Remembering People, Reclaiming Ideals

As with so much in our national life, change has come to Memorial Day. Flags continue to fly. Patriotic garlands still hang from porch railings, and bunting flutters in small-town breezes.

And yet, in ways both subtle and obnoxious, Memorial Day has become primarily a beginning-of-summer ritual: a time to focus on beaches, barbeques, mattress sales, movie-going, and the first road trip of the season.

As a result, the history and significance of Memorial Day is both more profound and more complex than most Americans realize.

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.

Thirty years later, American writer and illustrator Howard Pyle wrote of Decoration Day for the May 28, 1898 issue of Harper’s Bazaar:

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.
“In Memoriam” ~ Sophie Bertha Steel
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.

By the years of my midwestern childhood, the rituals of Decoration Day had become firmly established. 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. The town’s Boy Scouts, 4-H members, and church youth groups helped the Veterans of Foreign Wars place flags on veterans’ graves, guaranteeing that all who served would be remembered.

In our classrooms, lessons included the history of significant 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 posters containing words we barely apprehended: Freedom. Peace. Courage.

Always, there was a time to share personal memories. With World War II barely a decade past, tokens of that time were common: 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. His letters somehow disappeared into the great maw of time, 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 my grandparents’ home. On Sunday morning we went to church and listened as a deacon read the list of congregational members killed or missing in action. We sang hymns acknowledging the realities of worldly conflict, and listened to sermons meant to comfort those still grieving their loss.

Memorial Day itself meant a return trip to the cemetery, where flag ceremonies and speeches provided their own sort of comfort, and gave context to the flowers decorating the graves.

On May 30, 1896, Father John J. Woods, pastor of Brooklyn’s Holy Cross Church, delivered some typical remarks. After members of the Veterans and Sons of Veterans’ Mutual Benefit Union marched with a fife and drum corps past decorated houses and cheering crowds to Holy Cross Cemetery, they heard these words, later reported in The Brooklyn Eagle.

“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.”

Always, Decoration Day closed with 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 enthusiastic children singing “God Bless America.”

Inevitably, the program concluded with The Battle Hymn of Republic. Sometimes, there were tears, and Peter Wilhousky’s arrangment still can bring me to tears. It recalls 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 reverence before the majesty and mystery of 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 selflessness, integrity, honestly, and valor that constitute the best garlands of citizenship.

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, in the words of Lincoln, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


Battle Hymn of the Republic, arr. Wilhousky

Comments always are welcome.  Illustrations come from a collection of family postcards.

101 thoughts on “Remembering People, Reclaiming Ideals

  1. Australia too, has the day of remembrance. It is called Anzac day and this day stems mainly from the WW1 battle of Gallipoli whereby thousands of Australians were killed on the beaches in a dreadful battle with the Turks. It was ill-fated from the start and doomed to fail. Within a few weeks Churchill was dismissed from the Cabinet as result of him having given the order.

    This battle is seen as one of heroism but some also feel it showed the folly of war. And as Marlene Dietrich pointed out, ‘when will they ever learn?’ But, as is pointed out each year in Australia, it is a day for, ‘Lest we forget.’

    I just wish that peace was celebrated as much and as fiercely as Anzac Day.

    1. I didn’t know about Anzac Day until I began blogging, and met people from Australia and New Zealand. I did remember Gallipoli, so I suppose it was part of a history curriculum in school. During those years, of course, we were so near WWII that its events still were dinnertime conversation, which probably made a difference.

      I never would have associated Marlene Dietrich with “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” I was introduced to it through Peter, Paul, and Mary. Eventually I learned that it was not only a Pete Seeger song, but a fairly new one — 1955. I thought it was interesting that Dietrich first sang it in French, at a 1962 UNICEF concert.

      It surprised me to learn that Dietrich was a singer, too. I’ve thought of her only as an actress, though I couldn’t have named any of her films. Do you remember when she fell off the stage in Sydney and broke her hip?

  2. ” …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 reverence…”

    As I read, I was thinking, it used to be, why now – and then this line. Where’s the willingness to see more alike than different? Willingness to see past tattle-taling and pointing fingers to see how ALL have benefitted as citizens from their sacrifices – their honor and strength of convictions.

    Hopefully Memorial Day this year will be a rekindling of citizenship – more than the mattress sales and patriotic flowers to decorate the picnic tables.
    A grand salute for this post!

    1. If the rekindling is going to happen, I suspect it will have to happen through the efforts of ordinary people, and that presents a double problem: effort’s out of fashion, and our society at large seems to prefer the flashiness of celebrity to the virtues of ordinary people.

      Still, there are ways that remembrance takes place: and not only on a weekend in May. The tradition of the “missing man” chair at the Redneck Country Club is spreading, for example. There are dance halls and ice houses picking up on it, and using it as a way to bring attention to veterans’ issues — something the Veterans’ Administration has seemed loathe to do.

      Here’s hoping there’s sunshine for cemetery visits and picnics — not to mention a little relief for the dams. Livingston’s release rate this morning is 88,000 cf/second, and the San Jac is headed for another historic crest. At that rate, they’ll be catfishing at the Galveston jetties soon.

      1. And the gators are on the move looking for love – quite a hefty 12 footer (800+ pounds) they hauled off yesterday for chasing a jogger along a trail in Katy. He’s in El Campo now.

