women”. We owe them at least the debt of remembrance – not to mention the responsibility to care for the legacy they left us.

      Happy Memorial Day!


    1. Yvonne,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I learned a good bit about the historical background while writing it, particularly the earliest, “informal” commemorations in the South.

      I thought the most touching aspect was the Southern women decorating the graves of Northern soldiers. Here in my town, there are both Union and Confederate graves. Today, each of them is equally honored, with both flags and flowers – just as it should be.

      It’s always a pleasure to have you stop by – I hope your weekend’s a good one.


      1. Thank you, Linda. I hope your week-end is a nice one as well. I am more or less a recluse and my two children are elsewhere. But I am okay with that. So I don’t celebrate but I’m never liked holidays anyhow.

        I have been puny and I hope that I’m on the mend with antibiotics and a drastic diet change.

        I very much appreciate your lovely replies to every commenter. These make my day and lets me know that your readers matter.

        1. I’m so sorry that you’ve not been feeling well. It happens – even this pretty time of year there often are little “bugs” that prowl around, not to mention all those “parts” that suddenly decide not to work as we get older.

          The best part of the weekend so far has been watching that rain in the Corpus/San Antonio/Austin triangle. I just heard that the Edwards Aquifer is up ten feet after all the rain. That’s very good news indeed, despite the flooding. We didn’t get a drop. Sigh.

          I know there are people who read the comments as well as the posts. One friend says she likes the comments better! I enjoy them myself – whether people offer only a few words or really hold forth, it’s interesting to hear their perspective.

          A happy Memorial Day to you and your four-footed ones!

  3. Hi Linda,

    Thank you for a wonderfully informative and moving piece of writing. I have rarely read such a moving testimony as that of Howard Pyle. Many of us have a story to tell about the long familial grief generated by one or other ( in some cases, more than one ) of the dreadful wars of the last couple of centuries.

    Perhaps you and your readers would like to read about a fairly recent experience of mine, which shows how the devastation of war casts its shadows way into the future…


    1. Anne,

      I took out your link – it lead to a page that said it had been marked “private”, and I couldn’t find a way around it, even by going to your blog and searching. Perhaps there is another link that will work? Feel free to leave it in another comment and I’ll tuck it in.

      Howard Pyle had quite the powers of description, didn’t he? I found it interesting to ponder the fact that one of the best war correspondents during WWII was Ernie Pyle, who worked for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. There’s no familial connection as far as I can tell. It’s just another of those wonderful, serendipitous tidbits.

      I just double-checked my memory. Even though your Remembrance Day is in November, I see we do share the poppy as a token of remembrance, and John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”..

      We dare not break faith with those who died – to do so would mean our deaths, too – perhaps not physically, but in other ways just as real.


      1. No problem, Linda. I had totally forgotten that that blog had been ‘privatised’ so to speak, since I will soon be publishing it as a book on IBooks.

        My story concerned a visit which my brother and I made, with our mother at her request, to the war grave in Calais where her beloved brother was buried. He had been a radio operator on a ship which was sunk in the last weeks of World War Two. His was the only body ever found. He had swum what must have been a very long distance to the shores of France, then died of hypothermia on the shore.

        Many years later his youngest son, born not long after his father’s death, had a very powerful experience on the shoreline of the Scottish island to which our family belongs. He heard his father’s dying calls….from some level of the space/time continuum which is a shrouded mystery to us all.

        On our familial visit to my late uncle’s grave in Calais, that night I had a devastatingly powerful experience which felt to me like collective grief channelling through my own: a lament for the “still, sad music of humanity”, in Wordsworth’s powerful phrase.

        As you say – we dare not break faith with those who died.

        1. I’ve yet to visit one of those historical battlefields/cemeteries, but the accounts of those who have often carry echoes of your experience. It’s as though events have soaked into the land and remain held there, ready to be enlived by – what? Attentive presence, perhaps. Who’s to say?

          There are battlefields aplenty today, marking formally undeclared wars. One can only hope that the voice of their victims will speak to us, too.

  4. Another great post, Linda. Thanks for sharing your personal recollections of this day that has moved so far from its roots. I know that I am still moved when we go to the national cemetery where many of my family members are buried and see the sea of flags among the rows of white stones.

    1. Gary,

      Those cemeteries are visually stunning and deeply touching. Here in Houston, our National Cemetery is one of twelve that didn’t have flags placed at veterans’ graves. I’m not certain of the history of the situation, but this weekend a thousand volunteers will be placing 65,000 donated flags. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the occasion. They had so many volunteers there’s a waiting list. That’s heart-warming, too.

      A happy weekend to you!


  5. I really enjoyed this post. I remember one of my aunts calling it Decoration Day. Maybe everyone did and I just remember her…My Midwestern home was heavy on the Southern, too. When I have gone back they all sound like they are from Texas!

