The other day I saw a newspaper article about the origins of the holiday "Memorial Day." According to the little history, this day set aside for honoring the Americans who have died in our wars became official in 1868, and was originally called "Decoration Day."
Far from the frenzy of retail sales kicking off the summer season, and the rush in grocery stores on ribs and drumsticks for barbecuing on the long weekend, when I was a child growing up in a small town of central Pennsylvania, Memorial Day was a solemn community celebration.
All stores and businesses were closed, and so everyone in town was at home. After breakfast, around nine o'clock, we could hear in the distance the sound of drums, and faintly, the music of brass instruments. Neighbors would begin to trickle out of their houses to stand on the sidewalks, gossiping and visiting with one another. Everyone would watch the top of the street for the first appearance of the parade.
The parade was always a small one, with the high school marching band in their heavy blue and red uniforms, preceded by a color guard who carried the flags of the nation and the dark blue Pennsylvania flag. The men wore the uniforms they had worn in World War II, with their campaign ribbons displayed proudly on their chests. When the clarinets and trombones were silent, the veterans marched to the drums, and the sound made vibrations that we could feel inside our chests.
People were silent as the little parade passed, and then many would fall in behind the veterans and follow. Others began to walk up the sloping streets to take the shortest route to the cemetary on the north end of town, where the parade would finish.
People were still quiet as they walked, and spoke only in murmurs even when they reached the cemetary. Under the wide thick maple trees that lined the cemetary road, they stood like they were in a church, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists all united for once. One of the local preachers would speak, his voice sounding far away and muttery. In the continued silence, the veterans would raise their rifles and fire a salute into the sky, the bark of the shots echoing around the hills. And then the people would disperse, walking through the cemetary to find the graves and monuments of their relatives, to put wreaths and vases of flowers against the headstones.
The custom was not just one of commemorating the fallen soldiers, but also of visiting the gravesites of family members, tracing the carvings on the granite of expensive headstones, trying to decipher the old marble slabs from Civil War days, remembering the dead.
We used to take a big bouquet of pinkish white peonies each year to place on the grave of my father's aunt. Too poor to afford a headstone, her grave was unmarked, except for an arborvita shrub my parents had planted. There the vase of chrysanthemum-like peonies was placed, each bloom bigger than a softball, and smelling of May.
I remember the older folks calling the day "Decoration Day" back then, and a holiday spent tending graves and remembering the dead, and first and foremost, paying honor to all the soldiers and sailors and pilots who served their country, hoping to preserve peace for us all.