Decorated Graves, Decorated Lives

As with so much in our national life, change has come to Memorial Day. Flags continue to fly, patriotic garlands hang from porch railings, and bunting flutters in late-May breezes. Nevertheless, 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, and the first road trip of the season.

In truth, the slowly-fading history and significance of Memorial Day is both more complex and more interesting than most Americans realize. 

With the ending 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 about 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 at 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 hills, 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, so that all who served would be remembered.

Classroom lessons included the history of significant battles, and Presidential speeches. We created 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 time for personal memories. World War II lay only a decade in the past, so 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 year, I shared a letter from my Uncle Jack, who fought in the Pacific but lay buried in Manila. 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 meant a parade. In the afternoon, we cooked for Sunday’s trip to my grandparents’ home and then, at Sunday worship, we 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.

On Memorial Day itself we returned to the cemetery for flag ceremonies and speeches: a different sort of comfort.

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 in the park. Battle-scarred or whole, old or young, bereaved by conflict or blessedly untouched, we gathered to hear the familiar songs.

After singing along with Cohen’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and clapping and toe-tapping our way through Sousa marches, our program invariably concluded with “The Battle Hymn of Republic.” Sometimes there were tears, and Peter Wilhousky’s arrangment still touches me: recalling as it does 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, honoring those whose graves we decorate and cherishing 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, honesty, and valor that constitute the best garlands of citizenship.

If we choose to live by such values, we may yet ensure that our dead have not died in vain; that our nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that, 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. The post, updated from one previously published, still is relevant.

83 thoughts on “Decorated Graves, Decorated Lives

  1. The correspondence to your Uncle Jack was extra special. How well I remember reading the exchange of letters between my father and his father.. He always began the letters, “My own dear Dad,” and signed them, Your loving son,”…. Ah, we’ve lost so much, including that ultra-respect to the older generation in such loving tributes. His father wrote back with equal affection, mentioning receiving the letters, updates about family, the cotton fields, and what was happening in the life of a country doctor. I remember one letter mentioned one of my father’s sisters and her husband Jake. Jake? I asked my father, “who was Jake?”

    Again, back in my Mississippi childhood, I don’t remember much attention on Memorial or Veteran’s day.. as you said, ‘it’s just a kick-off to summer rituals… but I also grew up in a tiny area, so there were no bells, whistles or parades.. We had to go to Greenville to see parades!

    Thanks, as always, for taking us with you on a proper salute to Memorial day.

    1. Despite arguments to the contrary, I’ll never believe that emails and letters are equivalent. Even a printed-out email can’t compete with the pleasure of a familiar hand, the tiny flower tucked into an envelope, or the thoughtful turn of phrase that lingers after reading. Who ties up their emails with a ribbon, or slips them into a special box for safekeeping? Such people may exist, but I haven’t met them yet.

      As far as I know, most of our family correspondence took place on postcards, but even those always included a proper salutation and affectionate superscription. What letters remain are much like your father’s and grandfather’s: informative, perhaps sometimes playful, but always loving and respectful.

      I laughed at your question about Jake. I suppose we keep discovering our families until we’re gone. The more I dig around, the more interesting tidbits I turn up.

      I’ve been in Greenville, but I stopped for breakfast, rather than a parade. I always wanted to go back, to visit bluesman T-Model Ford, but he left this world before I got there. However, one of my favorite stories involves Greenville politics. You can read all about that here.

      1. I cherished one particular email which I printed years ago when I lived in the USA. It was written by a dear older friend, and I had emailed/shared with her a mischievous nocturnal story, scampering across the stately grounds with my friend Margaret, who was scared of her shadow. My friend wrote back stating, ‘Dear love of my life…’

        A mutual friend wrote last year to tell me that she had died, and when I returned to the house, one white feather was on the front doormat…. I had swept the porch entrance and shaken the mat before driving to town…

        The next morning there was a white feather outside the bedroom window.

        Sometimes there are other forms of correspondence!

        re: the link to ‘The Taxpayers’ Channel — Bobbye Gentry could write a new ‘Carrol County’ song about that story! Wow!

        How in the world did you stumble upon that one?

        1. There’s an AM radio talk show host in Houston who’s always turning up little oddities from around the country. Every now and then I listen to him at work, and that’s how I heard about this. I came home, did the Google, and there it was. I tucked it in my files “just because,” and there it’s been — until I brought it out for your reading pleasure.