    When people say “Happy” Memorial Day, I feel a bit sad. As you say, it’s about sales and cookouts and boating, etc. I suppose we have that freedom to ignore Memorial Day, too.

    The Civil War imagery here is profound. Thank you for this.

    1. Martha,

      Isn’t the Sophie Steel piece wonderful? Both “Harper’s Weekly” and “Harper’s Bazar” had such wonderful illustrations, many of which can be purchased through dealers. I found one of a very early flood on the Bayou Teche in Louisiana. It was on ebay, and affordable. Now, it hangs on my wall, and makes me happy.

      I’m even more intrigued now about my own family’s use of the term “Decoration Day”. I checked some newspaper archives, and when I was a kid “Memorial Day” was used in news articles. It’s hard to say how that happened. There really wasn’t anything else Southern about our Swedish family, unless south-of-Stockholm counts.

      “Happy Memorial Day” does feel strange, doesn’t it? It’s like saying, “It was a nice funeral”. There are places where language isn’t quite elastic enough for the tasks we set it. Still, I’d rather hear people wish one another a happy Memorial Day than not mention it at all.

      Have a good holiday weekend yourself!


  6. Morning Linda:

    We don’t celebrate Memorial Day in May. That day is reserved for November 2nd of each year. It is not a national holiday in Panama. We call it a Civic Day.

    It is a personal experience where the living visit the graves of the ones who took the long journey to their place of origin, wherever that is. Flowers, fresh paint, and plants are used to decorate the graves. It is a very touching experience to visit the cemeteries and see the expression of grief and love on the relatives of the departed ones.

    I learned to sing the “Battle Hymn of The Republic” when I was in Seventh grade. It is a wonderful patriotic and religious song appropriate for the occasion.

    Thank you for your wonderful blog posts, exquisite and informative.



    1. Omar,

      It’s so interesting to learn about the customs of different countries. Our Veterans Day is November 11, which happens also to be the date of Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in other countries. Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who died in military service. Veterans Day is for all who served or are currently serving.

      The meaning of Memorial Day has spread a bit, though. Many people care for the graves of all the family, military or not. Where I grew up, it made sense, because the long winter finally was over and there was a need to tidy things up anyway. It made sense to focus all the work on preparation for the holiday.

      I was raised as a Methodist, and there were a number of wonderful patriotic hymns that were sung on national holidays. They weren’t bombastic or militaristic, but simple reminders of the courage often needed in life. I found an exquisite snippet from the Navy Hymn, which we knew as “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”. I like to think it might have given my Uncle, whom I never knew, some courage and strength of his own.


      1. Hi Linda:

        I truly enjoyed the Navy Hymn, also known as “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.

        Interesting, I went to a Methodist High School in Panama City. That’s where I continued my English education (instituto Pan Americano – IPA).

        Small world Linda, no matter what they say. Isn’t it?



        1. It is, indeed. And one of these days I’ll tell the story of how our family became Methodist. It was my paternal grandmother who caused it to happen, though not for any reason you could imagine. Maybe I’ll bump that one up, nearer the top of the topic pile!

    1. Hi, Ken,

      So – poppies for you, too. Just think how many people have memorized the poem and worn one of those poppies. It’s really quite remarkable.

      Now I’m wondering – what’s that in your hand as you toast the Boys up front? Would that be a Labatt Blue? or a Molson?


  7. Linda,
    I agree with Howard Pyle, I hope the Southern women remembered those in the North, too. It was such a divisive war; it remains the single most devastating event for our country. When we visited Antietam and Gettysburg, I was overwhelmed to imagine the human suffering that took place.

    I’m glad your father’s letter to his brother survived. Those are things to treasure. Thank you for a thoughtful post. It’s beautiful and respectful.

    1. Bella Rum,

      Somehow, I suspect the women of the North and the South did consider each other with compassion and respect and found ways to reach out to one another. I’ve no direct evidence to support my belief, but If they hadn’t, it would have taken much longer for the nation to begin to heal.

      I worry a good bit when it comes to the decision-makers in our government. People who have no sense of the suffering and chaos of war, who view it with as much detachment as a video game, can make very bad decisions.

      That’s one reason the letters, the duffel bags, the marksmanship medals, are so important. They help us to remember – not only those who went to war, but the importance of making it unnecessary for others to do so.


    1. Thanks, Curt. With so many cross-currents this year, Memorial Day itself was looking a bit like a minefield. But the point of the day never has been about “us” – it’s about “them”, the ones who not only cared about our country but were willing to commit their lives to its preservation.

      I wanted to post something in their honor. That you found my attempt both thoughtful and moving is deeply satisfying.


      1. I was hoping to do an article tomorrow on my father-in-law who was shot down as a hump pilot crossing the Himalayas during WW II. Unfortunately, we’ve misplaced the letter where he described his experience. We will find it and I will write the story. In the meantime, I will reblog a story on my ancestors who died in the Revolutionary War.

