When I was a kid (cue the schmaltzy music...)
No really, when I was a kid, Memorial Day was a day of remembering. Often it was about remembering me since my birthday is May 25th. It was also a day to remember that my Dad was in northern Maine fishing with his high school buddies and the generations that came after them. It was a weekend to remember that we were beyond the last frost, and it was time to plant the garden. It was a weekend to remember that the tourist season was starting, and the ice cream shops were open!
When I was a little older and playing in the marching band, Memorial Day was when we would get our red wool blazers out and travel to so many small cemeteries before joining the parade of Vets and local politicians as we marched through town on our way to the big cemetery to hear the speakers remind us of the sacrifices made by the generations with stars and medallions on their graves. It was also the day when the band had their end-of-year picnic on the lake at a family cottage where the intrepid would swim in the 60-degree water.
Hot dogs and wool blazers, old graveyards and prayers for the ones who lost their lives for the cause... So many memories of a time before life became complicated.
In my adult years I began questioning the narratives I learned as a child about the "good" wars and the people who fought in them. I wondered why every major civic holiday seemed to be a version of the Memorial Day of my youth - patriotism mixed with commercialism with a healthy dose of Christian Nationalism mixed in. The more I learned about the original intention of Memorial Day (or Decoration Day, as it was initially called) the more I wondered about my own observance of the day. While BBQ's and flag waving have come embedded in this observance, it was supposed to be a day of remembrance, of somber observance of the loss of life "in every hamlet and every town" after the Civil War.
155 years later we have created invisible wars that have killed and maimed millions in this country and around the world. Wars on Drugs and Poverty, Terror and Guns. We have declared "war" on things that cannot be shot and killed. And yet, millions die and are never decorated for their "service" in seeking a better world.
In 1964, President Johnson initiated a War on Poverty. His intention was to "declare war on a domestic enemy which threatens the strength of our nation and the welfare of our people." In his inaugural address, he identified the cause of poverty not as the personal moral failings of the poor but as a societal failure “to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.”
It is hard not to see the War on Poverty as a failure as we reckon with the cost to communities and families, even today. Housing, education, access to medical care, food, clean water and air... Do we remember, let alone decorate, the graves in "every hamlet and town" where the dead of this war lie invisible to our celebrations? What about those who died in the War on Drugs (remember, Just Say No?), the War on Guns, or the War on Terror? What about those who are dying in the Wars on "Wokeness", Racism, Transphobia? Perhaps using "war" as a metaphor just perpetuates more war.
This Memorial Day I will be remembering those who gave all they had to make the world a better place. Those who died fighting racism and homophobia. Those who fought for equal access to healthcare and decent housing. Those who remember well and choose to study war no more, seeking the way of peace, the way of Shalom instead.
Blessings and Peace on your remembering,