  2. I grew up in a house that was filled with remnants of a war that had ended when I was already three years old. There were uniform buttons, black-out bulbs, ration stamps, photos of friends in Army and Marine regalia, and newspaper stories about Uncle Mike Aun, who served with Army in Europe and came back with two Bronze Stars, a Silver Star, and a triple Purple Heart to his credit–but most importantly, he came back. The fact that World War II was so fresh in our minds, even in the minds of youngsters like me who did not remember it, affected the way we observed Decoration Day in the late 1940s and the 1950s. The notion that it was the “official beginning of the summer season” did not occur to us. It was a day of parades and backyard family gatherings, and it always had a solemn touch to it. I’m not a pacifist, but I also don’t pretend that war at times is unavoidable. I am not so ambiguous about the service that men and women have done for this country. Thanks for the post; I especially love your father’s letter to his brother.

    1. A friend I was with today is just enough older than me that she remembers blackout curtains: in her case, blankets that her mother put across the windows before they went to sit in a closet. Even today she’s not sure what was happening — a drill, perhaps? — but the ration coupons, the Ground Observer Corps, and the hushed conversations among the adults were at least partly understandable, and sobering.

      What I most remember about my uncle Jack is how his presence seemed to hover about the family. The same formal portrait of him hung in my grandparent’s house, in my parents’, and in the homes of at least an aunt and an uncle. I didn’t learn until the advent of the computer and online military records that he was buried in Manila. I never heard anyone in the family speak of it, and I never asked. In retrospect, it almost seems as though where he was — buried in the Philippines — was far less important than where he wasn’t: that is, with us. I’m glad your uncle made it home.

  3. A very moving poignant post. Thank you. Sadly, I feel we are beginning to lose all of our history. It’s all the quick fix, the Internet, Facebook and get yours while you can. There’s no depth to any of it.

    1. There are forces in society which favor forgetfulness, if not outright denial of the past. Some prefer to reshape the past, in a variety of ways. The good news is that we can resist such forces: by remembering, by demanding truth, by truth-telling ourselves. In a sense, that’s part of this celebration, too: not only remembering what “they” did, but reconsidering what we will do on their behalf.

      Thanks for visiting, and for commenting. I hope your holiday is a good one.

  4. Thank you, Linda, for continuing to maintain optimism. We watched Sergeant York last night on TCM. I went to bed with a heavy heart, made so by the tremendous disconnect I see between today’s youth and those who are raising and teaching them and those young people who fought in the 20th century and their family members and teachers.

    1. Sometimes it’s not easy, Cheri. Like you, I have strong feelings about what’s going on in our primary and secondary schools, let alone our colleges and universities. The erosion of our educational systems, the increasing censorship in the name of “free speech,” and the redefinition of “childhood” well past any reasonable limits may be even more of a problem for us in the future than it is now.

      When I’ve had the chance, I’ve suggested to a young person that the world itself isn’t, and never has been, a “safe space.” I’m fairly sure they didn’t believe me, but I suspect life eventually will take care of that. That’s who we’re remembering today: the ones who had to learn that lesson in particularly hard ways.

      You may find this Heterodox Academy article by Jonathan Haidt of interest.

      1. Thank you for the link, which I have followed to the article.

        My takeaway from all that Jonathan Haidt writes is that the university system is out of control in every way. Just look at the students from Evergreen College (a magnet for this type of protest)! Was it Halloween?

        Watching the violence on American college and university campuses over diversity and “free speech” reminds me that the Islamists are not the only ones on the planet who have been radicalized.

        I always wonder who is paying for these “students” tuition? Where are their parents? Their families?

        I’d like to see Evergreen go out of business. It’s possible.

  5. Our country may have fallen to a low point of cynicism and divisiveness, and I hope Memorial Day will continue to serve us as a counter and remedy to such evils. Linda, this was an excellent essay and I’m going to print out “we would do well to remember that lives, too, can be decorated: draped with the selflessness, integrity, honesty, and valor that constitute the best garlands of citizenship” and add it to my concept board. Excellent job. And these are wonderful cards to illustrate the piece.

    1. It’s certainly true that we’ve got a whole lot of cynicism and divisiveness to contend with, and there’s little question the effects are multiplied by social media and the 24/7 news cycle. (One friend suggests we’re now in a 24 second/7 minute news cycle, and there are days I wouldn’t disagree.) The lack of a solid educational foundation doesn’t help, nor does the existence of people who cash in, metaphorically or otherwise, by setting people against one another or inculcating fear.

