Even though we celebrated three days ago, today is the traditional celebration of what was once known as “Decoration Day.” My grandfather used that term, and it aptly fit our task of decorating the graves of soldiers and family. The holiday originated in Waterloo, New York, a village near where I live and adjacent to the village of Seneca Falls, the home of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
There is a long history of military service in my family . I have five ancestors who fought in the Revolution, two who served in the Civil War, at least one each in World Wars I and II.
As a child in the 1960s, Memorial Day was a solemn remembrance. We decorated graves with deep purple lilacs, blazing red tulips, bright yellow forsythia. We marched in the school band in our heavy wool uniforms on muggy hot days; hot tar bubbles popped under our shoes and sweat rolled down our cheeks. We stood at attention as Taps was played, as twenty-one guns saluted our heroes.
I can’t say I really appreciated the meaning of Memorial Day back then but now, as our family historian, I find myself poring over letters from lonely soldiers to loved ones back home, some as far back as the Civil War. There is no way I can imagine their loneliness, the uncertainty of their life, the terror of “kill or be killed.” But I can salute them, recognize their service, and decorate their graves with respect.