As we enjoy the long weekend of this Memorial Day spending time with family, soaking in the scenic beauty of this great country, taking advantage of a sale to do some much needed shopping, or just relaxing from the stresses of life, let us pause to reflect on the memory of those who have paid the ultimate price in far off lands so that we have the opportunity to enjoy our freedom and this holiday weekend.
Memorial Day traces its origins back to the Civil War and the tradition of setting aside a Decorating Day where Americans would gather at their family cemeteries to clean up graves and lay flowers on the tombstones remembering their ancestors and enjoying dinner on the grounds in a family reunion atmosphere. From these traditions, it has evolved into a national holiday set aside to honor the memory of all those fallen soldiers who died to preserve our freedom and acts as the official start of summer.
Americans engage in a multitude of activities to celebrate Memorial Day ranging from camping in our scenic national parks to grilling in the back yard and everything in between. The fallen soldiers honored on Memorial Day gave their lives so we Americans would have the freedom to celebrate Memorial Day in whatever manner we see fit. As Americans, we are also free not to celebrate Memorial Day if we so choose, but it is because of the sacrifice of our war dead that this freedom exists.
It behooves us as Americans to pause in remembrance of their sacrifice, their ultimate sacrifice made on a lonely battlefield in some distant land far away from family and loved ones who were not there to provide comfort in their final moments. Perhaps they had only the comfort of a comrade to hold their hand in their final moments, or perhaps they died alone calling out for their mother as they did when in need as a child.
It is difficult for those of us who have never served in the military to fathom the intricacies of such a situation as that of losing a comrade on the field of battle. It is a memory that haunts those who have experienced it and often leaves them with guilt over their survival. Understanding the situation and all the reasons behind it is little comfort as those who return must find a way to live with the memory of the experience while struggling to find a way to honor the memory of those who didn’t return.
I have fond memories of gathering at the family cemetery to mow the grass and place flowers on the graves of my ancestors. The older people would stop at each grave to relive memories of the person buried there while discussing fervently among themselves how exactly each of the more distant relatives were related to the rest. After the cemetery was tidied up and the reminiscing was completed, we adjourned to the old house near the cemetery to enjoy a fine lunch of home cooking and catching up with family members. Great stories were told and family history relived over fried chicken, mashed potatoes, casseroles, and iced tea as a cool breeze blew through the house. The day would end all too soon as we said our goodbyes that afternoon and piled back into our vehicles to return to our busy lives imbued with fresh memories of ancestors we never knew and stories of family lore we hoped we would remember well enough to pass down to our children someday.
It should be much the same when remembering our fallen soldiers who had families of their own that remember them in similar cemetery workings across our great nation. We remember those of our ancestors who perished in war and we take time to honor those others of no relation but just as important, but we should also take time to honor them on another level by attempting to understand their sacrifice better. There are some fine movies made about heroic actions in war that give a glimpse into what it was like to be in combat that one can enjoy along with documentaries on the subject.
Enjoy the scenic beauty of the great outdoors or the taste of a burger grilled in the backyard or the company of family and friends or the savings from a store sale, but take a little time to reflect on the sacrifice of those who have made all of this possible and resolve to honor their memory by participating fully in your civic duty as a free citizen of the United States. Research the issues that affect you locally and determine which candidates for local office best represent your stance on those issues. Attend local government meetings every so often to understand how they work and the issues those who represent you face. Get to know your local elected officials. The relationships you develop with them will serve you much better down the road as they will be more willing to listen to someone who has taken the time to get to know them versus someone who shows up at a meeting just to vent their frustration at something they consider to be an outrage. Upon receiving a summons to jury duty, determine to serve to the best of your ability instead of exploring ways to avoid your civic responsibility. It has been said that the quality of our jurors reflects those who weren’t sharp enough to avoid jury duty in the first place. And above all else, resolve to vote at every opportunity having researched the issues and candidates so that you are an informed voter instead of one who merely pulls a lever and slinks out of the voting booth hoping for the best.
By doing these things, you are honoring the memory of those who gave their lives in defense of the freedom we as Americans all enjoy. They sacrificed their lives on a lonely battlefield with the implicit assumption that our sacrifice would involve a measure of our time and energy devoted to our civic duty necessary for the continuance of that freedom. When we avoid our civic duty, we allow those who would control us to gain power and enact laws that abridge our freedom. The sacrifice made by that fallen soldier to prevent an adversary from defeating and subjugating America is made in vain if we allow ourselves to be enslaved by our own countrymen. Subjugation is the same regardless if it comes from without or from within. It is the loss of our freedom taken by those who would direct our lives as they see fit and not as we see fit.
Our Founding Fathers warned that the price of freedom is high and must be attended to steadily and faithfully lest it be taken away. They managed to win a hopeless war against the mightiest military force in the world all on their own to gain their independence and our freedom. Despite impossible odds and against great hardships, the Patriots soldiered on sustained by an idea until victory finally came into sight. Given the history of sacrifice and hardship endured by the Patriots and the ultimate sacrifice made by our soldiers, is it really too much to ask that we devote a little time from our busy schedules to the civic responsibility necessary for preserving our freedom? Take a moment and reflect on the gravity of losing your freedom by recalling just how much you dislike having anyone tell you to do something you don’t want to do and how much more disagreeable that situation would be if they suddenly had the power to force you to do something against your will. Wouldn’t you wish you had taken the time to exercise your civic duty if you found yourself in that situation?
It takes a lot more than a few moments of silence on Memorial Day to truly honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, but that effort is interspersed throughout the year. Once enjoined, it becomes a worthwhile habit that serves you well by allowing you to keep friends, family, and neighbors informed and involved. As Americans we are certainly free to abstain from exercising our civic responsibility, but are we truly honoring those who fought and died to protect that freedom if we so opt? Those who do choose not to participate in civic affairs have no recourse to complain when they encounter laws with which they disagree.
So, enjoy this beautiful Memorial Day weekend pursuing the things you love with the people you love while remembering the fallen who have made this all possible. And at some point, entertain the thought of becoming more involved in civic life as you come to a better understanding of Memorial Day and the sacrifice it honors.