      Still, good people abound, just as they always have. This holiday’s a time to honor those good people of the past, and draw inspiration from them.

  6. I too was raised respecting what those before me suffered and sacrificed. I am proud to know you, Linda.
    For those people who have forgotten or never learned our history – I feel sorry for them. For those who disregard or try to erase it – hopefully one day you will not be forced to live without the freedoms you have today. To ignore or try to change history is a slap in the face of all our ancestors.

    1. Attempting to erase or revise history often is a first step down a slippery slope toward one group’s assertion of power over another. At best, it denies the complexity of past events. That’s what makes your blog so fascinating; the “good guy, bad guy” view of WWII just doesn’t hold up when viewed more closely, through the reports of those who were there.

      I suppose one of the important questions of the day is, while we still enjoy such hard-won freedom, what will we do with it — and will we be capable of maintaining it?

      1. We can always find ways to improve this country, but some people are definitely going about it all wrong and tearing the country in pieces. If we do not learn our history and respect what all was done to give us the freedom to even discuss this topic – you know exactly where we’ll end up.

  7. Thanks, Linda, for this beautiful remembrance of the history, sentiment, and importance of Memorial Day. So many precious memories you have stirred. Did you join in making crepe paper flowers?

    1. I did make those flowers, Oneta. What I can’t remember is whether they were associated with Memorial Day. I do know that we made them one year for a mother-daughter banquet at church.

      But those flowers resembled carnations. You may be thinking of the crepe paper poppies that are associated with both Memorial Day and Veterans Day. We always bought those from people — mostly VFW members or Auxiliary Members — who sold them at places like the grocery store, or on the courthouse square. And they never were thrown away: at least, not immediately. I can remember them tucked here and there in the house, but when or how they disappeared, I can’t say.

      1. I’m not sure how wide spread the custom was but we made wreaths of mostly roses I think and took them the the graves. Red, yellow, white, and pink. I believe I could make a rose now from that experience. I remember how to tuck in the thumbs to spread wide at the bottom then flute from the other side at the top. I don’t remember how the made the center piece. Yes, we still receive poppies at VD from vets standing outside Walmart. And I remember that they were kept in boxes here and there. I guess the sentiment is/was very strong.
        Have a nice weekend.

    1. I have read about that. There’s an interesting entry on the subject on the Snopes site that rates it as neither “true” nor “false,” but both. Yes, free blacks in Charleston reburied dead Union prisoners of war and held a cemetery dedication ceremony in May of 1895, but no, it wasn’t the origin of our modern Memorial Day observances. There is a great, detailed description of the event — which included thirty speeches, and a picnic on the grounds, which probably was needed after all those speeches.

      The discussion on Snopes is a good one, and in some ways amusing. It gives a history of the Waterloo, New York, claim to fame, for example:

      “Waterloo held the first formal, village wide, annual observance of a day dedicated to honoring the war dead. On March 7, 1966, the State of New York recognized Waterloo by a proclamation signed by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. This was followed by recognition from Congress of the United States when the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously passed House Concurrent Resolution 587 on May 17th and May 19th, 1966 respectively. This reads in part as follows: “Resolved that the Congress of the United States, in recognition of the patriotic tradition set in motion one hundred years ago in the Village of Waterloo, NY, does hereby officially recognize Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day …”

      On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson, signed a Presidential Proclamation recognizing Waterloo as the Birthplace of Memorial Day.”

      But, as the article points out, dozens of places, both Union and Confederate, have claimed to be “the” place that originated the day, or the first. I suppose what’s most important is that communities both North and South, black and white, felt the need to begin the healing, and took steps to do so in whatever way they could.

      1. I agree with your last paragraph that it’s important to remember that a lot of locations felt the need to begin to heal after the war. Who was actually first may not be the same as who was first to publicly go through the process of petitioning the government for formal recognition. Either way, the re-burial of 257 union soldiers is a detail that should not be lost in the dust as part of the history of Decoration Day. So much of our earlier history was whitewashed, written from a white male point of view only which left off so many who weren’t white males.

  8. Thank you Linda for a beautiful reminder of why Memorial Day is so special. We can not forget the past and the brave people who fought and died and shaped our country. I worry that our nation is in trouble for lack of remembrance.

