A New England Memorial Day

  • Monday, May 29, 2023

My mother, Barbara Vaughan Woodward Garside, was born in Whitman, Mass., in 1913, and she spoke and wrote about Decoration Day (Memorial Day) as a serious rite of Spring. Planning and preparing for decorating graves, marching in the parade, and helping at the picnic were the center of discussion two weeks before the day.

She remembered Gardiner Penniman, who returned from France after WWI with shellshock (we now call this PTSD). She observed it was awful to see him shake. Her father explained, with a kind of reverence, what had happened to Gardiner.

When the day finally arrived, all the flags were raised and then lowered to half-staff. While many of the graves had been decorated earlier, a few were saved for that morning when bunches of lilacs were placed on each one, along with a new flag. Since many of the buried were familiar to the townspeople, they were very careful not to step on the ground of the actual grave.

In the morning, the parade. My great-uncle and my great-grandfather rode in elegant open cars, since both were Civil War veterans. My grandfather served as one of the marshals. As the parade wound its way through town, all but the smallest children stood at attention. They then marched to each cemetery, where the town officials both fired rifles and played taps.

At noon, flags were raised to full staff, and my mother observed how some of the sadness seemed to lift. It was time for a picnic and an afternoon of games and baseball.

Decades later, I attended a Lookouts game with my mother at Engel Stadium. When it was time to stand for the American flag, a young man, kind of a slouch, stood up and kept his baseball cap on. My mother not so delicately flipped it off the top of his head. He turned around and gazed at her, soon recognizing that he was in the presence of a superior force.

Both my mother and my father (WWII) are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and my stepfather, Kenneth Garside, died on Memorial Day 1987. The day holds a wide variety of emotions and meaning for me.  

Michael V. Woodward, Ph.D.

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