My grandfather called it Decoration Day, which seemed very old-fashioned.
Then again, so was he, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, which to a child in the fifties felt as distant as the French and Indian Wars. He had been in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, the farthest he’d travelled since leaving Mecklenburg, Germany, for Wisconsin at the age of four.
I knew, of course, that it was now called Memorial Day, and the important issue wasn’t nomenclature anyway. It was that May 30 provided a school holiday at a time when we desperately needed one, when the Chicago Public Schools still had a solid month left before closing down for the torpid summer. A kid gets restless after six months of Chicago winter.
Our neighborhood had an annual Memorial Day Parade down Longwood Drive, and while many of the particulars of that parade are fuzzy now, I clearly recall the efforts put into decorating our bikes to ride in it. We’d weave red, white, and blue crepe paper streamers through the spokes and baskets, wrap the handlebars and trail still more streamers from the handles. It only now occurs to me that you don’t see crepe paper around anymore, except occasionally at estate sales, that it has marched into craft oblivion behind macramé plant holders and paint-by-number oil projects suitable for framing.
But back then crepe paper was plentiful and cheap, and by unspoken agreement everybody used it to decorate for the Memorial Day Parade. We lived near the start of the parade at Ridge Park, where we’d be dropped off with our bikes as organizations preparing to march assembled. (The family station wagon would reappear at the end of the parade to load up the bikes and take us back home for the season’s first barbecue.) Because I was usually riding, I’m not entirely sure who all marched, beyond local marching bands and veterans’ groups. And scout troops, too, including my own one year in our dowdy green Girl Scout uniforms with badges aligned up their long sleeves. Even the berets were unattractive, and that’s not easy to do.
In the beginning, I believe that I actually had the physical act of decorating the bikes mixed in with the name Decoration Day. It would be a while before I really came to understand what this holiday was actually about.
Death. Death in war.
Decoration Day was about graves being decorated, not bikes, and it dated to the Civil War. More people died in combat and from infection and disease in what my high school Social Studies text called the War Between the States than in any other American war, before or since. And new studies suggest that the death toll was probably even higher than previously believed, reaching nearly three quarters of a million lives lost.
There are lots of conflicting stories about who started Decoration Day, who first went out to decorate the graves of those who had lost their lives in this dreadful series of battles and skirmishes, though it doesn’t really matter. Millions were in deep and simultaneous mourning across both Union and Confederacy, now reluctantly restored into the United States of America.
The most charming story currently circulating attributes it to newly freed slaves who dug up a mass grave at a Confederate prison camp in Charleston and reburied 257 dead Union soldiers on May 1, 1865. More traditional versions feature widows in voluminous black skirts, covered by thick black shawls in the North. There were countless widows when that war ended, and it makes perfect sense that they’d be out tending the graves of war dead buried near their homes. Somewhere else, they hoped, other widows would care for the final resting places of their own loved ones who never made it home.
To this day, the most poignant Memorial Day photos are always those of the young widow flung across her husband’s grave. She’s wearing jeans now, not multiple petticoats, but her loss is every bit as acute as her sister’s was in the Civil, Peloponnesian or any other war.
Many things that I never expected to see in my lifetime have happened and continue to pleasantly surprise me. So I indulge myself sometimes by thinking that maybe, just maybe, one day we won’t have war widows decorating graves. Or lying atop them with their babies and memories and shattered dreams.
That one day we won’t need military cemeteries or have war widows and widowers. Because nations will be at peace with one another and we won’t have wars at all.