    1. Your comment brought to mind George Santayana’s line from The Life of Reason: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Churchill expanded on the thought in a speech to the House of Commons in 1935, after the Stresa Conference. It certainly seems to have contemporary relevance:

      “When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.

      There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

      I wonder if there’s a Churchill waiting in the wings somewhere? I think we could use him.

  9. “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Still a noble goal, though as I grow older I feel less sure that it ever was true.

    1. It’s a fact that inequalities of every sort are part of life. I suppose my perspective differs somewhat, since I don’t see our basic equality as human beings as a goal, but as a given. Each individual’s inherent worth and dignity shouldn’t be diminished, and their unalienable right to freedom should be inviolable.

      Of course, how that works itself out is filled with complexities, and ever has been. There are plenty of people who have argued for the essential dignity of humanity while heaping indignities — or worse — on their neighbors. But just as many try to do the right thing, and have fought on behalf of those being denied their rights. That’s worth remembering, and celebrating.

      1. Ah, I was not clear. The goal is not in being “equal,” but in being dedicated to the notion as a guide for our institutions and actions. And celebrating the good? Yes, that I do. :)

        1. You do celebrate the good, in a multitude of ways. And we’re certainly in agreement about equality as a worthy guide: as long as we don’t seek to achieve it by lowering standards all around. (I do know that’s not what you meant!)

  10. What a beautiful post.
    I remember my granny taking me to the cemetery on Memorial Day, and our putting flags and flowers on the graves of those who served.

    1. Thanks, Brig. Trips to cemeteries can be sobering, but they can be interesting and enlightening, too. The mix and movement of people is on full display, and the sacrifices made decades (or centuries) ago become real in a different and profound way. I took a tour of our local cemetery a couple of years ago, and was impressed by something the guide said — that we shouldn’t honor those interred there for their death, but for the lives that they lived. So simple, and so true.

  11. Lovely post, Linda. You had a wonderful childhood with memories to cherish of Memorial Day. I didn’t have that but I respect Memorial Day as something extremely important. I don’t believe children of a modern time know much or nothing at all about why we have Memorial Day.

    I really enjoyed seeing the presidents and wives and that very special performance of the Battle Hymn of The Republic.

    1. Part of the reason today’s children are being denied knowledge of the past is that they lack adults to teach them: parents, of course, but also other family members, and even the educational system. I was blessed by having parents who valued education, and who constantly were teaching. Most of it was informal, but much of it was fun, and even a holiday like Memorial Day included “lessons” that stayed with me over the years.

      This arrangment of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” by Peter Wilhousky, is my favorite. He also was responsible for the transformation of a traditional Ukranian carol into our “Carol of the Bells.” I’ve always enjoyed this video of the Red Army Choir performing the song. Unexpected, perhaps — but quite wonderful.

      1. And that is really beautiful. I had not watched this video previously. It’s very interesting to see a Russian choir performing one of the United States’s most cherished song. The voices are wonderful.

  12. Here in Canada, we had our long weekend holiday the weekend before(May 20th), it’s the weekend to open the cottages, it’s our unofficial start to the summer. But it’s similar to what you are seeing change with Memorial weekend as a time to remember what your ancestors fought for. We aren’t remembering those who died, but it is of a historical significance, but most will use it to drink or get high. I loved your pictures! I’m a vintage girl at heart! :)

    1. We have our own party-goers: no question about that. Many people stay off the water and away from the coast to avoid the hordes of people, including the ones who’ve had a little too much alcohol. But for the most part, it’s a quiet, congenial time, with the occasional memorial service added to the mix.

      It always tickles me to hear about northerners opening cottages or putting boats in the water after the long winter. It’s such a different routine, but your seasons demand it. It must be delightful to have spring there at last. And I’m glad you like the images. I got quite a kick out of going through the postcards. Some are, shall we say, a little surprising. I can’t wait to publish those on Valentine’s Day!

  13. I did not know that Memorial day was once Decoration day. Thanks for the essay on this, much appreciated. I think a lot of these traditions are sadly being lost today…. though not all… fitting time for this; for centuries after Easter in the Eastern Orthodox church they go and bless their cemeteries singing Christ is Risen, having picnics or even, if there is a chapel at the cemetery, doing a liturgy (mass) there. It’s a special time and really nice. Have a blessed Memorial day weekend! :)

    1. Many people don’t know about Decoration Day. The change took place long enough ago that, unless a person had parents or grandparents who still used the term, they may not ever have heard it.

