Yes, Memorial Day weekend is for enjoying family and picnics and ballgames. But the real purpose for Memorial Day itself is barely commemorated in many communities–to remember the Americans who gave their lives in war for the rest of us.
Our country’s Decoration Day tradition began during the Civil War, when women who lost family members began to take flowers to their graves, and to also to leave flowers on the graves of other fallen soldiers.
Shortly after the war, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic declared May 30 as a day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”
Decades later, when my Grandma Leora (then Goff) was a girl, May 30 was observed in Guthrie Center, Iowa with as solemn ceremony attended by the whole town. When she was nine years old, Leora was one of about twenty young girls who took part.
Veterans of the Civil and Spanish American Wars decorated a hay rack wagon, she remembered, for the 1900 Decoration Day procession. A team of Palomino horses pulled the wagon to the cemetery. The girls, dressed in white–with red, white, and blue sashes over their shoulders–rode on the wagon. The veterans marched behind. At the cemetery, a girl in white accompanied a veteran in uniform to lay flowers on soldiers’ graves.
When Leora’s daughter Doris was about thirteen, she was part of a similar ceremony in the early 1930s, three years in a row. The town band marched the mile from the town of Dexter to the cemetery followed by uniformed veterans, then the girls–two by two wearing white dresses with red and blue sashes. Each girl carried two bouquets of mostly pale blue iris, one in each arm.
As a Legionnaire called out a name, one girl laid a bouquet on his grave. Another name, her other bouquet. Her partner was next. The audience followed through the rows of stones.
A trumpet sounded Taps.
As a young girl, I too was part of a Memorial Day ritual–not as dramatic and memorable, but more personal and poignant for my mother and my grandmother.
Sis Gloria and I would ride along with Mom and her sister Darlene–with the car’s trunk carrying flowers from their gardens–to Guthrie Center for Grandma and her pail of peonies and iris. After leaving flowers at family graves in Guthrie Center–for Grandma’s parents, siblings, and three of her own infants–we drove to Perry.
There we girls helped arrange bouquets beside the Wilson stones in Violet Hill Cemetery. All five of Grandma’s sons served in WW II. Two came home. Only Junior Wilson is buried in Perry, but one stone is a cenotaph commemorating Dale (who was never found) and Danny (who is buried in France). And for their father Clabe Wilson who died of a stroke in 1946. . . and a broken heart.
Those older Memorial Day traditions are no longer common in America. But we must never forget those who paid for our freedoms with their very lives.