  8. Linda, thank you for the historical perspective. As kids, we looked forward to accompanying our Dad to the cemetery for the VFW honor guard, the gun salute, and taps. On my one trip to Washington D.C. we were lucky to attend the Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. Thanks for tickling my memories.

    Seems more difficult with so many years under my belt, to “celebrate” Memorial Day. Too many “unjust” wars (wish I could trust politicians more than I do) in recent history. A day for mixed emotions for me.

    1. Rosemary,

      I’ve never been to Arlington, but I can imagine it was a wonderful experience. Even here at our National Cemetery, it’s an impressive ceremony. Perhaps the best thing about remembrances typical of the day is that even in the smallest town and smallest cemetery, a color guard and a few words are possible. That’s all that’s needed.

      I understand your mixed feelings about celebrating the day. To a degree, language trips us up here. We tend to think of celebration as being linked to festivities and fun, like a birthday celebration. But the first definition offered by Merriam-Webster is, “to perform a sacrament or solemn ceremony publicly and with appropriate rites”.

      The most common example I can think of comes from the Catholic Church, where it’s said that the priest “celebrates” Mass. In the same way, Memorial Day is celebrated with public ceremonies, such as honor guards, gun salutes and taps.

      When Congress decided on the three-day weekend for Memorial Day, celebration-as-fun got a big boost. There’s nothing wrong with that, but celebrating those who served willingly and wtihout reserve – even when they might have disagreed with their civilian leadership’s policies – is important. They deserve their day – it’s the least we can do.


      1. I love the info about the definition of celebrate, and its deeper meanings do indeed add fullness to my understanding and acceptance of my ambivalence. Thanks!

  9. Thanks, Linda, for this thoughtful post.

    In Canada we celebrate our veterans on Nov. 11th. It is a moving and important day to me because my father served for four years on a Corvette in the Atlantic, escorting supply ships. Remembrance Day, being in November, tends to be either a grey, dark day, or cold and snowy. Both seem fitting for the task.

    Every Remembrance Day service includes a reading of John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields.” It is both haunting and beautiful, and nicely invites its hearers into the gift of memory

    1. Allen,

      i must confess – my first image was of your father in a sleek, fast car. (It was red, of course.) In fact, the car was named after the class of ships on which your father served – a bit of interesting history.

      Our Veterans Day also is November 11. It’s a day meant for remembering all veterans, both living and dead, while today is set aside for those who perished in service. I remember those gloomy parades and services from my days in the midwest. As you say, the setting is appropriate.

      I just heard a reading of “In Flanders Fields” this morning, by a caller to the early morning outdoor show. There’s a lot of respect for veterans among hunters and fisherman, and it was touching to hear the poem in that context. The last time I heard it recited publicly was at a local hamburger joint/bar, and it was a member of a “Rolling Thunder” motorcycle group who was doing the reciting, dressed in his leathers. It made quite an impression.


  10. Yes, Memorial Day is a time of remembrance and not just a convenient three day weekend. I head up to visit my father tomorrow morning for a few days. There will be a Memorial Day event at the Veterans Center he was so instrumental in making a reality with a wonderful museum and so I will help with photos and just being with the soldier in my life, my Dad.

    I don’t wish to take up too much space but wanted to share a favourite poem of WWI. It is by Alan Seeger who died on July 4 of 1916. He wanted to fight for the Allies and so was one of the Americans who fought with the French before the US entered the war in 1917. He was killed in action in the Battle of Somme. He was also a poet and classmate of TS Eliot. I have several WWI & WWII poems I love but this one is always personal and reflects the thoughts and commitment of the young man who went to war and I think that is important.

    I Have a Rendezvous with Death
    by Alan Seeger

    I have a rendezvous with Death
    At some disputed barricade,
    When Spring comes back with rustling shade
    And apple-blossoms fill the air—
    I have a rendezvous with Death
    When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

    It may be he shall take my hand
    And lead me into his dark land
    And close my eyes and quench my breath—
    It may be I shall pass him still.
    I have a rendezvous with Death
    On some scarred slope of battered hill
    When Spring comes round again this year
    And the first meadow-flowers appear.

    God knows ’twere better to be deep
    Pillowed in silk and scented down,
    Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
    Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
    Where hushed awakenings are dear…
    But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
    At midnight in some flaming town,
    When Spring trips north again this year,
    And I to my pledged word am true,
    I shall not fail that rendezvous.

    1. Judy,

      I remember the poem, though I haven’t read it in years. The final two lines are so moving, and remind me of why we need to remember such men. They’re important not only for their willingness to serve, and not only for their acts of bravery, but above all for their ability to remain true to their pledged word. That integrity seems sorely lacking today in certain areas of our national life, and its absence harms us all.

      I can’t help but think of Woody Allen’s take on death: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” That’s too often the attitude of our time. It’s an attitude as far removed as possible from those willing to accept a rendezvous with death.

      Safe travels, and enjoy your time with “your” veteran. I suspect you’ll greatly enjoy putting your camera to use in a different way than you usually do!