      I just recently learned about the Orthodox custom of visiting cemeteries after Pascha. You might enjoy the blog of another Orthodox woman I follow, who wrote about her own visit here. She includes many posts that contain sayings of the fathers, and beautiful icons. I think you’ll find her entries a gift — especially since you have a little extra time to enjoy them just now!

    1. I hope they will, Martha. We live in complicated times, but I think we flatter ourselves to imagine them more complicated than those endured by older generations. The good news is that such times also become living proof of Faulkner’s contention that mankind not only will endure, but will prevail. It’s about time to pull out his Nobel Prize speech again — one of the most inspiring pieces I know.

  14. I guess my history goes back far enough to have seen the day devoted to our fallen military folks and then expand into decorating of all family graves as well. It bothers me to see it now becoming nothing more than a holiday to start the summer. Personally I don’t treat it that way.

    1. Of course you don’t, Terry. Nor do citizens all across the country — but it’s still important to keep reminding people that the day itself has a story worthy of being retold, and a meaning worth honoring. I wish the national media was better about telling the stories, but small town papers and local media do pretty well. And there are a lot of flags flying in town this weekend.

  15. I loved reading your father’s words in that letter, and perhaps having such a tangible connection to the military makes the solemnity of the “holiday” more real. I think Memorial Day is not so personal to many younger Americans who have never felt the sting of war in their own lives (something we should be thankful for, I suppose). Thank you for sharing the history and recognizing the importance of Memorial Day.

    1. I think you’re right that those who haven’t experienced war have a less firm connection to Memorial and Veterans Day. Of course, it’s also true that wars are being fought differently now, and those who are in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria often are forgotten by people here in the States. It’s easy for us to go on with our lives as though nothing is happening — but the veterans who return home have their own tales to tell: too often, about those who didn’t make it back.

      Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. I hope your weekend is a good one.

  16. We were fortunate that neither my father nor none of his nor my mother’s brothers were lost in WWII.. Many families were not so fortunate.

    1. You were fortunate. Honestly, I don’t think many “youngsters” today (maybe under-thirties?) can conceive of the kind of losses that were endured in WWI and WWII, or how important they were, particularly to small towns. I have an extensive history of the town where my mom and dad were raised, and the section devoted to the military is poignant in the extreme.

  17. Memories of fallen
    Not forgotten graves
    Flowers given tenderly
    With gnarled hands

    Orders followed, shoot
    Another son slain
    Brother kill brother
    Over borders disagreed

    Following too easy
    Silky talking politicians
    MOAB on Afghanistan
    Their sons too

    Where to next
    Not forgotten graves
    Endless grief continues
    With gnarled hands

    1. Wars and rumors of wars continue on. Still, there comes a time to set aside, if only for a moment, all of the discussions and policy disagreements, all of the wrong-headed decisions, all of the mistakes and misjudgments, and think of those who did what they were asked, without hesitation.

      Watching the National Memorial Day concert at the Capitol, it’s impossible not to be touched by the expressions on the faces of so many who are remembering so much — and to remember what we owe those who are gone.

  18. It’s odd, but I don’t remember anything about Memorial/Decoration Day from my childhood. I don’t remember tending graves, making pennants, or parades. I know I’d remember a parade. I loved parades. I wonder if we did things and I’ve forgotten.

    My uncle and aunt are buried in Arlington. I thought of them yesterday when I saw them putting the flags on the graves. It’s such a peaceful place. I thought about driving up there, but the traffic is horrific on any day of the year, but it would be unbearable this weekend. We will go, but not on a holiday weekend. That’s for sure.

    1. It’s always nice to see people putting flags on the graves for patriotic holidays, or wreaths at Christmas time. All of the towns around here line the streets and bridges with flags, too. They’re usually up for about a week, and it adds a good bit to the holiday. I do understand your reluctance to get involved with the traffic. Every year I consider going in to Houston for fireworks, and then I think, “Don’t be silly.”

      I’m surprised you don’t remember Memorial Day from your childhood. I suppose not every community celebrated in the same way, so you might just have been in a celebratory cul-de-sac — one without a chronicle of its very own!

