Memorial Day. For many, the words conjure up a weekend to party, back yard barbecues and get togethers and marks nothing more significant than the brilliant start of the summer season. For me, and for my family and for millions of others, it is a more solemn occasion. It runs much deeper than red, white and blue table decorations, plastic cups and burgers and dogs. It is truly a day to honor the fallen, those who died while defending our nation.
I learned early to appreciate the significance of the day. My father served at Guadalcanal and, later, in Washington DC. He had a distinguished career in the Army Reserves. But Memorial Day, he reminded his children, is not for the living–it is for the dead. Those who left to serve and didn’t return. It affected my father deeply and, in turn, the solemnity of the occasion was made clear to us, his flock of nine offspring.
My mother is a veteran, too, and served in DC. Year after year, my parents donned their uniforms, my father’s festooned with medals and ribbons. They would separate then (an occasion most uncommon), my mother to join the squad of marching WAVES and WACS and my father to the head of the line in his position as marshall. It was his voice that for so many years rang out and led the parade: the flag bearers, the honor guard, the troops of Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, Campfire Girls and marching bands. Those of his children who were not marching would gather in front of my grandmother’s house and listen intently for the sound of approaching drums. As he appeared around the corner, the parade stretching out behind him, my heart would thump, and not just to the beat of the John Philip Sousa tune. It was with awe and respect of the greatest measure that I watched my father pass in front of us. His posture was ramrod-straight, his eyes unwavering and focused straight ahead as if he were still marching into battle. Though he stopped leading the parade many years ago, the intensity of that sight hasn’t left me. It never will.
Now my father is among the fallen, too, taken not by battle but by age and this is our first Memorial Day without him. The day still belongs to our military; my father would be the first to remind me of that. But I honor him, too, this Memorial Day. To stand quietly, hand over heart as our flag passes by; to ache to the words of Flanders Fields; to watch a wreath disappear beneath the water; to hear the crack of the honor guard salute and hear it echo and fade: this is the day we honor our fallen heros and thank them for our freedoms. My father never forgot what it meant to fight–nor to lead. I thank him for teaching me that kind of respect and for leading by example.