(Originally posted on May 27, 2012)
Last night, I impatiently flipped through television channel after channel, irritated by the preponderance of reality television programs. Just as I decided to turn off the set, I stumbled on a video clip of Peter, Paul and Mary, a folk singing trio from the sixties, being featured on our local public radio station, KPBS. I was immediately transported back to the first time I saw the trio in concert in 1963. As I watched the show, I also remembered how their music changed and reflected the social and political unrest of that time: civil rights marches, campus demonstrations and anti-war protests. I watched, and I remembered, singing along to their songs, recalling my own stories as theirs were told.
In those days, my youthful idealism was dominated by a singular belief that war was wrong. I knew or understood little about the young men and women who, by choice or by the call of the draft, were sent into war. It was, unlike the war my father fought in, one that polarized a nation at home, without ticker tape parades or welcoming crowds to celebrate the veterans returning from Vietnam, so divisive were the politics of the time.
Some things haven’t changed for me. I am still a pacifist all these decades later, anti-war, and admittedly disheartened by the tenor of political debate in this country. But I now realize, unlike the idealistic young student I was in the sixties, the staggering toll war has on the human spirit, on those who have fought in any war, for any nation. That kind of service to one’s country, whatever I may feel about war itself, is an extraordinary sacrifice. I am saddened by the costs of war—the losses and injuries that mark a human being forever, the ruin and devastation of countries in the wake of battle. This morning, I’ve been listening to the veterans’ voices on NPR, their remembrances of war as we celebrate this Memorial Day Weekend. I am touched by their bravery, humbled by their stories.
First celebrated as a national holiday on May 30, 1868, and called “Decoration Day,” it was intended to honor the soldiers who died in the Civil War. General John Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, is said to have chosen the end of May as the official holiday because there would be more flowers in bloom, flowers that were ultimately placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers in an act of reconciliation at Arlington National Cemetery. Today, Memorial Day is celebrated on the final Monday of May, and it honors all U.S. troops who have died in war.
As a child, I didn’t fully understand the meaning of Memorial Day. For my siblings and me, it was simply a date meant to honor the dead—no matter how they died. Every Memorial holiday, my father’s extended family, then numbering between forty or fifty aunts, uncles and cousins, gathered at the family graveside in Hornbrook, a small town in Northern California. While my aunts and uncles paid tribute to our deceased relatives and placed flowers on their gravesites, we restless children turned the cemetery into an adventure, examining all the different gravesites dotting the grounds and challenging one another to find the headstone with the oldest dates engraved on it. We knew nothing about the stories or the people whose remains lay beneath the earth.
Perhaps it’s why, as I consider the traditions of our national holiday, that I remember warriors, other battles—illness, unexpected tragedies or disasters–that have taken peoples’ lives. Many of these individuals, like our soldiers, also faced danger, fear and uncertainty, like those who experienced the relentless stalking by the silent enemy called cancer. They also have inspired those who knew and loved them, taught us how precious life is, even as we knew the odds were stacked against them. They, like our soldiers, are heroes too. I think of the chorus to Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Did you ever know that you’re my hero?” For me, Memorial Day is a time to remember, a time to honor them all.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” calling upon all Americans to pause at 3 p.m., local time, on Memorial Day and remember those who died fighting for this country. I plan to do that, but I’ll be remembering more than those who died fighting this country’s wars. For a few moments tomorrow, on Memorial Day, I’ll pause to honor all those who, throughout history, have lost their lives to many kinds of battles. I invite you to remember along with me—whether in written or spoken words or simply honor each of your heroes with a moment of silence.