        A nation’s history/heritage (all of it) should be a quiet thread running all year long. Far too many would rather keep groups feeling “individually special”/as victims rather than merging to one strong identity. Many to blame for that. All we can hope is the specialness fever and the part being more important that the whole eventually fades, or is reined in out of common sense and purpose….and the realization that the Vets paid/are paying the price for the benefits all enjoy here.

        Being grateful aslo seems to be going out of style. Cheers for chairing and small constant actions!
        (Lake Conroe is closed like last year. Water too high, too many unidentified objects floating and under water. They hope to be able to drain some water today)

  3. Exactly how all my Decoration Days were. My grandmother was sexton of our local cemetery so I was the one to go with her and make sure I placed a flag on each grave she pointed out. In high school, I marched in our towns celebration and at the concert downtown and on to the cemetery. In our cemetery, we have a statue and memorial for one of the first Army nurses, who just happened to come from our town.

    Wreaths of flowers were tossed on our millpond to honor the Navy dead and my friends stood up on a hill and played taps on her trumpet. It seemed like it always rained a bit and then the sun came out to bake us in our wool band uniforms.

    We’d go home for a hot dog and potato salad and baked beans picnic lunch with all the aunts and uncles and cousins and have our first watermelon of the year. Then of course, church on Sunday, where I stood in the choir and sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic, with tears and such pride in my patriotic heart.

    We still decorate the graves and make sure ALL vets have a flag on their grave. My, still small hometown, has the parade and things aren’t much changed in the last 60+ years. To most nowadays, it is the first rush up north to the cottage, fighting nearly stand still traffic both up and back late Monday night.

    I prefer the way it was back in the day.

    1. I’d forgotten two details you mentioned: the menu (though we had hamburgers rather than hot dogs) and those wool band uniforms. They were so scratchy and hot, but we still were proud to wear them.

      My town saves the parade for July 4, but there will be a ceremony at the local cemetery on Monday, as well as at the National Cemetery in Houston. Many groups participate in placing flags at every grave there prior to Memorial Day. It’s quite a project, given that there are more than 85,000 graves.

      That’s interesting, about your Army nurse. I didn’t realize that there’s a memorial to the nurses at Arlington, too. it’s good to see them recognized.

      What you say about the traffic’s true here, too — and not only on the highways. The last place I’d want to be today is on the water: too many boats, and too much drinking.

      Happy Memorial Day to you, Judy. I hope it’s a good one.

  4. There are 15 of my family and close friends in the little cemetery near here: five of them have American flags every year. I don’t much care for the ceremonies during that time but I do decorate the graves and spend much time in silent communion with the the military folks who lie at rest there, as I do every few months anyway. They deserve our attention and our thoughts all of the time and I still feel a sense of comradery when I visit them.

    1. I’m not much drawn to the large, orderly cemeteries that often are known as “memorial gardens,” but smaller cemeteries like the one you mention are deeply appealing: partly because so much can be learned about the people who lie there. There are the grave markers, of course, but where other decorations are allowed, there are hints of the stories each life contained. The flags are one example.

      The traditional cemetery ceremonies are one way of celebrating, and a good one. But here in Houston, there are many people who’ll be celebrating in a different way that Montanans might enjoy: a little calf-ropinig, barrel racing, and team roping. It’s all to honor Navy Seals and aid families who’ve lost one of their own. Not every veteran’s in their nineties.

  5. Nice reminder of our history, Linda, and the importance of tending our cemeteries. Not that I could forget, having done so for many years over the holiday weekend.

    1. Keeping traditions is important. It doesn’t surprise me that you would have been doing so over the years. I suspect you’ve spent some time passing on those same traditions, as well. It’s the least we can do, I think.

  6. I enjoyed reading about the history of Memorial Day. My family always put geraniums on the graves of ancestors a few days before Memorial Day.

    1. Peonies were a favored flowers for cemeteries when I was growing up in Iowa, but we often placed geraniums, too. In fact, your comment reminded me that, when my mother was buried next to Dad a few years ago — in Iowa — I left some artificial red geraniums at the grave. I couldn’t quite bring myself to leave plastic, but I did find some nice, high-quality artificials at a garden store. Last year, a friend who replaced them for me said they’d held up remarkably well. They were faded, of course, but intact.

      1. They sound lovely, and would be a lovely memorial flower. There are some beautiful artificial flowers. It’s wonderful of your friend to let you know that the flowers are still there.

    1. It is a powerful song. I listened to several versions, but I chose this one by the Army Chorus, partly because it was professionally recorded, partly because of the obvious talent of the men, and partly because it just seemed right to highlight a military group.

      Happy Memorial Day, Yvonne. I hope it’s a good one, and I especially hope your son’s doing well.

  7. Thanks, Linda for the reminder of Decoration Day and all it entails. I have become immune to the appreciation of some very important things. I am going to build some thankfulness into this weekend.
    I set a goal of at least five acts done deliberately in recognition of the day. It will be a good time to start.

    1. It’s true, isn’t it, that “remembering” often is considered a purely mental act. But to re-member the past, to knit its pieces together and to join it with the present, requires something more. That’s one reason these holidays are so important. Even the simple fact of going to a cemetery and decorating graves can break through our natural insensitivities.

      As for thankfulness — there’s nothing quite like meeting and talking with a veteran to see it in all its fullness. So many feel forgotten, or abandoned by the country they served, that the slightest gesture of appreciation evokes a gratitude that’s almost embarassing to witness. The speeches at many local Memorial Day celebrations are less than inspiring. But shaking the hand of a man in uniform, and seeing his pride? That’s worth something.