  19. Tomorrow we’ll pass near the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. That event and many others belie the claim that “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.” Not that our forefathers were worse, all things considered, than anyone else’s; the Indian tribes were often at war with one another. On the positive side, the United States has done more than any other country in history to promote freedom, including setting itself up as a nation with that as an ideal.

    1. I certainly paused when I quoted those words. They’re a good reminder of how the passage of time and the unfolding of events can recontextualize a statement. Considered inspirational then, it causes discomfort now — but perhaps that’s part of its value.

      If we can face the errors, the omissions, and the blindness of the past without flinching, we might be more able (if not necessarily more willing) to look critically at our own statements and behaviors. It’s an interesting exercise, at any rate: to imagine how history might judge us another century down the road.

      Speaking of the road, safe travels. When you ran into the weather that turned you back to Texas, I suspected you’d be making another run at it. Have fun!

        1. You’re in some of my family’s old territory. My mother’s paternal great-grandparents lived for a time in a soddy on the Nebraska prairie, not so far from where you are: the Alliance area. Have you ever seen Solomon Butcher’s Nebraska photos? Probably so. They’re wonderful.

  20. Tomorrow, church services will be held in the little wind-swept cemetery about a mile from our now closed church. Other than during planting and harvest, it is a quiet place where everyone who goes there knows everyone else and they know or know of most of the people who rest there.

    Tomorrow, we will walk around the cemetery and conversations around the graves will be about the bonds of family, friends and business, the same conversation that are held about the living.

    “She was a Victora before she became a Wencel.”
    “Pat’s sister?”
    “Yup.”
    “Which Pat?”
    “You wouldn’t know her, she died before I was born.”

    1. Oh, did I laugh. It reminds me of the directions so often given here: “Go down the road a piece, and turn at the old Dieffenbacher place.” Only after a lot of confusion and back and forth driving do you learn that the Dieffenbachers sold their place to the Knudsens in 1916, and that the Knudsens left for Illinois after giving the place to their daughter, who sold it to a commercial developer who turned it into the Mini-Mart.

      There’s a Texas tune that I think captures the sense of your cemetery walk: the congeniality, the easy-going commitment, the tradition. See if you don’t agree.

  21. What you write about the decoration of all Civil War graves, both North and South, reminded me of a similar story from Finland, which I think I read in a Finnish novel, though I can’t lay it to hand. In that story, the dead of those on the losing side were forbidden to be commemorated. I don’t now recall how or when this was resolved, though I think it was. Separating the issues surrounding a war with the individual humanity of those who died in it seems always to be a challenge. Understandable, but sad. Thanks for recovering/uncovering the meaning of the day.

    1. By any chance, was the story you’re thinking of part of Under the North Star by Väinö Linna? It tells the story of the conflict between the Reds and the Whites in the Finnish Civil War, when the Reds weren’t allowed to mourn or honor their dead publicly. Apparently the publication of the second volume (around 1960) helped to begin the process of healing the rift between the two groups. I read the first volume, and enjoyed it so much I ordered the entire trilogy. If you haven’t read it, I think you’d find it congenial. (More books to read — just what you need!)

      But, yes: we are talking about human beings when we talk about conflict of any sort, and war can make that particularly difficult to remember. Of course, the reverse is true, too. Once we turn others into sub-human beings, war becomes more acceptable. “Twitter wars” and “Facebook wars” are worth studying just to see the dynamic in action.

      Speaking of Finland, you no doubt know far more than I do about its educational system, but I thought this article was fascinating.

  22. The Memorial Day services in little Alton and small Orange City seem to grow smaller every year, but they are still held, and I still attend a portion of each, taking photos to publish in our weekly. I hope weeklies everywhere will continue to remind of the remembrances and help keep the memory alive of service people who died serving the U.S. When the ceremonies die, there will always be the stories of those who served. Saving those stories is important work. Thanks for publishing your thoughts.

    1. As a society, we don’t seem to do small very well any more, and we certainly don’t appreciate ceremonies like we used to. When you combine those two and end up with small ceremonies — well, who cares? Except for those who do: those who have a connection to the past, or honor the past of others, or who hope to learn from the past.

      I suspect people will continue to gather in cemeteries and parks and at parade routes for some time to come. Keep taking those photos.

    1. That’s not the worst celebration in the world, particularly since the traffic wasn’t nearly so bad in those years. I used to go down to Galveston for holidays from time to time, but no more. Even coming in from the west, across San Luis pass, is just impossible. So, we save Galveston for another time.

