When I was a kid, growing up in the Adirondacks, it was called Decoration Day and in addition to a parade and a day with no school, it was observed by decorating the graves of war dead with flowers. In our town, the war dead went back to the Revolution, and included a number of graves of Civil War veterans, World War One soldiers, and most poignantly in those days when we could still remember it and we knew people who fought and some who died in World War Two, that recent war as well.
In 1967 it was officially renamed Memorial Day and moved from the traditional May 30 to the last Monday in May, but it remains what it was – a time for a nation that has not fought a war on its home soil since 1865 – and so could easily distance itself from the wars it has and does fight – to pause and remember those who fought and died to give us that luxury.
Patriotism, support for the military, and honoring the dead and missing has, sadly, become a partisan issue in recent years. One side stakes a proprietary claim to these virtues and the other has become accustomed to being on the defensive about it. That's both a shame and a sham. No ideology, neither end of the avian spectrum from hawks to doves has the rights to love of country or to appreciation of the sacrifices our military people, past, present, and future make. A person can hate war in general or any given war in particular, but that's about war and conflict as a means of resolving differences, not about love of country and certainly not in any way related to how they feel about the people who, voluntarily or by conscription, fight the wars that are waged.
In our community we have a very active group of veterans that spans the eras from WW 2 to Afghanistan – men and women who served in peace and in war and who continue to serve by looking after each other and veterans who are less fortunate than they are. We also have a local firm that makes it their business each Memorial Day to see to it that there is a community observance to honor veterans and remember the fallen and missing. This year that community observance will be combined with a celebration of the anniversary of our community's founding, making an entire day of activity on Saturday, followed by the veteran's association holding a dinner.
In front of the high school in my home town there was a statue of a World War One doughboy, weary, exhausted. Engraved on the base of the statue were the words "Lest We Forget," and at the cemetery each Memorial Day someone would read the most famous of the Poems that came out of that war, John MacRae's "In Flanders Fields." I always recall the closing lines of that poem: "If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields."
I for one would like to see a return to Memorial Day being more than simply the "official beginning of Summer" – to its being the holiday when we remember MacRae's admonition and Lincoln's words at Gettysburg, "that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."