This is the last in a series of blogs honoring the many events that happen in May. It has a particular place in my heart, because it signaled the start of summer, which meant I got to spend time with my grandparents at our summer home.
Our summer home was in Watertown, WI, where my grandparents had been raised. They kept it in the family even though they moved to Oak Park, IL. So during the winter, the house was vacant except for the occasional trips to Watertown to see relatives or celebrate holidays. But come summer, my grandmother would leave Oak Park and head back to Watertown, open the house and spend the summer months there. And so would I.
Opening the house was a wonderful ritual in my young child’s mind. It meant loading my grandfather’s Buick with staples and clothes, but most importantly, with Suzy the parakeet and her cage. I got to sit in the back of the car with Suzy and various boxes and enjoyed the almost three-hour drive north.
Once in Watertown, my grandmother would oversee having the storm windows taken down and the screens put up, bringing out the wicker porch furniture which included a rocking chair, a swing, a straight-back chair and a table, and airing out the house. My grandfather would take the train to Watertown and stay the weekend, then return to Oak Park and work during the week. My mom got to take a break from me!
How I loved these rituals. As a child I did not appreciate the effort involved in getting all this accomplished, and as an adult, when it became my responsibility, I was chastened by how easily my grandparents seemed to do this compared with the challenges I faced.
All this was done before Memorial Day. Because on Memorial Day, we would officially celebrate the start of Summer!
Our summer home was located across from a City Park that contained a huge granite monument to the soldiers who had died in the Civil War. It also had a really neat cannon from World War I. My cousins and I would play for hours on both the monument and the cannon. The monument consisted of the base with four steps, the obelisk which reached upwards of 30 feet, and at its apex, a huge bronze eagle. Union soldiers stood on two of the facets of the base. The other two facets were clean. (http://www.wisconsinhistoricalmarkers.com/2013/08/watertown-civil-war-memorial.html)
My grandfather used to tell me a story that every night, after the sun went down, the eagle on top of the monument would fly away to a nest for the night, then return in the morning, before the sun came up. I believed him for a long time. This was the same grandfather who told me that dairy cows had two legs shorter on one side of their body so they could stand on a hillside and not fall down. I believed that for a long time, too.
Because this was the Veterans’ Memorial Park, on Memorial Day, it was decked out in flags. A platform was erected and chairs lined up for the city dignitaries to speak and commemorate Memorial Day. The local high school band would play, the Pledge of Allegiance would be recited, and someone would sing the Star Spangled Banner.
As our house was right across the street, I had a bird’s eye view of all these activities. I particularly loved the set-up. Magically the park would be turned into a display of red-white-and blue bunting; flags of all sizes from tiny ones that could be held in your hand to the large display of full-sized Old Glory would unfurl in the breeze as they were placed around the park’s edges and around the monument.
City employees would come out the day before and make sure the grounds were clipped and raked. The trees seemed to stand taller, the grass smelled sweeter, and we all stood proudly when the songs were sung and sat through the heat of mid-day in rapt attention while the politicians spoke.
Then it was over. The crowds went home. The dais would remain up for a day or two until the City staff could get back out and take it all down. The bunting was folded and put away for another year. The monument returned to being a playground object instead of a place of remembrance and sacrifice.
As the years passed, I had my own opportunity to march in the parade, to sit on the dais, and to reflect on the many sacrifices that had been made in the name of the United States. Members of my family proudly served in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam. My politics shifted from blind patriotism to ardent protest during Viet Nam. I became a liberal in the 60s and 70s because of what war was doing to my country.
Yet over all these decades Memorial Day has remained special for me. In some ways, it recalls a much simpler time, where it was easy to identify the good guys, and I knew what values Americans stood for. I felt strongly about holding my country up to a standard that reflected the sacrifice of life since the Civil War and that acted in ways that were worthy of that sacrifice.
As we celebrate Memorial Day this year, I am feeling deep sadness. I long for those more innocent days. I would love to return to the summer house, open it once again, and share in the rituals of honoring those who sacrificed their lives. I would love to sit on the porch and listen to the cicadas hum. To watch for the eagle to leave the monument and fly to her nest for the night, knowing she would once again return to her post in the morning.
However you choose to celebrate Memorial Day, I encourage you to take a moment and reflect on the cost of being an American. Take a moment to appreciate how many Americans stepped up and answered the call of our nation and took a stand for what they believed in. Take a moment to consider whether you would be willing to pay the price so many of them did. Share this legacy of values with your children and grandchildren.