‘Decoration Day’ 2011 colored by nostalgia and regret
Around our house, as I grew up in Grand Junction, it was called “Decoration Day” more often than not. The day when the bountiful peonies my mother grew were cut, along with whatever other flowers happened to be handy in the various beds around our big yard, and taken out to the cemetery to decorate the final resting place of relatives.
Sure, it was more formally “Memorial Day,” first officially celebrated on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Even with a history of military service on both sides of our family, it remained through the years a day of more inclusive remembrance of those who’d gone before.
The peonies aren’t so plentiful these days. The few still growing in selected spots around the old homestead downtown likely were joined by commercially grown buds yesterday morning as my mother and sister carried on the traditions of Decoration Day. Headstones cleaned, flowers placed, moments of silent prayers marking the passing of yet another year.
Nowadays, for many of us, Memorial Day is less about remembrance and more about the three-day weekend that signals the end of the school year and the start of summertime activities. That was the worry back in 1971, when Congress passed the National Holiday Act — that a switch from the traditional date of May 30 and creation of the long weekend would lead to what the Veterans of Foreign Wars lamented as a “nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”
There’s no doubt that’s been the result.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the VFW’s red poppies that used to be so ubiquitous or stood with a hand over my heart or bowed head at a Memorial Day observance.
Bonnie and I took advantage of the holiday weekend, and celebrating the end of her school year, with a trip to California to visit our daughter and son-in-law and my brother’s family, as well as to catch up with brother Tom’s latest musical adventure “on tour” last night in San Bernardino. For a dozen years in the recent past, the weekend has been all about JUCO and helping the Grand Junction Lions Club host one of the teams.
It’s been too long since yours truly participated in the activities of Decoration Day. Visits to the graves of my father, grandparents, uncle, Bonnie’s parents and other relatives at their final resting places these days are more by happenstance than plan, usually the result of being in the cemetery for another funeral. That’s more the norm for many of us, I suspect, as choice and chance have most of us living far from where relatives may be buried.
There are a couple of reasons, though, that I was happy to be absent from my hometown this holiday weekend —perversions, I submit, of the spirit and intent of Memorial Day on both the left and the right.
Supposedly it’s an accident of availability, but the Confluence Media Collective picked Memorial Day to have Ward Churchill — someone skilled in using his right of free speech to generate controversy — enlighten locals with his thoughts. The irony that members of this group would promote Churchill as a speaker and worry about the backlash while being comfortable disrupting local appearances by Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin should not be lost.
Nor should be spectacle of using the veteran portions of the Orchard Mesa Cemetery as the site of “memorial” ceremonies by competing conservative political groups, one of whom touts invitations to GOP politicians to speak, be celebrated. I wonder if either the Western Colorado Conservative Alliance or GJResult/Tea Party perused old voter registrations to make certain only Republicans and other ideologically like-minded veterans are buried in proximity to their gathering.
I’m all about freedom of speech and assembly and wouldn’t, for a moment, advocate shutting down either of these events. But with those rights guaranteed in our Constitution come responsibilities, some of which might include not fomenting the ideological equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater no matter whether you’re seated with the conservatives or the liberals.
Co-opting a time of remembrance, whether you call it “Memorial Day” or “Decoration Day,” for political purposes just doesn’t seem right.