Why Memorial Day Matters by Lee Habeeb

It happens every Memorial Day. I’m drawn back to a day long before I was born: when my mother found out her brother was killed in World War II. It was before there were support groups for such things, before we knew what PTSD was, and before anyone dared to talk about war and the carnage it leaves behind.

It was the summer of 1944, and my mother was 12 at the time. A black government car pulled up to her apartment building in West New York, New Jersey. A group of men stepped out of the car and walked up the stairs. A dozen or so families lived in the building, including those who had loved ones volunteering to fight in the war. Her brother John was one of them: he signed up for the army when he was 18. 

My mother later remembered praying hard that it would be someone else’s apartment door those men knocked on, and that she felt terrible over praying such a prayer. Then she heard the footsteps stop in front of her family’s apartment door, followed by three firm knocks. She told me she never heard her mom cry so hard when that happened. Her mom didn’t need to open the door to comprehend the news.

My mother’s dad barely cried. Afterwards, she would never again see him truly enjoy his life. He’d lost not just his only son–he’d lost his bloodline and future. 

John, the uncle I never knew, is buried at the U.S. Military Cemetery in St. Laurent, France. A framed picture of that cemetery hangs on my office wall, next to a framed Purple Heart citation.

For me and millions of Americans, Memorial Day is a day to look back. It’s a sacred day. Yes it’s also the extended weekend that kicks off the summer with hot dogs and picnics, too. But mornings on Memorial Day were always about honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice serving their county in uniform.

Memorial Day is more than a weekend of fun and sun to so many of us. It’s personal. That’s why it’s about visiting military cemeteries and adorning gravesites with small American flags. . . . 

That’s why Memorial Day matters to so many of us. It’s also why it should matter to all of us. 

–Lee Habeeb in Newsweek, May 31, 2021, excerpted with permission

Listen as Lee shares his very personal 10-minute story on Our American Stories.


  1. Thank you for sharing this, Joy. When personal stories are revealed about the tragedies of war and the veterans who didn’t return, the sacrifice of their families must also be acknowledged.

  2. I was very moved by the anguish of Lee’s personal story. The thought that his story (as well as your family’s) is mutiplied by hundreds of thousands of families is nearly inconceivable.

    • I think it’s hard to appreciate, even within a family with such loss, until you’ve been to an overseas American cemetery. The hush, the sacred feel, all those lives gone, all those families missing them here at home.

  3. Thank you, Joy. What a treasure to listen to the recording. I’m a little behind in my reading but that didn’t change the impact one bit. Beautiful…and we honor those who served every day…not just Memorial Day. 💕

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