  11. Linda,

    You’ve done it again, weaving personal history in the tapestry of national history. While it’s not ‘my’ country, I’m proud of the way your country had been founded upon the values of freedom, democracy and the law. Listening to the Battle Hymn of the Republic once again brings back to memory some words with connotations that may not be as well embraced now as the historic past, notions such as ‘God’, ‘Lord’, ‘glory’, and yes, ‘truth’.

    1. Arti,

      Well, as often as we seem to forget it, nations are made up of people, and the character of the people determines the character of the nation. That’s one reason I worry so about our government encouraging and promoting dependency. Characteristics that defined this nation in the past – individual responsibility, honesty, perseverance, risk-taking, independence – are being replaced with other values. I don’t think it bodes well for us. I’m hoping the trend can be reversed.

      I do love “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, and one reason I do is related to your last point. It’s been my experiences that lies, falsehoods and half-truths are cowardly, given to running and hiding when things get serious. Truth, on the other hand, is a lot stronger and more resilient than we sometimes believe. It does tend to just go marching on.


      ps – I just turned my head and saw a red finch at my feeder! Do you have them? Lovely birds.

  12. A million thanks for this post… As a child of a military family, with one who has lost loved ones to war, I thank you. And with friends who have lost young brothers to the current engagement, I thank you on their behalf. This was a beautiful, and as always, fascinating historical observation.

    Americans are separated by war in many ways, and it behooves us to remember that Memorial Day is not just about barbeques. A simple prayer (good thoughts, messages, whatever it may be) in remembrance to those who have been killed, to those still deployed, and to those still suffering the aftereffects of war, is all it takes.

    1. FeyGirl,

      The impulse to forget can be strong. The amusements of the weekend can tempt us to forget those whom the day is meant to honor, but we’re just as easily tempted to forget the ones you mention – those still deployed and those still suffering the effects of combat. It can be painful – and sometimes frightening – to acknowledge the realities of their lives, and so we turn away.

      Beyond that, most people I know prefer there be no war, no violence or terror. Yet the unfortunate truth is that if we simply deny those realities, we’ll not support those fighting against them on our behalf as they deserve.

      I’m honored you found this post meaningful. History often provides a way into difficult topics, giving them the context they usually lack on the Sunday news shows or internet forums. ;-)


      1. Your second paragraph sums it up perfectly…. Many military families I know, mine included, would prefer a world without war. Especially with those we’ve lost, and those who continue to suffer. However — one cannot turn away from those still deployed overseas, or still struggling here. You say it beautifully. Thanks again….

  13. As someone born between VE Day and VJ Day, I’m old enough to remember that when I was a child plenty of people still referred to the holiday as Decoration Day. Unlike your family, though, mine never did anything to celebrate the holiday, nor did any family that I knew in New York City or its suburbs.


    there’s a collection of old-fashioned patriotic cards similar to the one you showed. Close to a year ago, when I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, there was a large temporary exhibit of work by Howard Pyle that resonated more with me than Rockwell’s paintings.

    1. Steve,

      Your comment about a lack of formal celebration in your family and neighborhood is just another reminder of how diverse our country has been.

      I was fascinated as I dug farther into the records of the Brooklyn celebrations I mentioned above. For one thing, they finally gave me a context for “Flatbush Avenue” – a place my New Jersey-raised uncle used to talk about. For another, they revealed both similarities and significant differences with the ways that we in small-town Iowa marked the day.

      The postcards are wonderful. My dad was quite a postcard collector, so there’s a shoebox or two filled with cards that either were sent by family members or purchased at auctions and such.
      Toward the bottom of the Pinterest collection, there are some very unusual cards having to do with such things as women’s sufferage and the war effort. It’s a great resource.

      I remember you mentioning your visit to the Rockwell museum. I’ve seen his name linked with Pyle’s here and there. It’s wonderful that you got that double treat while you were visiting!


  14. I’m guilty of allowing this holiday to go by as un-hallowed. I guess it never was really emphasized in my generation, although there isn’t much difference in our ages. And maybe celebrating or recognizing this day has to do with family traditions, doesn’t it?

    You’ve done a marvelous job of reminding us without fussing at us that many of us are remiss in honoring those who gave their lives for us in lieu of just enjoying having another day off work. You are such a great researcher, writer, weaver of stories, and historian, Linda.

    1. Wendy,

      Well, here’s something interesting. I’ve posted a time or two about the Fourth of July, and I’ve marked Labor Day, but I’ve never before posted about Memorial Day. I’m not sure why that is, as it’s been just as important to me. I think part of it is that it’s difficult to write about it without being sappy, sentimental, judgmental or, as you put it, fussy.

      I do remember that a couple of years ago I thought, “Oh, gosh. Everybody is going to be writing about Memorial Day. I think I’ll try something different.” Then, I wrote about our visit with OtherBug to your fine bayou!