        1. Thanks so much, Oneta. One little detail — could you edit the post so that the actual name of my blog — The Task at Hand — is used, instead of my screen name? thanks!

  8. Not all the casualties of war and conflict “gave the last full measure of devotion” — as Lincoln put it. While we remember the dead, let us not forget the wounded. Every time I see one of those “Wounded Warrior” commercials begging for private funding to help our wounded veterans, it angers me that our government “rewards” our veterans’ service by providing little or no long-term care, and substandard and indifferent short-term care. Yes, remember the dead, always, but remember as well the living, those whose sacrifice is ongoing, whose service crippled and, maimed, not just physically, but mentally, whose lives were disrupted and devastated, and whose families struggle to cope with a burden that should not be theirs.

    1. You’ve said it well, WOL. I know people who are involved with Houston’s Camp Hope. Their work is wonderful, but it’s also a reminder of how dismally the government has failed our veterans. When Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald recently compared veterans’ wait times for care with lines at Disneyworld, he made clear how seriously the issue is being taken: in short, not very. Rhetoric is easy. Reality-based commitments are less so.

      Even though Memorial Day is meant to be a formal commemoration of those who died, and Veterans’ Day a time to remember all veterans, it’s more important than ever to think of all veterans — and not only on holidays dedicated to them.

    1. You’re welcome. I hope your holiday’s a good one.

      Coincidentally, I thought of you last weekend when i was in Palacios. i stopped by the cemetery there, and found this stone. It reminded me of a couple of photos on your blog. I’m not sure whether the eagle might be a reference to Seger’s “Roll Me Away,” but I wouldn’t be surprised. Even some of us who depend on four wheels know that song.

    1. Of course, you’re one who focuses on memorializing those who’ve dedicated themselves to preserving freedom on a daily basis.
      That’s equally impressive.

      By the way: the poster stamps came from the same envelope as the letters my dad wrote to Uncle Jack, so that gives you a little more context for them.

      Happy Memorial Day!

  9. My recollection from growing up in the same era as you is that in those days people called the holiday both Decoration Day and Memorial Day. A search just now turned up an oration from 1898 in which the speaker used both terms, so apparently it didn’t take that long after the end of the Civil War for the name Memorial Day to come into use alongside the original Decoration Day.

    One insight I gained from browsing the oration has to do with the Mexican War. I remembered that the American government engaged in that war to expand American territory westward. While that remains true, the orator made clear that the purpose for the South—and President James K. Polk was a Southerner—was to gain future states that would be admitted as slave states to keep the balance with future free states to their north. That didn’t happen, of course, and California entered as a free state in 1850.

    In looking at a list of states by order of admission, I noticed just now that the first state admitted after Texas in 1845 (Dec. 29) was Iowa in 1846 (Dec. 28).

    1. There’s a lot in that oration to enjoy: particularly, the description of Gen Stevens’s character as “high and symmetrical.” It occurs to me that we have a whole lot of asymmetrical characters running loose these days.

      I was interested in the comments about the respect due living survivors, too. We’ve fallen rather short of meeting the expectations of Mr. Chandler that “no soldier of the Union, no widow or child who is due the nation’s care, should ever suffer for want of the necessities of life.”

      One thing I realized only after browsing the order of admission list is that New Mexico and Arizona were admitted as late as 1912: the year of my father’s birth. That’s the sort of fact that tends to collapse time. I did know that Iowa was admitted in 1846, but only because I was born just a century later, and wrote a paper for my Iowa history class comparing and contrasting life on the day of my birth, and life on that day a century earlier.

      1. I’ve known about the admission of New Mexico and Arizona since I was a teenager and a lover of almanacs. You’ve heard me say before that 1912 was the year both of our fathers were born. The teenage you and I lived through the admission of Alaska and Hawaii, a continuation of the tradition of states entering in pairs.

    1. Who wouldn’t wish for more peace? On the other hand, a wish for peace never can justify forgetting those who’ve died in the service of freedom, or those whose lives have been forever changed by the injuries and insults they endure.

  10. Thank you for this beautiful reminder, and particularly these words: “perhaps we would do well to remember that lives, too, can be decorated: draped with the selflessness, integrity, honestly, and valor that constitute the best garlands of citizenship.” When I spend time with the young people I’ve come to know, I see so many examples of this and have such hope. In stark contrast, when I look out at the national landscape more generally, I despair.

    1. I understand that sense of despair. The downward slide can feel irreversible. I used to comfort myself (tongue just slightly in cheek) by pondering the fact that I’d probably die before the country did. Now? I’m not so sanguine. Of course, the fact that the media’s in thrall to the cult of celebrity, devoted to spectacle, and dedicated to clicks over thoughtfulness doesn’t help. Depending on the media (let alone social media) for an accurate view of things isn’t particularly useful.

      Still, what you say is true: there are young (and not so young) people who are involved, enthusiastic, and realistic about the challenges we face as a nation. There still are reasonable people among the citizenry, and those willing to commit themselves to service. May their numbers increase.

  11. Such a beautiful and timely post, Linda! As you know, I grew up in the Midwest but my folks were Mississippians through and through. My late dad often spoke of Decoration Day when he was a kid — the decorating of the graves (yes, both Confederate and Yankee), the church services, the food shared by all.

    My memories are more of what we see now, sadly — the get out of school ritual, the beginning of summer, the vacation planning, etc. It’s hard to believe that things have changed so much (and not necessarily for the better!). I suppose a lot has to do with the effort to be politically correct these days — and to wipe out history while we’re at it. Perhaps we need a reminder that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it??

