Memorial Day is this Monday. For many of us, the day is the official start date of summer, even though it comes weeks before the summer solstice. As children, we knew school was over for the year (or almost over) by the last Monday in May, and long into adulthood we associate the day with picnics and cookouts, hot dogs, hamburgers, and apple pie.
There is nothing wrong with going to the beach or having a family picnic on Memorial Day. My grandfather, who died when I was twenty-one, often reminded us that he and his compatriots fought for our right to have those parties and picnics. However, it’s important to remember that this holiday has a somber element. We are meant to remember the military officers – fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings – in our family. We are meant to honor their service. We are meant to tell their stories.
When you have elderly relatives, whether you’re their full-time caregiver or not, Memorial Day can be sad. My grandfather was a career Army officer – an enlisted man who mavericked up, went to OCS (officer candidate school), and eventually retired as a captain. During World War II, he was part of the American forces that liberated Auschwitz, he was a prisoner of war at Corregidor in the Philippines (and escaped), and then he served in Korea. He rarely spoke of his experiences, but on Memorial Day the proverbial taps would open up, and words would flow as he remembered army buds who hadn’t made it home, or who had returned, but since died.
After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother became the keeper of memories and teller of stories. She was more willing to share her experiences throughout the year, but on Memorial Day, she’d be most often found in a lawn chair, holding a frosted glass of iced tea, and talking about how she’d been with my grandfather when he was stationed in Panama and was frightened when blackout orders were issued (there’s a story about a guard hissing at her to turn out the dry-light behind the closed closet door, because in total darkness that glowing perimeter could be seen miles out to sea by German U-boats), and even more so when spouses and children were sent home on commandeered cruise ships run by the Red Cross.
Talking about their loved ones is a way to help ease the sense of loss for our older relatives, but it’s also a way to connect with them. My grandfather’s war experience resulted in the turkey-and-stuffing recipe my family has used since before I was born. My grandmother’s remembrances painted us a picture of my grandfather as a younger man and let us glimpse him through her love-filled eyes.
Even if your military loved one isn’t from a prior generation – many of us lost friends and siblings in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example – Memorial Day is for remembering them, as well. There’s no date range and no age requirement. Our elderly parents may still be sensitive if they’ve lost children in military service, so that’s something to consider also.
Neither my husband nor I have living grandparents, and three of our four parents are also gone, but on Memorial Day, we pause to reflect upon their lives, on the advice they gave us, on the love that was always there, and on their service to the country. We don’t visit cemeteries to pay respects – though many people do – but we do make the morning quiet and thoughtful.
And then, yes, we grill hot dogs, boil corn on the cob, and slice watermelon. Memorial Day is the start of summer, but it isn’t only that. Celebrate. But also remember.