      These days, things have changed significantly. The context is different. Patriotism is viewed with a bit of a jaundiced eye, the goings-on in DC aren’t particularly inspiring and the establishment clause in the Constitution is badly misunderstood. It seemed like a more thoughtful approach to Memorial Day might be in order.

      I’m as capable as the next person of getting caught up in the day-to-day events of life and forgetting what really matters. In a way, this post was my way of “remembering”. And now you’ve remembered, too. So go have some fun!


  15. Our pastor said this morning that rather than counting how many hot dogs you can eat on Monday, take time to reflect on the lives sacrificed for our freedom. He didn’t say it meanly, only in the spirit of your post that Memorial Day is more than a day off of work, a picnic with potato salad, and the beginning of Summer.

    Now, with my son as a Marine, it is all the more significant (and scary) to me.

    1. Bellezza,

      I thought of you while I was writing this. I was sure it would be a day of conflicting emotions for you.

      Earlier this morning, I stopped by Target to pick up a few items. Plenty of people were doing some serious shopping. and one cart was loaded down with – well, with everything, including plenty of beer and chips. But it was one of those carts with the little car for one or two kids to ride in, and there was a youngster in it. He might have been four or five.

      He was clutching a little American flag like the ones being sold in the store, and every time he passed someone he waved it and said, “‘Member! ‘Member!”

      That’s the spirit.


  16. A touching post, as well as many of the comments.

    Thanks to the American Overseas Memorial Day Association, and the American Legion, our military dead buried abroad are remembered this day. There may be other groups, but these are the two I’m aware of.

    American Overseas Memorial Day Association

    At Rest Abroad: Partners in Remembrance

    If any readers have a family member buried in one of the many military cemeteries overseas, and are not sure exactly where, you can locate their gravesite at the American Battle Monument website: American Battle Monuments Commission

    1. Gué,

      I’m so grateful you offered those links. I wasn’t aware of the work of the AOMDA at all, and had only a vague idea of what the others do. Most touching of all is that they’ve gone to the trouble of not only placing flags in the cemeteries, both large and small, but also tracking down individual graves and arranging for someone to be responsible for them.

      Not only that, I went to the American Battle Monuments Commission site and it’s entirely possible I’ve found where my Uncle is buried. How I don’t know this, I haven’t a clue. I suspect that when the memories of the family were fresh I was too young to understand their talk, and probably was shielded. (The family was good at that. There are other things I’ve learned only in the last decade!) And by the time I began to be curious, Mom didn’t know, and Dad had been gone for decades.

      In any event – there’s only one person listed on the ABMC site with my uncle’s name. His death is listed as November 20, 1944. I know that he was on Leyte, and in fact the 96th Infantry Division fought on Leyte. From a quick skim of the timeline, it looks as though he might have fought at Kilay Ridge. There were 485 casualties on Leyte and burial in Manila would make sense. I tried to link to the page but it’s not possible – probably because of privacy. But you can bet I’m going to begin doing some searching – I’d love to know why he won a Purple Heart!

      Thank you!


      1. You’re quite welcome!

        I’ve known about the American Battle Monuments Commission for a number of years. I was doing some online poking around, some years back, trying to find something on my great uncle, who died in WWI. Thanks to the ABMC website, I found that he is buried in the American Somme Cemetery in Bony, France.

        I learned about the groups that do the graves on Memorial Day after Hubby joined the American Legion a couple of years ago. They have a monthly (or every other month) magazine that goes out to all members. There was an article in one issue about their work.

        I think I have a military info website bookmarked at work that tells you why someone was awarded different medals. I found out why my great uncle was awarded the DSC. I’ll have to look for it and let you know.

  17. Ah, I’d emailed it to myself but I’d only emailed the link for WWI DSC recipients. Here’s the main webpage:
    Hopefully, you can find what you want there. Or try searching by Purple Heart Recipients, Pacific Theatre, WWII.

    This is the info I found on my Great Uncle. It confirmed the family story about him being on the ambulance, getting off and going back to the front. He died about a month before the Armistice.

    Sergeant, U.S. Army
    Machine-Gun Company, 118th Infantry Regiment, 30th Division, A.E.F.
    Date of Action: September 26 – October 17, 1918
    The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Milledge A. Gordon, Sergeant, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action at Harricourt, France, September 26 – October 17, 1918. Orders for his relief having failed to reach him, Sergeant Gordon remained on duty all night, maintaining liaison between gun sections of his platoon. exposed to severe shell fire from which he was gassed, Sergeant Gordon nevertheless stayed with his company, and while going forward on October 8, he fainted from the effects of the gas and was evacuated to the rear, unconscious. Regaining consciousness while en route to the casualty clearing station, he crawled out of the ambulance and worked his way back to his company without securing treatment. Though still suffering from weakness, he persistently refused to be evacuated and took part in subsequent engagements with his platoon until he was killed in action October 17, 1918.