    1. You’ve reminded me of another great significance of Memorial Day, Debbie: after Memorial Day, we were free to wear white for the summer. How that “rule” came into being, I don’t know, but we observed it religiously. In September, Labor Day marked the end of wearing white shorts and dresses. It was such a shock to me, when I moved to Texas, to see people actually wearing white in October.

      I think several factors have played into the marginalization of Memorial Day. For one thing, the generation that grew up knowing the privations of the Depression and the horrors of WWI and WWII is almost gone, and many of the values they held dear are under attack.

      Beyond that, it used to be that everyone knew at least a few people who had gone off to war: some to return wounded, and some never to return. Today, war is “over there,” or “out there.” We send troops, but go on with our lives as though nothing is happening. That’s not the case. If Memorial Day makes us stop for even a moment to remember that our freedoms came at a cost, it’s worth it.

  12. A fine reflection of who we are and should continue to be. I think too many people focus on the first description…a beginning of summer and all the fun that brings. Even with the reminders seen in the news and elsewhere, that is where most attention resides with only scant honor paid by the majority.

    We owe so much to those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and way of life. They should be honored every day and are by some but not enough.

    As important as it is to pay homage and respect to the dead, it is even more important to honor and care for those who came back wounded in one manner or another. Scars both inside and out are difficult to heal by our soldiers on their own. There should be no limit to the budgetary consideration for their care as there is no such consideration when it comes to deployment. It is deplorable that this is a political football rather than a common goal.

    We have become a society too interested in our pleasures and less willing to sacrifice, to care for others, to understand differences and work toward rapprochement than the generations who preceded us.

    It is easy to become discouraged in our present social climate. I believe that will improve, but people need to want that. More expressions of what we stand for and the encouragement to pursue those ideals, such as your well-worked prose here, are needed to move in that direction. If only our leaders could see and feel what you have written.

    1. In a society where phrases like “civic pride” and “civic responsibility” no longer carry much meaning, I suppose it’s inevitable that civic holidays would lose significance, too.

      It’s easy to romanticize the past; I know that. But for my grandparents and many of their generation — as well as for their children — the point of coming to America was to gain a better life, and they were more than willing to pay for the privilege of being here. To put it bluntly, they didn’t believe they were entitled to citizenship: it came both as an achievement and a gift. They honored that gift, and taught their children and grandchildren to honor it, too.

      There’s a lot of foolishness abroad in the land these days. Even people I know personally, who can’t conceive of giving up their iPhone, certainly can’t conceive of giving up their life for their country. They seem to be running on autopilot, assuming that the way life is now is the way it will be, forever and ever, amen.

      That’s not necessarily so, and the fall could be hard when it comes. In the meantime, we can do what we can to preserve our nation, celebrating the good and working to change what needs changing — always remembering those whose lives continue to serve as models.

  13. The problem, as I see it, is that Memorial Day is primarily a white-people remembrance. No one talks of or remembers the battle of Fort Pillow where white Union soldiers were taken as prisoners and the black soldiers were either slaughtered or sold into slavery. The thousands of African-Americans and Native Americans who’ve died in American conflicts or were killed simply because of their race, aren’t held up in photos or memorials. Maybe they are in individual families, but as a whole, Memorial Day is a white person memorial. I wonder if, in these times of increased diversity and change, it’s perhaps less conflict-laden to see Memorial Day as the beginning of summer holidays. Either that, or open it to a multicultural experience and vision.

    1. That’s quite an interesting take, Janet, though I have to say I don’t agree with certain of your premises. I’ve read several posts this week either directly or indirectly honoring specific blacks who participated in battles from the Civil War to WWI and WWII: most recently this post by Myra McIlvain, an historian writing about former Texas slaves who served during the Civil War, then went on to contribute significantly to the larger society.

      Perhaps you see Memorial Day as a white person’s remembrance and a source of conflict, but I don’t. It certainly isn’t celebrated as such in my town, where blacks and whites, Confederate soldiers and Union troops lie buried together, and the living remember them in community.

      If anything, Memorial Day presents a perfect opportunity to learn more about our history, and to remind one another that troops fighting in the past to secure our freedoms were, in fact, a rather diverse group. Was the system perfect? No. Were there injustices along the way? Of course. Was Fort Pillow a massacre, and the assumptions underlying Confederate actions despicable? Most historians today agree that the answer is an unqualified “yes.”

      Does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate, or engage in remembrances? No. Everyone who has been a part of our military deserves to be honored. In certain Houston cemeteries, most of those honored will be black. In others, Hispanic soldiers will outnumber all other groups. If, in some communities, every soldier buried among the graves happens to be white, so be it. White soldiers matter, too.

    2. Janet, it would be nice for you to provide some facts here. Certainly, in our battles in Europe and in the Pacific, the majority of those fighting the fight (and dying, by the way) were white. Is that bad? And surely there were African American soldiers and Japanese soldiers and now our armed forces are a rainbow of colors. The one place where people are promoted because of service and character (and not color) is the military.

      Your statement–that Memorial Day is a white-person’s holiday–has little or no facts behind it. Please provide numbers and evidence that most of us who stop to ponder the service above self that so many young people gave–unloading on the beaches of Normandy–are only thinking of the white soldiers who died.


