What is your memory of Memorial Day?
There is some historical debate about the “first” marking of this day of remembrance. Its early history also was marked by controversy. The association of the event with the Union cause was so strong that many Southern states pointedly ignored “Decoration Day.” Only after World War I, when “Memorial Day” was declared to be a day to honor the fallen of all wars fought by the United States, did the day take on a truly national character.
A quieter controversy is present today. The contest is over how we spend the day, whether we mark it by visits to memorials and cemeteries or by firing up the grill with family and friends.
Remembering those who have gone before us is, for most of us, a somber if not emotionally difficult thing. That doesn’t make it wrong, or without value, or even, in a certain sense, relaxing or pleasurable. But it is a very different thing to honor the fallen and to fall into the lounge chair by the pool.
The late Senator Daniel Inouye, decorated World War II combat veteran and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, fought for years to prioritize the “memorial” dimension over the “holiday” dimension. Annually, he introduced legislation to separate Memorial Day from its contribution to a three-day weekend. It never went anywhere.
It must have frustrated Senator Inouye that the Congress did not embrace his particular call for remembrance.
Memory is a tricky and remarkably personal thing. We may have shared experiences and have divergent memories of those experiences. Indeed, some of us cherish memories others choose to forget.
This diversity of memory clearly reflects our human imperfection. The human brain long ago met its match in technologies that were better at information storage and retrieval than it is. I’m not talking about the “cloud”; I’m talking about papyrus. We’ve progressed technologically in quantum leaps since then, leaving our poor little brains in the dust when it comes to “remembering.”
But it also reflects our individual uniqueness and our common need for meaning. These are not imperfections; these are among the greatest of our human gifts.
My family, for example, has a special day in July. It is the day our daughter Bakhita Joy was born. It’s on the calendar, and usually it is marked by some conversation among family members. But for at least one of my children, it is important to do something more. She’s already ordered the birthday cake, personalized with Bakhita’s name and the words, “Gone but not forgotten.”
I actually teared up as I typed those words. Sigh.
Bakhita left us almost 13 years ago. I feel the presence of my baby girl most days. And, most days, it’s just fine. Once in a while, it’s not.
Marking her birthday with a cake challenges me, pushes me more toward the sorrow than the joy in my memory. I can’t tell you why. I certainly wouldn’t claim that I’m “right.” It’s just the way I remember.
But my daughter needs something different than I need. And so, we have our family birthday party, of a sort . . . our family “memorial’ moment.
Our different ways of remembering reflect what we remember and who we are. What we have in common is the need to remember.
Memorial Day, like a birthday cake, is one way to ensure we, as a nation, pause and remember. And remember we must. A nation that forgets its past will pay a huge price in the future.
Nothing that we have, not our rights, not our luxuries, not even the relatively high level at which necessities are available to most of us, came without cost. Memorial Day prompts us to remember what was won on the battlefield, as well we should. And we should remember the other “battlefields” where our lives, our livelihoods, and our liberties were won: in the farm field, in the court of law, in the court of public opinion.
What is worth remembering about our history, cherishing about our present, and building upon for our future, was won by sacrifice. We will be able to build upon it only if each generation is willing and able to make its own sacrifice for something more than self.
Senator Inouye understood that better perhaps than most.
Senator Inouye was a member of one of the most decorated units in U.S. military history, the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The men of that unit dared bravely, suffered greatly and fought valiantly, risking and often losing their lives for the sake of this country and its people. Undoubtedly, each man hoped to survive. But many did not, and chose to run that risk for something more than their self-interest.
They did it for their families and friends. They did it for an idea, too, and a hope. The idea was that there could be a place where each man and woman would have the right to pursue their individual greatness, to speak, to vote, to work, to raise a family, to worship, to live out their years without fear of their neighbor, knowing that they and their neighbor both will come together, when the need arises, to do what needs to be done for the sake of their community and their country.
The hope was that the United States would be that place, for them and for their descendants.
They were Japanese in ethnicity, a bond that many thought tied them to our bitter enemies and made them a threat.
They were Americans in spirit, and proved it, despite how badly they and their families were treated by the country for which they fought and died.
To slightly misquote Private Ryan at the end of the movie that bears his name, I hope we will continue to earn what they have done for us.