Monday, May 28, 2012

The Many Meanings of Memorial Day

Last week I talked to a co-worker who was mourning the fact that Memorial Day is so different down here.  I nodded.  But then she went in a direction I didn't anticipate.

She said, "It used to be a time when we'd go and open up our beach houses and summer homes."  On and on she went with these memories which are completely outside of my frame of reference.  It became clear to me that she'd owned at least one beach home, in addition to some sort of home in the vicinity of New York City. 

I was raised to be polite, so I didn't blurt out the question that seemed obvious to me:  "You come from wealth.  How did you come to be working here?" 

I come from a middle-class existence; if we were lucky and times were good, maybe we could afford to rent a house for a week.  And it wouldn't be at the Hamptons either.  It would be at some low-rent place, like Myrtle Beach, in an unairconditioned house with indoor-outdoor carpeting or linoleum.

No, what I miss about Memorial Day is the sense of gratitude towards military people who gave their lives for freedom.  I've tried writing that sentence in several ways, and it's hard to find a way that doesn't feel overused.

My favorite Memorial Day memory is going to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., shortly after it opened.  More than any parade, that Memorial makes clear the price of war.  And it only has the names of the dead.  So many names.

Of course I yearn for a time when we beat our swords into ploughshares.  Of course I can admit that many wars are misguided.  But I also understand that few of us have much influence over the larger policy issues.  We can still feel gratitude for those who have served.

On Friday night, we watched that show where famous people find out more about their ancestors.  We watched the last bit, where Rob Lowe found out about his German ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War.  It was oddly moving to watch Rob Lowe get teary over this ancestor who took all sorts of risks and to see Rob Lowe get an invitation to join the Sons of the American Revolution.  It seemed a fitting way to start Memorial Day week-end.

I don't think of Memorial Day as the start of summer.  I've always lived places where summer begins long before late May.  In fact, before we moved to South Florida, I didn't even have Memorial Day off.  Before moving here, I worked in community colleges in South Carolina, which didn't have the kind of generous holiday schedules that others enjoyed (no Memorial Day, no President's Day, no week of Spring Break).

It's good to have a day off.  It's good to take a few moments today to remember the people who don't get time off.  It's good to remember those who died so that we can enjoy our summer barbecues and beach trips.   

1 comment:

Hannah Stephenson said...

I agree with you so much, Kristin.

I think we (Americans? Humans? Who?) struggle with these holidays that aren't exactly driven by happiness. Gratitude, yes, and maybe mindfulness.