Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.
Annual Decoration Days for particular cemeteries are held on a Sunday in late spring or early summer in some rural areas of the American South, notably in the mountains. In cases involving a family graveyard where remote ancestors as well as those who were deceased more recently are buried, this may take on the character of an extended family reunion to which some people travel hundreds of miles. People gather on the designated day and put flowers on graves and renew contacts with kinfolk and others. There often is a religious service and a “dinner on the ground,” the traditional term for a potluck meal in which people used to spread the dishes out on sheets or tablecloths on the grass. It is believed that this practice began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect the real origin of the “memorial day” idea.
When I was a young boy, back in the early 1950s, my family still called it “Decoration Day.” Since our families on both sides went back to Revolutionary War days, and both my grandparents on my dad’s side were old enough to remember the Civil War as a recent occurrence, World War II was “the new war,” and Korea was still going on, at least in my first memories of this day.
Most of you under the age of fifty will not remember a time when Memorial Day did not occur as part of a three-day weekend. But up until 1968, Memorial Day always fell on May 30th, no matter what day of the week that happened to be.
As did my birthday. I was born on May 30, 1946. I’ve told the story of how a big feature of my birthday was to go over to my dad’s parents house, sit on the front porch, and watch the parade go by. It was a huge deal in a small midwestern city, probably fourth in primacy after Christmas, Thanksgiving, and July 4th (Independence Day, we called it). I, of course, not being advised otherwise, assumed the parade was for me!
Then, after the parade passed us by, we went out to the cemetery, toting picnic potluck dishes. It was a major family reunion event, and we would feast among the tombstones after placing our small offerings of flowers and flags at various graves. BTW, I don’t recall that only those fallen in American uniforms were honored. The day was for all the dead.
Then, when evening came (in Indiana, usually a soft, sweet darkness presaging summer), came my birthday dinner and the presents. You can imagine why this day looms large even today in my memories.
Yes, yes, these are only the ramblings of a geezer looking back at the past through a glass darkly, but it still seems achingly wonderful to me, all the more so for being a glittering shard of a world long broken and buried away in the deeps of American time.
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