To me, Memorial Day is May 30th, not the last Monday of the month that we celebrate now, even though for the majority of my life the Monday holiday has been the norm.
According to my research, Memorial Day was officially proclaimed by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on May 30, 1868. It was celebrated on that date until Congress passed the National Holiday Act of 1971, ensuring that all Federal Holidays had a three day weekend.
Not that I mind any three day weekend, it’s just that growing up in my house, May 30th had a special significance. In addition to a day to honor our war heroes, it was also my sister’s birthday and, with a timing that my father convinced us occurred in honor of that momentous occasion, the Memorial Day parade marched right by our house.
In case you picture our home placed strategically along a rock wall lined main road, think again. We lived in a suburban neighborhood created in the mid 1950’s, bulldozed out of woods far below a rise where the town cemetery is located. You couldn’t see the cemetery from our house, but way up over the hill that towered across the street and through the trees beyond, it was there; our road was a logical cut through for the marching bands on their way to a twenty-one gun salute.
As kids, we would jump off the front steps; practice our cartwheels and somersaults; and then run to the street when the pounding of drums announced the parade’s imminent arrival. It wasn’t much in the way of display, a band or two, the measured pace of flag holding veterans, baton twirlers and uniformed scout troops, with an inevitable group of bike riding kids and flowing streamers riding beside. However understated though, at age five or age ten, the event was as big as the world to us. That parade and its route by our house ceased somewhere around the time the Memorial Day date changed; the only thing left is a tale we tell as a part of family lore, of the birthday girl covered in poison ivy the day one of those parades marched by.
I thought of this all yesterday when my husband and I wandered downtown to cheer our daughter as she marched with the high school band during our town Memorial Day celebration. The common was decorated with families dressed in shorts and red and blue, luxuriating in one of the few warm days we’ve had this spring. Kids biked around the pond at the middle; over by the Unitarian Church, the Daughters of the American Revolution stood in the flowing dresses of their period garb. In front of the white painted colonial that houses the Senior Center, volunteers did a brisk business in hot dogs and popcorn, and every where it seemed, American flags rippled in the sea breeze. We found my husband’s sister and her two sons sitting under the umbrella of a shady maple. The boys, ages four and two munched on steamed hot dogs and reached hands deep into paper bags of popcorn. Jiggling in anticipation of the parade, they periodically jumped up to dash about the yard in giggling bursts of excess energy.
I waited in a different kind of anticipation--a blossom of gratitude expanding in my chest for those who serve, for the respect our town displays, and for my daughter who has played the flute since the fourth grade and would demonstrate her own patriotism this day. When the sound of music drifted to us, we ran to the street, the boys waving their tiny American flags. Aging veterans and civic leaders drove by in shiny convertibles, younger veterans marched behind. “The Rusty Skippers,” the town band consisting of local volunteers reprising their high school playing skills marched by; we whooped and hollered as our daughter and her classmates followed. As a contingent of retired marine musicians marched behind the predictable scout troops and bicycles, I looked at the boys, tired now, but holding their flags and still waving. For just a moment I was once again their height, in awe of the bands, clapping at the soldiers, and regardless of the date, experiencing that first dawning loyalty to our country in a way that lives forever.
Yesterday went full circle though. In a delayed celebration of our niece-and-next-door-neighbor’s birthday from the day before, long after the parade but with a tip of the hat to my memories, we joined our extended family for birthday cake and ice cream.
For Tim, Sarah, Phil and Carly who all celebrate Memorial birthdays sometimes.