  23. Yes, this post is still relevant, Linda. Thank you for doing the research for it. I don’t recall memories like yours, but my dad used to tell me about Decoration Day in the South. I’m a firm believer in keeping a lot of tradition and never forgetting the sacrifices of others.

    1. Memories and traditions are what keep us grounded. They make up our personal histories, and they give us stability and a sense of belonging. That’s what makes dementia and Alzheimer’s so terrible. Watching someone “lose who they are,” as it’s sometimes described, is just awful. It seems to me the same thing can happen to a nation. If we lose our traditions and forget from whence we’ve come, our identity begins to unravel. Memorial Day is a good day to recommit to not allowing that to happen — since as a nation, we still have a choice.

  24. The small town we just left in Illinois had a flag ceremony, speeches, and a band on Memorial Day and other patriotic holidays. Each year, the crowds got smaller and smaller and older and older. My husband was a stalwart attendee, and he has been searching (in vain so far) for somewhere to go tomorrow near Houston. Perhaps you know of a place?

  25. What a beautiful post, fascinating too. Howard’s Pyle’s writing and the letter to your uncle Jack are both haunting. I can’t imagine what horrors those men went through. When will we ever learn?xxx

    1. It’s hard for me to conceive that we can’t learn from the experiences of the past: the last century-and-a-half, particularly. Perhaps it’s that we won’t, or don’t want to. That certainly seems to be the case for some. The hunger for power, or wealth, or regard becomes so strong they’re willing to sacrifice even nations to their wishes. At least we have the power to live our own lives with decency, and to stand against the degradation of life, even in small ways. That’s why holidays like this are important: not only to remember the dead, but also to remind us how to live.

  26. This is a splendid post, Linda. I’ve always found Memorial Day more touching and meaningful than July 4 or even Veterans’ Day, although that hits me in a much different way. I remember the service of those who have gone before in wartime, certainly and as it was meant. But I also remember those who didn’t serve in that way. Who dug victory gardens or waited for news about a loved one. And of course those who are no longer here like parents and grandparents, loved ones and friends. While I’m fine with cooking out or enjoying the company of family or friends, I don’t see it as a party weekend and generally would prefer to pass on going north but stay in the warmth and love of home.

    We forget so quickly, don’t we? I watch boatloads of WWII and WWI documentaries and see how it continues to happen again and again. Different countries, different times. Same things. I’m so glad you have the letter… those things mean so much. (And I always wonder, who will want them when I’m gone?)

    1. You’ve reminded me of the last line of Milton’s famous sonnet, “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.” I’m sure you know it: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Those who were active on the home front were just as important: working in the factories, conserving resources, writing those letters that served as morale boosters.

      Like you, I’ve wondered what to do with some of my most cherished possessions, like that letter. Museums can be a good answer. On Saturday, I was at a Danish museum in a little Texas town called Danevang. The community built it precisely to provide a home for so many bits of history: photos and letters, handwork, collections of farming tools, war memorabilia. There was a sign there that recalled Carl Sandburg and his preface for Edward Steichen’s photos: “These, too, speak for the Family of Man.”

  27. Like you Linda, I grew up with WW II fresh in my mind. I think the day lost some of it’s meaning when Congress decided to take several of our significant historical days and turn them into three day weekends. I don’t remember the reasoning behind the decision, but I suspect it was driven by economic reasons more than anything else. –Curt

    1. I don’t know that for a fact, either, but I suspect you’re right, Curt. It happened to Presidents’ Day, too, which is a bit of a shame. A category never has the power that a story about an individual does, and I miss Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays. There were a lot of myths that surrounded those two, particularly, and even when I was in grade school we knew that a lot of the tales weren’t true. But their significance was real, and remembering that was important.

    1. It’s true. History and culture (which are so closely intertwined) require some effort to understand, appreciate, and pass on. The U.S. is becoming increasingly lazy, and the educational system and the media aren’t helping things. Still, there are many who do care — maybe they can help hold things together until the pendulum swings in a better direction.

    1. And today is another of “those” days — D-Day. It’s hardly remembered at all, but it is remembered. This morning, one of our radio stations replayed Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Order of the Day. It really is moving, and I wish it were heard more widely.

    1. Oh, my! You’re ready to leave! I’m going to follow your blog, to see where you’re going, and what you see. Thanks for stopping by here before taking off, and best wishes!

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