A day for remembering

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Sun reflecting on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Friday, May 28, 2021.  Yesterday was another beautiful Summer-like day in New York. The long holiday weekend is upon us and you could feel it in my neighborhood yesterday afternoon as the two girls schools let out with school buses and limousines and SUVs awaiting them. If I’m not mistaken, this is the beginning of their summer break, and the neighborhood gets noticeably quieter.

The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Monument on Riverside Drive and 89th Street.

Memorial Day in New York is the first holiday weekend traditionally signaling the beginning of the summer season for many Americans.

It’s an outdoor celebration, be it at the beach or poolside, and a time when families often get together. The past year’s pandemic altered the nature of all annual holidays and celebrations, and this is a holiday where people tend to socialize in one way or another. Memorial Day’s importance was those gatherings. They provided as sense of union, of belonging.

Growing up in Massachusetts in the middle of the last century Memorial Day meant many wonderful things to this child’s then recently acquired (in school) notion of Patriotism. When I read in the paper about someone referring to himself or someone else as a Patriot, I can only think of what it used to mean. It meant the flag. The American Flag to this kid’s eyes was beautiful and rich in color. 

And back then, if the day itself were warm enough, it was also the first day we could go barefoot — heralding summer coming in, and days of playing outdoors all day until dinner and then afterwards until nightfall. This was a milestone much appreciated and practiced if we had “permission” from our parents.

The day also meant a parade in almost every town across America. This included many veteran soldiers, often wearing their old uniforms, marching in the parade, bearing flags and led by brass bands playing patriotic tunes. In some places there would even be a surviving Army member who had served in the Civil War. It was rare, of course, for the eldest in the parade who served in the First World War and the Spanish American War.

W. J. Hennessy, “Decoration Day” [detail], Every Saturday, June 3, 1871. Harry T. Peters Collection {PR-049}.

John Philip Sousa, once conductor of the United States Marine Band at the beginning of the 20th century, was venerated for his marching tunes, the most famous being “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Its strains were also heard on every Main Street in the land on this day. And the lyrics were sung in classrooms marking its glory.

Sousa himself was still so famous by mid-century (he’d died in 1932) that in 1952, a film bio was made about him starring Clifton Webb as Sousa and featuring a very young Robert Wagner and Deborah Paget.

Patriotism was a notion instilled in all school children, meaning bravery of our adults, goodness; freedom for all, and reverence for those who died on foreign shores to protect those words as realities.

The parade usually marched down the main streets of the town to its local cemetery where wreaths were placed against the gravestones and monuments of the men who had died while serving in those wars.

By the 1950s, the focus of these celebrations was on World War II, for all families either had members or knew someone who had served — many of whom had died — in that war. My eldest sister (who was fourteen years my senior) married her childhood sweetheart who became a soldier serving in Germany after the surrender.

“Decoration-Day in New York,” Harper’s Weekly, June 14, 1873. Geographic File {PR-020}.

My earliest memory of WWII was as a three-year-old watching my sister packing a cardboard box full of candy bars that she’d acquired over time (there was a rationing of sugar and chocolate) to send to him in Germany.

Everything about that box was a treasure to the eyes of this little one. Although my dear sister was always kind and generous to her baby brother (all his life), she would never share a morsel from that box. I understood how precious those candies were of course, although I didn’t understand “why.”

Back, post-war, the day itself meant a picnic. Hotdogs, potato chips, watermelon, ice cream and Coca-Cola. That was mid-century America, land of plenty. Today these items are available and massively consumed. Back then sacrifice was a daily given many. This was understood by all.

There was a pride infused from one’s earliest years about this country and oneself. “A Man Without a Country” was a tragic tale in this context. Benedict Arnold was a bad man and Nathan Hale was brave and a real patriot. Memorial Day was meant to remind us of them.

Most of that reverie ended for me by adolescence. As we were growing up, the world was changing too. The War in Viet Nam traumatized millions of Americans. It was heavily divisive. There was a moment when the national sentiment was turning against even the soldiers. That was brief but nevertheless a first.

Death is an incomprehensible idea to a child, even when highlighted by a uniformed memorial parade. And the air these days remains thick with undefined fear and uneasiness, left over from last year. But we are beginning to re-experience that single wonder of living here in one big neighborhood of all shapes, sizes, colors, and talents. 

The cemetery in my hometown was less than a mile from my neighborhood. It was vast and rambling, and a wonderful place to play cowboys and Indians and cops and robbers. We were inspired by those scenarios we saw at the movies or in comic books. Death itself was incomprehensible. Back then on Memorial Day, the parade ended at the gates, surrounded by neighbors, along with the marchers. 

It was a moment of reverence and gratitude. We were reminded why we were there, lucky to be alive. It’s good to be reminded. Memorial Day is our reminder. Men and women are still dying across the world. Their loss is the greatest tragedy, not to mention the loss to their families. This is the day for Remembering.

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