Memorial Day in Tiny Town
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Part of the Memorial Day tradition in the town I love best is that we don’t observe the day on the day itself, but on the Saturday nearest to it. I’ve never been part of the planning, so I’m not sure of the reason, but I can think of a few.
We’re too small to support our own marching band, and if we want one to come here, it can’t be on the actual holiday. Bigger towns get them then.
People tend to barbecue on the day itself and if we want a crowd for the observance, we’d better do it on a different day.
We’ve just about run out of local people to serve as the featured speaker, and if we want to get one from out of town, we’d better ask them to come on a different day. Case in point: this year’s speaker, a disabled WWII vet who lives in a bigger town two towns to the east but grew up here, is grand marshall in the bigger town’s parade on the actual Memorial Day (the day on which I’m writing this essay.)
Ed, my husband and best friend, spent World War II on shipboard, toting munitions across two oceans. He came home safely, but he got to see other ships in the same convoy get hit by torpedoes. Those memories don’t go away. Sometimes they come back in dreams.
Ed goes to the Memorial Day observance to honor his maternal grandfather, who fought in the Civil War (and died at 103.) I go to honor Ed. It wasn’t always this way: when we first got here the observance was like most others — too accepting, even approving, of war for me to sit there and be quiet, so I didn’t sit there. Then I was on the selectboard and had to go and march in the parade. Then I wasn’t, anymore, and Ed went without me. One year he told me the tone had changed, so I went back the next year and was glad I did.
The event starts at the church on the hill, an old white steepled structure that is exactly what people think of when they think of New England. It’s not really a church anymore, only a place for a couple of picturesque weddings each year and Memorial Day. But it has one of the oldest tracker organs in New England, the town clock rings the hours from the steeple, and if it were damaged the whole town would be in mourning.
There’s a welcome from a member of the select board, a youngster leads us in the Pledge of Allegiance, there’s an invocation, Arline leads us in the Star Spangled Banner, someone reads General Logan’s Memorial Day Order, the children from the community school sing a few songs (my husband is the only person in the church who knows the second verse of “America” by heart), a student reads “In Flanders Field,” and then there’s the speaker, who usually keeps it to less than five minutes. Then there’s a closing prayer and the audience remains seated while the veterans file out. This year there were only two, the speaker and Ed, both 87, their wives behind them. People applauded this year. I had to keep my head down; nobody is allowed to see me tear up.
We head uphill to the ball field and a monument to this town’s only war fatality in the 20th Century. A member of his family places a wreath. Rick, a fellow in his 40s who spent 20 years in the Army and retired as a colonel, fires a musket. William plays Taps.
It’s another half mile up a pretty steep hill to the cemetery, where we gather at the Civil War monument. Ed walked in the parade until a couple of years ago. Now I drive the car. Someone places a wreath, there’s the musket again, and Taps. A student reads the Gettysburg Address.
[Curmudgeonly digression here: Is it considered child abuse to make kids memorize things these days? When I was in school, every child had to memorize "In Flanders Field" and the Gettysburg address and a dozen other crucial pieces of our culture. Don't educators know how the ability to memorize learned as a child helps old people regenerate brain cells that otherwise would be lost? What will happen these children when they grow old?]
We march/ride down the hill to the veterans’ memorial near the library, more prayers, musket fire, and Taps. The whole thing is over in less than an hour and we gather in the town hall dining room, where the Women’s Guild has goodies for us to eat.
It used to be that the school children made wreaths and at the cemetery we all took one or two and put them on the graves of veterans, which the Cemetery Commission had marked with flags. That part is gone now, but the program reminds us of it with a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Your silent tents of green/We deck with fragrant flowers;/Yours has the suffering been,/’The memory shall be ours.”
Four thousand four hundred service members have now died in Iraq. This month we passed a milestone in Afghanistan: more than 1,000 dead. We now know that Barack Obama’s predecessor, may his name be forgotten, told the former president of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner, that the best way to revitalize the economy is war. Don’t believe it? Go look.
In observance of the day that honors those who, without their knowledge or consent, died to revitalize our economy, I quote a paragraph from a Memorial Day article on Truthout and ask you to please go and read the rest of it.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, some 650,000 Americans have died fighting this country’s many wars. Regardless of political affiliation and ideology, every American ought reverence such selfless sacrifice and understand and share the grief that this tragic loss of life entails. Though those of us who have known war hear the cries of the dying forever in our mind and suffer the pain and loss each day of our lives and need no holiday to remind us, Memorial Day is the occasion our nation sets aside to remember, to grieve and to honor those who have sacrificed their lives on behalf of “freedom.”