      1. You’re absolutely correct and I apologize to you and to Linda. Mine was a knee jerk reaction. I don’t like war or the stealth bombers that fly overhead at ball stadiums. I was an Army wife from 1961 to 1976. My husband was gone much of that time. I remember the guys one day at a squad picnic talking about going to Vietnam, volunteering, because “it was like practicing for a football game all your life and not getting to play” if they didn’t go. My husband volunteered. Twice. The problem is that no one talks of the families who go through domestic violence when these “warriors” come home when we pass out accolades.
        Our marriage ended as do many. I teach students who’ve been through the Middle-East wars. While still alive, they are badly damaged. And we glorify “sacrifice.”
        It doesn’t look very glorious to me.
        However, I did do some research as you suggested, and interestingly – when I searched African-Americans Memorial Day, I learned they performed the first documented memorial after the civil war to honor those who had died to actually give them freedom.
        The current vets from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria have not “made us free” in quite the same way. Nor are they “free” from their suffering.

        1. No need for apologies, Janet. There’s a lot of emotion associated with these issues, and complexities galore.

          Your comment about the damage our soldiers bring home with them reminded me of one of my seminary classmates. He was a Vietnam vet, who under normal circumstances showed no evidence of having undergone trauma. But one evening a group of us had gone to San Francisco’s Chinatown for dinner. It was the time of the Chinese New Year, and while we were eating, strings of those little red firecrackers began going off in the street outside the restaurant. In a flash, our friend was under the table, shaking with fear: certain that we were under attack. Too many people don’t understand that not every wound is visible.

          On a related but slightly different topic, I found something lovely today on a visit to Galveston’s Broadway Avenue cemetery complex. There was a memorial plaque honoring the Confederate veterans buried there: to be expected. But I found this stone, too. It was good to see.

          1. Thanks, Linda. Yes, that kind of reaction goes on today. We have both returning soldiers, male and female, in our classes, and a sizeable Muslim population in the area. Vets have had to get up and leave class because a woman in a burka freaked them out.
            I still like cemeteries at Memorial time and visited family plots last week when up at the farm. The best years are when peonies bloom at the perfect time and the grounds are a mass of color.
            (I’m also fond of the Galveston cemetary.)

        2. Hi Janet, Thank you for such a thoughtful reply. Like Linda, you have no need to apologize for your thoughts.

          From what you have shared, you have ample reason to view Memorial Day in a less romantic way than those who have had little experience with the byproducts of war, as you describe.

          However, many fine young people of all colors are currently working very hard to keep our world free from groups like Isis, Al-Queda, and the Taliban. They are sacrificing (by choice as we do not draft anymore) for our daily enjoyments.

          1. Thanks, Cheri. The thing is, these young people you mentioned, and many were in my college classes, don’t see it as sacrifice and especially dislike people thanking them for their service. One young man said, “They don’t know what I did. I do, and I don’t want to be thanked.”

  14. It is good to remember the sacrifices made by many others on our behalf. There are moving and special events going on all over. But, not everyone knows why. My nephew discovered that today at the grocery store.

    We were talking to the young man bagging our groceries he told us to have a great weekend. We told him to do the same. His reply was …..”oh I will. Its a 3 day weekend and I have no idea what we are even celebrating. Good memories I guess? ”

    Good memories? He had no idea.

    1. It’s amazing, isn’t it? But, if young people don’t have family members and teachers who pass on the stories of our history in a way that makes them memorable, it’s little wonder they end up living in an historical vacuum, with no understanding of even a national holiday.

      A word I’m encountering more often these days is “presentism.” Sometimes, the discussion focuses on the tendency to judge past events by modern criteria, and sometimes the issue is our belief that past and future are unimportant. “Live in the moment!” is a rallying cry of pop psychologists, but if we take that to its extreme, cutting ourselves off from past and future, we cut ourselves off from full, human experience.

      After all, even Einstein used the words “tomorrow” and “yesterday,” and made it to meetings on time — when it suited him.

  15. A wonderful post Linda. It gives me a greater understanding of your Memorial Day, especially its history.

    Our Anzac Day has recently been Mondayised, as I may have mentioned before. Our returned services association was not particularly happy about this development because they fear it will lead to a lessening in the significance of Anzac Day as people begin to associate Anzac with a long weekend and time for more shopping. We will see.

    I think the greatest changes will come as families lose direct contact with a family member who has actually experienced war. That could be seen as a good thing, in some ways; to have generations who have not had to know about war.

    1. I like your term: “Mondayised.” The concern that the focus of the day will shift is understandable, but the question is a bit chicken-and-eggish. Will the change result in a lessened significance for Anzac Day, or are already occurring changes a part of the move to the three-day weekend?

      While an absence of war certainly is a good thing, it’s worth remembering that peace is more than an absence of war. And if a society comes to the point where it is unwilling to fight for its values — or where it refuses the very notion of values and principles — it may be on the verge of disappearing as a society.

      Speaking a bit more generally, generations who grow up without having to confront and deal with challenges become like many of our college students: desperate for “safe spaces” and apparently bearing an infinite grudge against a universe that insists on reminding them they aren’t the measure of all things. When reality comes knocking at the door of the safe space, it’s going to be interesting.

      1. I agree that to maintain peace we must be ready to fight for that peace, but I am not sure if we must be prepared to fight as in armed warfare. I always live in hope we will find better ways to ‘fight’ or ‘stand up for’. Perhaps that is day dreaming. :( Having said that, if NZ were about to be invaded by a new breed of Barbarians, I would certainly want our people to do more than invoke the right to parlay.)

  16. What a fascinating blog; as an Australian I know so little about the origins of Remembrance Day. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – even all the comments make interesting reading!