    General Orders No. 44, W.D., 1919

    Home Town: Clemson College, SC

    1. That’s quite a story, Gué. I always knew you came from tough stock! Of course the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw his name was Milledgeville (as in Georgia) and Miss Mary Flannery O’Connor, who always said, “When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.”

      Another tidbit: when he died in October, 1918, my mother was just past six months old, and looked like this.

      I can’t find any info about the Purple Heart (or any award) for my uncle, and wonder if that might not be an error on the page. What I do know now is that the other information is right. The ABMC page says he entered the service from Illinois, and I couldn’t figure that out, until I found his enlistment records.

      He enlisted October 15, 1942, in Peoria, but his residence was listed as Rock Island. That’s where my folks were living at the time – Mom was playing Rosie the Riveter at the aircraft plant and Dad was working at John Deere. There was a sister in the area at the same time, and some cousins, so it makes sense that my uncle would have gone out there, either to work or do some decision-making.

      So. Here’s the timeline:

      August 15, 1942 – the 382nd Infantry Regiment was reorganized at Camp Adair, Oregon as part of the 96th Infantry Division.

      October 15, 1942 – Uncle Jack enlisted.

      October to December, 1944 – the 382nd participated in the Battle of Leyte

      November 20, 1944 – Uncle Jack was killed in combat, and now is buried in Manila.

      The next step is to sit down and go through the ephemera I do have, piece by piece, to see what else might be there. But that will have to wait a bit – I didn’t really expect to be spending this whole afternoon doing genealogy! And I don’t regret a minute of it!


      1. What a great picture of your mom! I have one of my mom at something like a year, year and a half, something like that.

        Though you might not have expected to spend the day doing some genealogy, the subject of your search is appropriate for today.

        Time to get off the ‘puter and fix us some supper.

        1. I talked to my aunt last night, and she confirmed a good bit of this, especially my uncle going out to live with my folks, where he enlisted, and the date of his death. She laughed herself silly, saying, “I can’t remember what day it is, but I remember all this!”
          Such fun.

  18. Bravo, Linda! Thank you for explaining “Decoration Day.” My late father, a lifelong Southerner, always referred to Memorial Day as Decoration Day. Because our family was far off down South, we didn’t have graves to decorate, and our small town didn’t do a parade. Memorial Day became, as you said, the “beginning of summer,” a time for grilling, going to the lake, etc.

    This year, we had a cool spell with thunderstorms, so it didn’t even seem much like a holiday. Nevertheless, the intent isn’t lost and I’m grateful for those who gave so much that we might have our freedoms!

    1. Debbie,

      One of the things that happened in my hometown in Iowa, and what happens around here in various ways, is that we all took part in decorating veterans’ graves. One of the most touching displays I saw this year didn’t involve graves, per se, but it certainly was a fine memorial. Look at these photos from Boston!

      I’m surprised no one yet has mentioned the old fashion rule that involved Memorial Day – we never, ever wore white until after Memorial, and of course Labor Day was the end of white clothes, too. On top of everything else, now we can celebrate the freedom to wear white whenever we danged well please!

      It was a good weekend, and there seem to have been as many respectful tributes as ones that were snarky or in poor taste. For that, I’m grateful. And welcome back, by the way!


  19. Wow, there is some fascinating history here. Seriously, I will now look at Memorial Day in a whole different light. So educational! Thanks!

    1. WildBill,

      The great surprise here for me was learning that the roots of the holiday lie in the spontaneous actions of those who began decorating graves at the end of the Civil War – or, in some cases, even before. It didn’t require a formal proclamation or a government edict. It just happened.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I mentioned to someone up above that nations are people. So is history. That’s what makes it so interesting, after all!

      On another subject altogether, I finally found a nice overview of the prehistory of the Texas Coastal Zone. It’s pretty interesting, too, and helps to explain a good bit. By the time I finished reading, I was thinking that Longfellow might have enjoyed it, too. It’s his “the tide rises, the tide falls” dynamic – albeit on a larger scale!


  20. Thank you for this history of Decoration Day and Memorial Day. With my mother’s family coming from Canada and my father’s family coming from Holland via Mexico, I continue to learn so much through such a post as this one and finding out through my husband’s family.

    Rick sang on Sunday morning. His love for choir originates with being in the Navy Blue Jacket Choir. The choir on Sunday sang “America” although they have sung “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” other years. Thank you for posting this link.

    1. Georgette,

      It finally makes sense to me why we should have both a Memorial Day, which we don’t share with other countries, and a Veterans Day, which we do (Remembrance Day in British Commonwealth countries and elsewhere). It is a matter of history. We share World Wars I and II with other nations, and hence share the November 11 date, the poppies and so on. But Memorial Day is rooted in our singular history, our own terrible and memorable war.

