The last Monday in May, designated as Memorial Day, is often considered by residents of the United States as the first day of summer, although the official day occurs almost one month later. Families gather together to celebrate family traditions, engage in competitive games, eat copious amounts of tasty treats and enjoy conversations while sharing memories. Unfortunately, we often forget the symbolism of the day and this weekend is your chance to enjoy your time together while also reflecting on the true meaning of Memorial Day.
Here are three reminders, providing opportunities for you to have a conversation with your family or take a few minutes and join in a Memorial Day observation.
1. IT’S NEVER A ‘HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY’.
We celebrate three distinct military-related holidays in the United States. Armed Forces Day, commemorated on the third Saturday in May, honors those men and women currently serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day, the final Monday in May, is a solemn day when the nation pauses to remember our military dead - - those who died during active duty or during the years post service. Veterans Day, formerly Armistice Day, is celebrated on November 11 and is a day to honor our living veterans and recognize their service and the sacrifices of their families.
While you should greet a current member of the military with a ‘Happy Armed Forces Day!’ and a veteran with a ‘Happy Veterans Day – Thank You for Your Service!’, it is never appropriate to say ‘Happy Memorial Day’. For those families who have lost a son or daughter – husband or father in combat or in the years since, the truth is that every day is a mini-Memorial Day but Memorial Day is a day of intense and often mixed emotions. A Gold Star Mother may feel tremendous pride for her son or daughter’s heroism and dedication to a higher purpose and simultaneously feel intense grief. On Memorial Day, the U. S. flag on that fallen warrior’s grave speaks volumes about the cost of freedom and the willingness to fight tyranny and despotism that have been a part of each American generation. It is a solemn day and might appropriately include a visit to the Chattanooga National Cemetery for the commemorative service, a lighting of a candle and prayers in your place of worship or your home and a brief conversation with the younger members of your family about the purpose of the day. Then, you should indeed celebrate family and traditions - - and eat lots of great foods, especially desserts!
2. INCLUDE A MINI-HISTORY LESSON IN YOUR MEMORIAL DAY.
Of course, you would expect a historian to suggest a history lesson, but our nation’s commemoration of our fallen warriors has always included moments of reflection and remembrance – even long before there was a designated day known as Memorial Day. As we glance back through history, a time to mourn those who have died in service to their nation or state seems to be a universal theme.
Do you remember studying The Odyssey while in school? Recall the vivid descriptions of fallen heroes being borne home amidst the crowds saluting their valor? The monuments scattered across continents remind us of the unbelievable acts of courage and sacrifice performed by otherwise ordinary individuals in their question for liberation and self-determination of government. It is altogether proper – to borrow a phrase – that we have one day in each year when as a nation we recall those fallen warriors in every era of our history.
Consider sharing this story with your family, especially the younger members. One of the first documented instances of an event similar to our Memorial Day occurred just three weeks after the end of the Civil War. Charleston, South Carolina had been the scene of Union POW camps where several hundred prisoners had died and been buried in a mass grave near the site of the city’s Citadel. On May 1, 1865, more than one thousand recently freed slaves and several regiments of the U. S. Colored Troops, including the Massachusetts 54th Infantry of Glory fame and some white Charlestonians, marched to the mass grave for a ‘memorial’ ceremony including hymns, scripture readings and the scattering of wild flowers. The image of former slaves mourning at the gravesite of soldiers who had fought for their liberation strikes a chord of remembrance.
You may find among your family members a person who remembers childhood Decoration Days at the family cemetery also involving songs, flowers and perhaps a potluck dinner on the grounds. Those impromptu commemorations often occurred in late May and early June - - reminders of early Memorial Days.
3. CREATE A FAMILY TRADITION
Perhaps your family tradition is to gather for a spectacular dinner, fireworks and storytelling. Find a photograph of your grandfather who fought in World War II but died before the youngest members of the family were born. Gather photos of all the deceased veterans in your family and talk family history. Memorial Day is a perfect time for recalling the stories you remember hearing him share about each person’s childhood, service, the first time he/she saw his spouse, etc. You might want to record those conversations for future viewing. How many of us wish we had captured family moments that can no longer be recalled with clarity?
You might want to visit the cemetery at some point during the day and place a few fresh flowers on the grave and have a brief conversation with your Memorial Day hero. Speaking the names of the fallen aloud helps guarantee that they will be remembered always.
Join your community in a commemorative service. Each year on Memorial Day, thousands gather at the Chattanooga National Cemetery for a service honoring the military dead. The speeches are brief, the songs are inspiring and the site of over 48,000 flags gently swaying in the breeze as they adorn the graves of our hometown men and women is breathtaking. A walk to Monument Hill and a pause at the granite reminders of those who served gives purpose to the day. A short stroll from the hillside will bring to you to the site of seven Medal of Honor recipients who rest in that hallowed cemetery. The incomparable Desmond Doss, MOH, who shunned fame and gave all the glory to his Father, lies only feet away from the hilltop flag. The courageous men of Andrew’s Raiders, including four MOH recipients, are buried just inside the gates on Holtzclaw Avenue. The graves of Master Sergeant Ray Duke, MOH, Korean War and Private William F. Zion, MOH, Boxer Rebellion can be identified via the Grave Site Locator outside the office. Both are prime examples of those characteristics that distinguish Medal of Honor recipients: courage, commitment, citizenship, patriotism, sacrifice and integrity. Simply standing at the intersection of Eisenhower and MacArthur, gazing at the Armed Forces Pavilion and the nearby reflecting lake, is a poignant moment.
However you choose to recall the sacrifices that have allowed our nation to continue forward toward our dream of liberty, equality and justice, it will be time well spent. Memorial Day is the perfect moment each year to reaffirm your own commitment to the completion of that dream for all citizens. Pausing during the hectic pace of our lives can provide healing and enrichment that will accompany each of us during long, hot days of a Chattanooga summer. In a year where we are commemorating the 200th birthday of Hamilton County, reflection on the past is good.
Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga and Hamilton County Historian, the Regent-elect of the Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR and the Vice-President for Education, Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center. She can be reached at email@example.com