    1. How kind of you to stop by, and comment, Anne. This always has been a special holiday for me. After the internet came along, I finally found my Uncle Jack, who was buried in Manila. Why the family never talked about that, I don’t know — but at least I was able to fill in some blanks.

      From the beginning, I’ve always assumed that a blog entry could be the beginning of a conversation, and not the end. Not everyone agrees, but I do enjoy my readers, and appreciate their comments. I’m always learning something new from them — it’s great fun. Feel free to join in. ~ Linda

    1. Context always makes a difference, particularly in terms of historical events. It’s a fact that some traditions die a natural death, but where traditions do endure, I’ve always been interested in knowing something of their background, and exploring the reasons that people still find them meaningful.

      I’m glad you found this interesting. Happy Memorial Day!

  17. How very interesting and poignant. Most informative too, I knew nothing of this so it was fascinating to hear how it all began to how it is today. So many of these type of days end up as a good day out and the message behind them becomes

    1. I was talking with someone this afternoon about ways that even the thrill of a three-day weekend has changed. Between people who aren’t working, and people whose schedule allows for a high degree of flexibility — or even a four day work week — it’s not the high excitement that it was fifty years ago. I suspect we planned for these holidays with such care partly because they were special, and we didn’t want to miss a minute.

      Memorial Day was meant to honor those who had died in battle, while our Veterans’ Day is dedicated to all military veterans, but I suspect the blurring of the lines over recent years has to do with a growing concern about the treatment our veterans receive. I’ve been thinking about your recent photo, and how many of our veterans are among the homeless. It shouldn’t be.

  18. It’s tough to stay in the present when some of the past sweet and thoughtful traditions–like your family’s–have gone by the wayside, replaced by the superficial and unappreciative.

    I had a good friend, Joe, who always used to tell me, “Baby, I don’t do nostalgia.”

    I am a nostalgic person. What I have learned in pondering whether it is helpful to be this way is that for some, nostalgia brings fond memories. For others, sadness.

    Here’s to those who lost their lives at the Somme.

    1. Actually, Joe and I are of like mind when it comes to nostalgia. I don’t have much patience with it, either.

      Of course, my personal understanding of the word differs slightly from the definition found in the dictionary. I’ve come to believe that most nostalgia is nothing more than a longing for a world that never was. I’ll take remembrance of reality, however painful, every time.

      Of course I have happy memories — and generally choose to focus on those rather than the painful ones — but to deny the unpleasant, unhappy, or heart-rending would be to head down the road toward fantasyland. I suppose that’s why I attend the local events: to remember the terrible realities that underlie a day now overlaid with picnics, beach trips, and beer.

      And here’s to those who remember the Battle of the Somme.

  19. It really is an interesting history, and an even more interesting (if not unexpected) modern divergence on the original meaning. Though, if I’m honest, I guess this happens with every major holiday on the calendar, with the exception of Groundhog Day, which is maybe too close to Valentine’s Day and too cold for BBQs to really merit any capitalism shine.

    There’s a similar holiday in Japan. It’s called Obon, but it’s for ALL the dead, and families gather to clean the graves (there are actually two customary times of year, in addition, to clean the graves) and pray for the ancestors of the line. In Kyoto, some of the most famous festivals happen, including Gozan no Okuribi, or “Returning Flame of Five Mountains.” That’s when the five mountains in Kyoto get kanji characters burned into their side. The fire is only there for 15 minutes, but it’s very quiet, very tangible, before it’s gone again.

    1. By the time I finished reading about kanji, I was certain I never could say “hello” in Japanese, let alone order a meal. I wondered if specific characters were burned into each mountain — I see that they are, and that the ceremony is precisely timed. The descriptions and explanations of the traditions are fascinating.

      Speaking of commercialization, I had to laugh at this: “Many high-rise hotels have Diamonji specials at which, for a price, you can command a panoramic view of the city and see all five fires.”

      Memorial Day and All Souls’ Day (in Mexico, Dia de los muertos) are the two times for grave cleaning I’m most familiar with. The All Souls’ and Dia de los muertos observances also include bringing food and drink to the grave site, spending time there remembering the dead, and so on. However differently we shape our traditions, it seems that some needs are common to all of humanity.

  20. “Reclaiming Ideals” is a good way of saying it Linda, about “this thing called war”, and flowers are the most beautiful way to remember someone. As much of a pacifist that I am, my heart goes out to the fallen today. May the treatment for U.S. veterans become a top priority always.

    1. I’ve never found any essential conflict between opposing war and honoring veterans. In both instances, it seems to me that it’s the value of human life that is at issue: preserving it, or remembering what was lost.

      I love poppies, and I love the association of poppies with both Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day. One of the most beautiful depictions of the flower is as a part of Saint-Gaudens’ memorial to the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War. If there is indeed an angel of death, I’d hope she looked like that.

  21. What you describe here I think is a reality for most nations. The reasons and backdrops for the big historical memorial days are less important for people of today. It’s a pity.

    1. I suppose it’s an inevitable part of the changes that have come due to technology, social media, and the globalization of everything from industry to entertainment. Social trends no longer affect only one nation, or a group of nations. They’re world-wide, for good and for ill, and, for many people, only the new seems to have value.

      It’s easy to say, “It ever has been thus,” but I’ve lived long enough to say with some confidence that things truly are different today. Holding on to the good from the past requires somewhat more effort.

