Last night, as I impatiently flipped through television channel after channel, irritated by the overwhelming preponderance of reality television offerings, I stumbled on a video clip of the folk singing trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, featured on our local public radio station, KPBS. I was immediately transported back to the sixties and seventies, remembering the first time I saw them in concert. As the program continued, I recalled how their music changed and reflected the social movement of those decades, civil rights, civil disobedience, the anti-war protests. I watched, and I remembered, singing along to their songs, recalling my own stories as theirs were told.
In those turbulent times of the sixties and seventies, I knew little nor understood much about those young men and women who, by choice or by the call of the draft, were sent into war, a war that polarized a nation at home, that had no ticker tape parades and welcoming crowds to celebrate those veterans when they returned home, so divisive were the politics of the time.
I am still a pacifist all these decades later, still against war, and admittedly disheartened by the tenor of political debate in my country. But I realize, much more than I did as an idealistic youth of the sixties, the costs of war on the human spirit, on the lives of those who have fought in any war, for any nation. That 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, injuries that mark a human being forever, the ruin and devastation too often left in the wake of battle. All morning, I’ve been listening to the voices of veterans, their remembrances featured on NPR this Memorial Day Weekend, and I am touched by the bravery and 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. The commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, General John Logan, is said to have chosen the end of May as the official holiday because there would be more flowers in bloom. Those flowers were subsequently placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery in an act of reconciliation. Now 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. I thought it was simply a date meant to honor the dead—no matter how they died, because every Memorial Day holiday, my father’s extended family numbering between fifty or sixty 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 their deceased relatives, placing bouquets of flowers on their gravesites, we restless children turned the cemetery into a place of exploration, examining all the different gravesites dotting the grounds and challenging one another to find the headstone with the oldest dates engraved on it.
Perhaps it’s why, as I consider the traditions of our national holiday, I remember other kinds of battles and the lives that have been lost in them. I feel the need to pause and remember warriors of a different sort, but like our soldiers, ones who faced fear and uncertainty, felt the relentless stalking by a silent enemy–cancer–and yet demonstrated enormous courage and strength, even as the odds were stacked against them. Their names linger in my mind: Wendy, Varda, Jean, George, Carol, Laura, John, Parvathy, Ady, Shirley, Joan, so many more. I see their faces, remember their stories and each of them.
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 the United States. I plan to do that, but I’ll be remembering more than those who died fighting this country’s wars. I’ll honor all those who, throughout history, have lost their lives to battle.
Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow–