I was raised in a household of veterans, spanning multiple generations, every branch of service, and many fields of combat. Memorial Day was always a day for traveling to the cemeteries, cleaning up the grave sites, and placing the flags for all of those who had passed. I can remember the history of my country as well as the history of my family when we would visit Town of Maine Cemetery, and work on graves from the Civil War era, and markers so worn that you had to run your hands over them to determine the names and the dates. And I can remember asking my Mom who some of these people were, and how we might be related.
Turns out that they were not relations, and not even acquaintances of relations, but rather the forgotten. They may have fallen in battle, far from home, and no family came to remember them and honor them. Somewhere along the line, our family decided that this wasn’t acceptable, and adopted them. Our Memorial traditions included them as if they were family members. Who started this? Who knows? It probably goes back to just about the time the Civil War concluded, but these folks are as much a part of our family history as if we were related. With the mania for tracing ancestors in recent years, I have often wondered if it would be possible to learn more about these folks, whose graves have been tended by my family for at least a hundred years, and even before their was a specific day to commemorate veterans and the fallen.
Life takes us on strange journeys, and I no longer live in close enough proximity to make all the cemetery rounds, and especially at this time of year, I feel badly that the tradition of visiting and honoring has become more and more difficult. The sense of history and the sense of continuity were lessons learned in quiet green cemeteries, and that is something that I have tried to share with my kids. To that end, we attend the Memorial Day service, Monday morning, rain or shine, warm or cold, at the local cemetery. The local VFW provides the 21 gun salute and acts as color guard. We remember our family, but we have also adopted those in the local cemetery, placing the flags on headstones and monuments, looking for the graves that have not been decorated and remembered. We shake the hands of as many of the veterans who attend with sincere thanks for all that they have given to secure our country and our future.
Memorial Day means many things to many people. It signals the end of another school year, the beginning of summer vacation, the first chance to pull the grill out of dry storage, yard work, graduations, upcoming weddings, but first and foremost, we cannot lose the tradition of remembering those who served, and the many who did not come home to celebrate Memorial Day or Fourth of July or Labor Day…Their sacrifice has made it possible for us to enjoy those holidays and more.