      I love “America”. Nearly everyone remembers the purple skies and amber waves of grain, but the full lyrics are beautiful, filled with meaning. I wish it were sung more often. I hadn’t heard of the Blue Jacket Choir,but found them several places on YouTube. In one video, a few members of the group were serenading a young woman as her fellow proposed after PIR. What fun!


  21. So much of this post reminds me of what I grew up with. My grandmother always called it Decoration Day and as I was telling Rick, I had quite the history of it. The real history, that which you shared.

    But my history extends beyond that. That’s because I’m a townie of more than one generation — the bodies are buried here. I don’t remember a year in my life for as long as my mom was able that we didn’t go to the cemetery together and decorate her grandparents’ grave and then her parents’ and sister’s. I don’t think she knew she would be the next resident in the family plot.

    She would tell me stories about the people buried there — people who created our city. The Oldsmobile inventor (we had an Olds); the two major department store owners, the men who had streets and schools named after them. It was a local history lesson.

    In those days since, I now do the plantings. I’m the only one left here and if I don’t plant, they don’t get planted. Fortunately, Rick actually enjoys coming with me, something that increase after he met some of the seniors in our family who are now resting with my mom and dad. We plant our geraniums (because mom planted geraniums) and impatiens (because they’re in a shady spot and these will last a bit longer). Then we’ll often walk through the cemetery to find names we know from the city, which reminds me tremendously of those childhood times with my mom. Then a picnic (though yesterday we were rained out part way).

    It’s the tradition and I wonder what will happen when I am no longer here to care for it. I’ve heard some garden clubs do this; I don’t know — I don’t want it to be like the other forgotten graves, only mowed neatly by the cemetery but nothing more.

    1. jeanie,

      What you describe is my history, too – right down to the geraniums. When I left town after Mom’s burial, I felt a little better about it because a local florist and garden shop had helped me out with some new, non-plastic geraniums that are meant to last through sun and rain. I would have preferred real, but driving back and forth to Iowa to tend them on the weekends wasn’t going to work out too well.

      Since then, I’ve discovered a wonderful woman in town who’s made it her business – literally – to tend graves for those who live “away”. She’d lost her job, loved to garden, and thought, “Well, why not?” For an assortment of fees she’ll water flowers as needed, plant new flowers, keep things trimmed up, and so on. If you want, she’ll just plant flowers on Memorial Day, or she’ll visit each week ($5 per week to water and trim as needed.) Since she can tend to quite a few graves in one visit, it’s efficient – and she’ll even go out to the family cemeteries in the country, though she charges for actual time and gas for that.

      The best part is that digital photography and email make it possible for her to send “proof of planting” to folks, although it seems that she’s got a pretty good reputation, and is recommended by funeral directors, pastors and so on who receive queries.

      I was glad to find her. Like you, I’m the last of the line, and I wonder what will happen in the future. On the other hand, when I was in Kansas last, I heard stories about pioneers who died along the trails. They were buried where they died, and left with the plainest of markers. Eventually, they faded into the land. One fellow told me that the old-timers, the ones who know what to look for, can spot their burial sites. I don’t doubt it at all.


  22. Linda, I echo WildBill’s comment, and must add that it brought forth a flood of memories from family member’s stories of war. There are many I might share, but only one that scratches a hole in my soul. It has irritated me for over 20 years!

    When I was in university taking a needed course, I recall my professor stating that Memorial Day “…was a complete waste of time… we didn’t need a three day weekend to dedicate to the memory of a bunch of old dead people… we should be thinking about the people who are alive and finding a way to bring them home… etc., etc., etc.”

    It irked me that his surname was of Jewish lineage and that he could stand there and disparage those who fought to save the lives of his ancestors. Perhaps one of those old dead people changed the course of history, and that result was that he was born! Or maybe his name wasn’t a direct link to those who were lost to Hitler’s maniacal crusade for a master race, and maybe he didn’t feel the direct effects of that kind of loss. I can’t say.

    What I can tell you is, that his ignorance and idiotic display in front of the class enraged me and I wanted to tell him off for it. That was not in his job description. As I have gotten older, and I have already received my grade for the class, I am certain that if I met him today, I would tell him how disappointed his little diatribe made me feel.

    Some of those old dead people were my family. Uncles I never got to meet and whose loss kept my Grandmother on the hunt for news about WWII soldiers whose remains were found many years later. She kept hope until the day she died that her two “Fly Boys” were still out there… somewhere.

    Sorry to go on like this, but it just wanted out I guess.

    1. Lynda,

      Your second paragraph brought to mind the story of Beverly, Massachusetts, the town that cancelled its Memorial Day parade because “they didn’t have enough Veterans”.

      In the first place, it was Memorial Day, not Veterans Day, and I really wouldn’t have expected those being honored to rise up from their graves to march in a parade. Beyond that, the town just had thrown a whiz-bang parade for an American Idol winner, which of course was well-attended. Priorities, priorities.