  22. Growing up as a kid in the ’40s in Massachusetts I remember this being called “Decoration Day.”

    1. It’s interesting to ponder the fact that you and I shared more during the 40s and 50s, despite quite different geographical and social settings, than either of us shares with kids today. Of course there are some shared cross-generational experiences, but I suspect the gap is as wide as it’s ever been.

  23. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. When I was growing up, even if the weekend was used to visit family and have some fun, it was also used as a time to “clean up” gravestones, attend a solemn Memorial Day parade, learn some history…guiltily, any more it has morphed into the beginning of summer for our family. Reading this really encourages me to work on our mind set for next year. Thanks!

    1. We had a good bit of fun on Memorial Day when I was a kid, but I’ve been thinking about how important family was to our celebrations. We attended civic celebrations, picnicked, and visited as a family. As my friends and I got older, there was opportunity for us to go off on our own, but the family always came first.

      On the other hand, I saw reminders of family traditions this weekend. I spent some time in a group of cemeteries in Galveston, and was a little surprised to see so many people there, including children. Many people seemed to be doing nothing more than reading the historic stones and enjoying the wildflowers — there were flags at veterans’ graves, adding to the festive atmosphere. It was serene, and peaceful: quite a delight.

      There’s no need for guilt, but a little history, a little reverence, and a little thankfulness for those who’ve helped preserve this wonderful country always is good. My hope is that, with each passing year, we can add fewer and fewer men and women to the list of the lost.

  24. I love this post.Decoration Day — I remember when my grandmother called it that. And it was family tradition to go to the graves each year, tidy them up, plant flowers. Along with that time in the cemetery I would get the history lessons family history and a broader view — this was where the fellow who invented the Oldsmobile is buried; this man was part of the group that searched for John Wilkes Booth; this fellow started the biggest department store in town.

    I still go and do this each year and more times than not after, we go for lunch and talk about the people who were in the graves of our family. Rick asks questions about the ones he doesn’t know and I tell him some of the same stories and more.

    I knew some of this history and background but appreciate reading it in more detail. Thanks, Linda. And I hope your holidays were lovely and thoughtful.

    1. You’ve pointed to one of the important aspects of these holidays: ritual. You tell Rick some of the same stories, just as we told the same stories, year after year. It wasn’t to provide new information. It was just a way of remembering, of assuring ourselves that, despite all the changes that life brings, some things still endured. And when the old ones couldn’t remember all the details of the stories any longer, the young ones had heard them so often, they were able to fill in the details.

      The flip side of the family cemetery-talk coin has been discovering graves I didn’t know existed: ones that I never was taken to as a child. In fact, I had an aunt I didn’t know existed until quite recently. She died when I still was a child — maybe ten years old — but it was quite interesting to discover her existence. Families can be complicated, for sure. Happy or unhappy, their have their own ways of coping with the vicissitudes of life.

  25. Thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful piece — I definitely didn’t know the details of some of the origins of the day. It’s becoming a bit sad, especially as someone who was raised surrounded by military, and has seen first-hand the sacrifice — to hear absolutely nothing of remembrance and honoring, but everything of sales, sales, sales. There are still so many who are in action, and in need at home, in the military — and so much focus needs to be assigned to them and their families. Ah well. Here’s a big perpetual THANK YOU to all who serve, always!

    1. Perhaps, in the end, the preference for mattress sales, picnics, and beginning-of-summer rituals is rooted in a certain sense of guilt; or, perhaps, shame. To acknowledge the sacrifices that have been made — are being made — also is to come face to face with the fact that we’ve outsourced war as surely as we’ve outsourced so many other things. We send our young people off to do — well, who knows what, in some cases — and in the meantime, we go blissfully on with our lives. In WWII, it was a nation that went to war. Today? We don’t even offer active military the support they need, let alone those who return home.

      That’s one reason Memorial Day is so important. it’s one occasion that helps us to stop, to remember, and to offer those thanks that are so important.

  26. Hello Linda,
    A wonderful piece, with poignant memories of how and why.
    As you are aware, our own Memorial Day is November 11th and has been for almost 100 year.

    On Monday, here in the UK, we celebrated the 100 year Anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, the last major sea battle between two nations. It was more poignant for me this year as I watched the ceremonies on TV, because through my family history search I found that my granddad’s elder brother was one of the 6000 plus who died during the battle.

    Memories mean so many different things to different people – a photo, a memento, a gift, a certain word, all can make you stop and remember.

    PS – I remembered you this morning when I used a certain note book, which is now full of 12 completed chapters!

    1. Isn’t it interesting — amazing — what we learn as the years go on? The hidden bits of history in every family are often so fascinating it’s easy to wonder how in the world they remained hidden: or at least unmarked.

      I confess that I had to refresh my own memory on the Battle of Jutland. The name was familiar, but I didn’t know any of the details. Now I know where the term “dreadnought” comes from. Interesting that it’s become the name of a computer game: on that apparently is quite popular.

      As for the Battle of Jutland being the last major sea battle, I’m not sure where that leaves battles like Leyte, Guadacanal, and the Coral Sea — they were pretty significant, too. On the other hand, just as I wasn’t tuned in to Jutland, I’m sure there are many on your “side” of the world who aren’t as sensitive to what happened in the Pacific theater during WWII.

      Twelve chapters! Good for you. You make me feel like a slug — or an easily distracted lizard that can’t help going six directions at once. On the other hand, I’ve been a little handicapped by a pleistocene era PC and antique software. Now that I have a new computer and a brand new version of Office (read: Word) I can do magical things that have been impossible for someone still running Vista and using Word 2002. C would take one look at me and shake his head — but I’m with the program, now. All that’s ahead is the learning curves.

