Monday, May 28, 2007

Random Thoughts on Memorial Day

From early childhood, I would go to the cemetaries with Mama, and sometimes Aunt Flo, on Memorial Day to put flowers on all of the local family graves. Some were veterans, most were not. My father, my lost baby brother, Mama's lost baby brother and five year old sister. Grandparents and great grandparents, aunts, uncles. It was a solemn time, a time of remembrance. One year, when I was in my 30s, we went and Mama had to search for my brother Storm's grave and I broke down -- there is something of total despair to looking for an infant in a grave yard.

Please click pictures to enlarge

Today is Memorial Day, at least the day that Nixon decided we would celebrate, the last Monday in May, giving us a three-day weekend, a chance to travel and have picnics and a good time. According to Memorial Day History
While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it's difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860's tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868. It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 - 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays)

But, the real meaning of the day is to honor the war dead. How terrible to lose a grown child to such a death. To see him or her off to defend the coutry and never have them come home again. Although my family has fought in most of the wars that have been fought in this country, we have record of deaths in only a few. Benjamin Proctor, the 16 year old brother of one of my ancesstresses died in the Battle of Bunker Hill and my great-grandmother's father, John Nevins Mace died in the Civil War . The brothers Philip, Ephraim, and Benjamin Parkhurst served in the Revolution, my grandfather Percy Herndon served in Siberia during WWI, my uncle, Leland Hunt, served in the Pacific Theater during WWII. I'm sure that if I searched the family history Julie did for my 60th birthday, I would find more. I seem to remember reading something about Queen Anne's and the French and Indian Wars, but I'm not sure.

In addition to the dead, war also brings us back wounded warriors. Some are physically wounded, all are spiritually wounded. It is important to remember these, as well. Visit Bill Moyers Interviews Maxine Hong Kingston and read about the incredible writing project that Kingston has done with Vietnam vets, bringing forth stories and poems that have allowed these people to finally give voice to the experiences they had. This project has used writing as a change agent, allowing soldiers to tell the truth and so make peace with the horrors of the past.

To me, the saddest thing about this section of the Vietnam War Memorial is the ages. The oldest one was 41, the age of my youngest child. And I'm sure that this section of the wall is pretty much like all the others in that respect. Week by week, as I watch the list of the fallen on This Week, the majority are under 25.

1 comment:

J at said...

It is indeed a somber day, mostly celebrated nowadays with bbqs and enjoying a three day weekend. For some, it is the beginning of summer, a time for relaxing and enjoying the sunshine. There is nothing wrong with these pursuits, and I confess to attending plenty of Memorial Day bbqs in my life. And yet, it is a somber day, one that warrants at least some small amount of reflection.