      As for your professor – well, there are words to describe such attitudes. “Insensitive” is a start. “Self-absorbed” might do, not to mention “self-righteous” and “stupid”. “Sad” comes to mind, too. I hear some faint hints of a certain ideology behind his words, and in far too many cases, ideology trumps empathy – or even a desire to communicate.

      You put the truth beautifully and succinctly: “Some of those old dead people were my family.” That’s the reason for the day, which in the end isn’t a celebration of war or a denigration of the living, but an opportunity to do what we so often neglect to do in the course of daily life – remember the courage and sacrifice of those who helped make our freedom possible, and honor their lives.

      I’m sure your professor hadn’t stopped to think that people like your grandmother were alive, too – still grieving, still searching, and still needing support.

      Tell you what – if you ever run into him and give him a piece of your mind, you can tell him that I agree with you.


  23. Thanks for telling me about your conversation with Jeanie. Iowa/Illinois- very much the same. And around Memorial Day the cemeteries would be filled with peonies in vases.

    I have been aware of grave tenders for a while now. It IS an excellent idea and one that could easily be full time work. Keeping that in mind…thanks for the reminder.

    1. Martha,

      I settled on hydrangea for my folks’ grave, since they could have some attention and that was one of the flowers that always bloomed around our house. If they don’t work out so well in that setting, peonies are another favorite.

      Something else crossed my mind that I hadn’t considered – with Christmas and Hanukkah, and perhaps even Thanksgiving, there could be a bit of winter work. Maybe even a lot. It’s something to consider.

      I can’t believe I’d never heard of people who do such things, but of course it wasn’t something I’d ever been in need of. It’s the very heart of entrepreneurism – see a need and fill it!


  24. I find this so interesting…we have Remembrance Sunday in November but it’s not anything like as big a thing. I did go to the French one a couple of years ago. In each village the mayor reads out the name of every local man who was killed in WW1 & 2 and after each name the people say ‘Mort pour le France’. It is moving and solemn but as you can imagine it can go on for quite a while. People start shuffling and teenagers giggling. Everyone seemed very relieved to get in the warm and get the wine poured!

    1. thinkingcowgirl,

      I mentioned to a friend that, in many ways, a good Memorial Day celebration has many of the qualities of a good wake: story-telling, remembrances, tears, jokes, and a few drinks just to help ease things along. There’s the obligatory seriousness, of course – and good that there is. But those giggling teens have a place, too. Soon enough (or too soon) they’ll learn why such events are important.

      Especially in our small towns, there’s something just so touching about the awkward intensity of the celebrations. And what’s not to love about the older veterans, those who can’t remember what they had for breakfast, but who can recite the name of every man in their platoon? That’s what unnerves me so about cyber-warfare and such things as drones – if there’s anything worse than war, it may be nameless, faceless war.


  25. Memorial Day having its roots in honoring those who gave their lives fighting under two different flags is key. All were Americans.

    To me, being a patriotic American is loving the baby while questioning and sifting through the bath water.

    1. Claudia,

      I’ve been doing some reading recently about the Civil War in Kansas and Missouri. I’m not very well informed about it yet, and haven’t read as deeply as I intend to, but it does seem to me that those states suffered in ways that more uniformly Union or Confederate states didn’t. Knowing there’s a dividing line in the country is one thing. Having that dividing line constantly show up at church, at the school or at your dining room table is something else. There are real parallels to what we’re experiencing today.

      And I love your take on that old saying. Throwing is one thing. Sifting requires a high level of tolerance for any number of things.


  26. I finally remembered to come by and see your Memorial Day entry -glad to see it is still here, although I guess the next one is all ready to drop into place:-)
    I found it fascinating that it stems from before the First World War. Here in the UK our Remembrance Day stems from the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and remembers the fallen from all wars since the end of WW1. Like your decorations, we use poppies to make wreaths for the graves or memorial statues and poppy rosettes to wear on our person to show “we remember”.
    May I also wish you 3xWR and a happy month.

    1. Sandi,

      You know the routine well, and the new one is now dropped into place – giving me a chance to get caught up with every sort of thing!

      Our Veterans Day (also November 11) is the parallel to your Remembrance Day. It’s a time to remember all the veterans, both living and dead, while Memorial Day is an occasion to mark those who died. My dad always put his poppy in the car after the day was over and left it there for some time. Some years, the crepe paper would fade from the sun. Now, I wonder if the gesture might not have been for his brother. So many questions arise as we get older.

      A little cultural/fashion note. When I was growing up, you only wore white dresses, slacks, shorts and so on between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Those holidays were the unofficial beginning and end of summer. I still remember the day my mom made a decision to wear white slacks to an occasion in April. It may have been her first experience of rebelling against the norms of society!


    1. Andrew,

      Every nation has its traditions and its ways of remembering those who served. As so often is the case, understanding a little of the historical context can increase appreciation – not only for the past, but also for those who lived through it.

      And of course, as they say, those who fail to remember the past may find themselves repeating it.


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