This weekend the roads will be crowded with families heading back to see parents and grandparents. Many small towns in northern Minnesota are a lot smaller now than they were even twenty years ago. Most everyone moves to the "big city’ to get a high paying job, but their hearts stay up in the north woods and everyone comes home when they have the chance.
Memorial Day is the time of year that gardeners put in their crop and more and more children come home to help with that job and they look forward to returning on Labor Day at the end of the summer to help with harvest. Working the soil is a real treat if you live and work in an urban area. You can’t rush gardening, you have to slow down to do it right and that brings a person closer to nature and that gives you an appreciation for the rural life you gave up.
There are many towns and cities around the country which claim that they started Memorial Day, but I like to believe that it was started by a woman of the South, Nella L. Sweet. Nella wrote the hymn, "Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping" in 1867. She dedicated that sweet song, "To the Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead."
I don’t know why that touched me so and I know the North lost more men, but the South not only lost the war, but the place was devastated. I can imagine the sorrow of the women as they brought flowers they grew out to the graveyard and tried sprucing up the graves a little bit.
Today we have fancy tombstones, a caretaker who mows the grass, and flowering shrubs are planted all around the cemetery. If you have the money, you don’t even have to go out and visit your loved one’s tomb, you can hire someone to put out flowers for you.
Like every other year, our VFW Post will be doing a memorial service at all the little cemeteries around here. We split up into two groups and both groups come together for a final memorial tribute at the Northome Cemetery, which is the largest. It is getting harder and harder to have enough members to form two honor guard details, because so many members are WW II vets and the legs don’t work like they used to.
What is nice about Memorial Day, is that no one judges the veterans we are honoring. No one’s war is more important and no one’s service more honorable. All the veterans served our country with patriotism. Our community lost soldiers in almost every war from WW I to the war currently going on in Iraq. There will be mothers and fathers, sister and brothers of the fallen at our services. Many will remember that classmate who never returned and every year we hear how they are still missed.
Memorial Day is sad. In 1915 Moina Mitchael wrote,
We cherish too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
You look at the graves of those who died and see that most were just teenagers when they were killed, but they left behind so many who loved them. In a small community like this, it isn’t just a loss to the family. Here high school classes number in the teens and losing one or two from your class, takes a real toll from all of those left behind. Their memory is strongest in the men and women who also fought in their war and each of them knows that it could have been them in the ground and they stop and wonder what life would have been like if their friend, brother, or lover hadn’t died.
After a few years of being in the Memorial Day Honor Guard, you learn the stories of all those who fell in battle. You recognize the sister who lives in Montana or the brother from Saint Paul who come home every year, because they miss him so much and this day has been set aside so that the grief of the loss can be felt again.
The hard one is the family whose loss is still fresh. Time hasn’t had long enough to work its magic. The loss is still new and the pain is raw and nobody knows the words that will help them on this day, so they are left alone and you pray for them.
Before Memorial Day I go out to our township cemetery and put a flag on every veteran’s grave and the day after Memorial Day I go out and take them down. I always "talk’ to each vet as I’m doing that and wonder what they would be doing now if they had lived. I look at the dates of their lives and know which war was theirs. Yes this holiday is sad and it shows us how far we have yet to go. Someday peace will come to America, but it won’t be soon.
Jim Glaser [send him mail], a Marine Corps Vietnam War veteran and Commander of VFW Post 3869, works to educate the American public on the consequences of war. His personal website is James-Glaser.com.