In Memoriam

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Sun reflecting on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 3 p.m.

Monday, May 25, 2019, Memorial Day in America.  Yesterday was a very warm day in a very quiet city, with temperatures reaching into the high 80s, and the air a little heavier.

I’ve gone out to dinner for the past four evenings. At Sette Mezzo. Other than that I have done very little during these days except to read, run errands to the market, read more and clean up different parts of the apartment. Oh, and feed and walk the dawgs.

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

This is a very special day in this country, although its specialness has languished into simply a “vacation” day, a long weekend for most of us. But I, because of my age, continue to think of it in the way it was inculcated when I was a kid.

JH suggested we run something on the holiday. I wasn’t sure if I could come up with something about it that I’d probably said before in some other Diary.

A few minutes later (from Paris: JH and his wife were taking a short vacation this past week in Paris), he sent me a Diary we did seven years ago. What amazed me was that the weather then was exactly the way it was yesterday here in New York. Aha! So things don’t change that fast!

Re-reading it, I realized I could have written it yesterday; it remains  timely – although perhaps more so.

Monday, May 28, 2012. Memorial Day. A very warm weekend in New York. Sunny; humid; but not too. Rain threatening on Sunday night.

Quiet. This first weekend of the Summer season. The kick-off. A lot of people leave town. The Hamptons crew; go went gone. I won’t deny that if  I had a house out there or up in Connecticut (especially), I’d be gone too. But I don’t and house-guesting doesn’t appeal, having been peopled out by the time Friday comes along. Thus, I’ve got used to, and even look forward to the city on these summer’s a’comin’ (and late Spring) days.

Late afternoon in Riverside Park on Memorial Day.

The restaurants are busy but there’s room for everybody. The sidewalks, busy too, but … room. We slow down. We look. People go off to the theatre to the museums, have a cuppa somewhere al fresco. New York is theatre on days like these. You sit and watch and take it all in.

W. J. Hennessy, “Decoration Day” [detail], Every Saturday, June 3, 1871. Harry T. Peters Collection {PR-049}.
In Memoriam. Growing up in America in the 1940s and 50s, Memorial Day, also known then as Decoration Day, was an important day in all Americans’ lives. For a kid it was late Spring, almost summer, almost school’s out, and go-barefoot time. Hot dogs, picnics, ice cream and soda. Sounds ordinary now but the aforementioned were all “treats” in those ancient days. Heavenly.

Then there was the parade up Court Street with everyone on their lawns and their neighbors’ lawns watching the procession that moved up to Pine Hill Cemetery where the wreaths were placed at monuments and gravesites.

Public school education in those palmy, post World War II days, inculcated us with the gravity and importance of this day and the other national holidays. It wasn’t about chauvinism but more about what John F. Kennedy mentioned in his inaugural speech in January 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Reminding of the best of each of us. Every American of school age and on knew exactly what he meant. We were the country, the country was all of us.

I have no specific recollection of the Second World War except the clear memory of watching my eldest sister pack a cardboard box with chocolate bars and candy that she’d collected (during the rationing) to send to her boyfriend who was in Germany at the time of the Surrender of Germany in 1945 (May 7, 1945). As a toddler, I understood only one thing – the moment: I couldn’t have even one.

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

The man who received them and no doubt shared them with his Army buddies later became my brother-in-law (for life). I never knew how he felt about the War. He never talked about it, or even referred to it in my presence. I knew that it had had its “effect” because of his temperament which in his younger days after the War, could be intense. I learned, probably from my mother, that he never spoke of the War because it was too terrible to even recall. She did not say that he was “haunted” by the experience, but that was the impression the kid came away with. Whatever it was for him, he was far from alone in his feelings about it.

However, it was about “serving his country” and therefore duty-bound, honor-bound. This was understood by all, even schoolchildren. We were the country. So when the “holiday” occurred back in those days, it was a serious matter, out of respect for what people endured and survived, if they were lucky. The fact that the holiday was held on a late Spring day promising Summer, was, this kid thought, planned as a “solace,” a relief from the suffering it marked.

That was then. Memorial Day is still recalled with some reverence and respect by many. Yet more of us know little if anything about what it represents. How that happened, I don’t know; a kind of intellectual attrition of historical reality? Now, as with many American holidays, it is a long weekend, a moment of rest for the weary (as well as the over-anxious). I personally like long holiday weekends because of the latter.

I don’t know what children are taught today about their country’s history. I have a feeling that it’s not enough to ignite the curiosity to learn more about it. We live in a society now where history is simply The Past and of little use to the fast and furious life here on Planet Earth. Such is life (history has shown), and so are the errors repeated.

On Memorial Day, for me, it serves to re-assure that we are all mortal and all humble, and that life, or Mother Nature, goes on, despite ourselves.

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