      1. Would it be cheeky to say “Welcome to the 21st century”? lol

        As for The Battle of Jutland being recorded as the last major sea battle by the British, I believe it is because it was prior to the WWII battles when air cover was given. (I had a vague memory of Leyte and Guadacanal, from school history lessons).

        Jutland involved 250 ships, almost 200 ships more than there were in the Battle of Trafalgar and over a 100 more than were in The Spanish Armada. The reason the battle is remembered is that both sides claimed a victory, but we, the British, did manage to keep keep control of the North Sea.

  27. Love that you put The Battle Hymn of the Republic here! All those glorious songs, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and other Christian based songs sung at this Memorial Day are so significant. It’s a shame that people are often “singing songs” to hot dogs and and the sunny day off rather than truly remembering.

    On a far lesser note, Cinco de Mayo has also changed; it’s become a day to drink marguerites rather than remember the Battle of Puebla that the little Mexican army so unexpectedly won.

    Sometimes I think America is looking for nothing but a Drink Fest.

    1. I don’t think hot dogs and remembrance are an either/or proposition. There’s room for sunshine and fun along with the ceremonies and reflective moments. After all, that’s part of what was fought for, too — the freedom to celebrate and enjoy life without fear or restraint.

      Now that you mention it, we could add St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, and Mardi Gras to the Drink Fest list. I was going to add July 4 and Labor Day, but those seem more dedicated to barbeque — at least, down here.

      Coincidentally, when I stayed at Presidio La Bahia, the birthplace of General Zaragoza was just across the road. I love this view of it.

  28. This beautiful post filled me with nostalgia for my early years, growing up in Virginia, Minnesota. We followed the Memorial Day routine just as you did, with a morning parade, visits to the graves of loved ones, and a lazy afternoon filled with play and quiet times for reading. As the day was free from school attendance, we looked forward to it as the signpost leading us into the summer holidays.

    Years later when I moved to Australia we celebrate ANZAC Day in the same fashion. There is an edge of fierceness to our Australian celebration though, as it is the only war remembrance day that celebrates a defeat. One day the time may come when remembrance days will be a thing of the past and war will simply not be tolerated under any circumstances any more.

    1. Isn’t it wonderful to share memories of early experiences and traditions. However they differ in the details, there always is that sense of heart-warming familiarity. And, yes: those long, lazy afternoons with a book were a treasured part of our summers, too.

      I didn’t know about ANZAC Day until I began blogging. Of course, I knew very little generally about Australia and New Zealand until a decade ago. It was only last year that I first heard this song. It’s so sad. Perhaps if those with the power to make war listened to such songs every day, we might be at less risk of having them exercise that war-making power.

  29. Thanks for this, as I did not know so very much about Memorial Day. Last weekend was “Victoria Day” in Canada. It is unapologetically celebrated as a rite of summer (although a month early by the sun). Attention to memorials theoretically happen on November 11, but I think that this has slipped considerably since I was younger. In these parts, many congregations with graves have a cemetery day in early September, that functions as a kind of memorial day. This too seems to be on the decline. Remembering is hard work, and without cultural supports to engage it, memorial entropy seems to obtain.

    1. It just now has occurred to me that a similar change happened in this country with our Veterans’ Day. Also held on November 11, it was known originally as Armistice Day. The change to Veterans’ Day took place in 1954, and I grew up hearing both terms used.

      It’s interesting that the cemetery day would be observed by congregations in September. Is it associated with Michaelmas, by any chance? All Souls/All Saints seems more appropriate, but i can see how Michaelmas might be a good association, too.

      Your mention of cultural supports reminds me of earlier studies of the importance of social structures for maintaining a sense of plausibility as regards belief systems. Religious faith comes to mind, of course, but the same dynamics are clear in a variety of settings, including our civic observances. Of course, it can be seen in politics, too. None of our current candidates can possibly be as evil as some believe them to be, but viewed from within their opponents’ group, it’s entirely plausible.

  30. It bothers me that so many have so little skin in the game when it comes to modern war. A few of us go to war and the rest of us go on… with our lives.

    I read another blogger whose family called it Decoration Day when she was young. I don’t recall that.

    A lovely remembrance.

    1. Pushing things even a bit further, it’s worth noting how many happily play World of Warcraft and other war-based video games, while the real soldiers of the world serve in places where real war is taking place: often returning with injuries more serious than carpal tunnel syndrome, or not returning at all.

      i hope your holiday was a happy and healthy one. Thanks for stopping by. Don’t forget that it’s National Donut Day! Who doesn’t need a donut? You’re welcome.

  31. Linda, thanks so much for an informative and well-crafted story of Memorial Day. Much of this history is new to me, and it’s an excellent reminder of how easy most of us have it, and how easy it is to forget the sacrifices it took to get us where we are. The first passage by Howard Pyle is the most powerful writing that I’ve read in a long time, and it perfectly sets the stage for the rest of the post. Very well done. ~James

    1. There was a time in the world when people like Pyle weren’t afraid of language, or of giving offense by their use of it. Their writing was livelier as a result.

      Another Pyle who managed the feat was Ernie, of course: probably the first war correspondent I knew of. I’d never heard of any familial relationship between them, and couldn’t find any evidence of such, but they both knew how to report the realities of war.

      Thanks for your words of appreciation. We need to remember the past, but above all we need to remember that every generation has its battles to fight, if freedom is to be maintained. The nature of the battles may differ, but they’re no less real than in previous centuries.

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