Some say Memorial Day dates back to around 1868, when a group of Union veterans introduced Decoration Day as a way to remember fallen soldiers. Others say it originated in 1866, when women in Mississippi decorated not only the graves of Confederate soldiers, but those of their enemies, too. Cities in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Illinois all claim they started the tradition; in 1966, President Johnson and Congress settled the argument, at least officially, by declaring that Waterloo, New York was the birthplace of Memorial Day.
I didn’t know any of that. All of that information came from the website for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which I quickly pulled up, scanned, and returned to as I started writing this post.
I did not decorate any graves today. Instead, I slept in, ate a really wonderful brunch at a restaurant outside of Detroit, and then laid in a park for a few hours, in the comfortable shade granted me by the fresh spring leaves of a tree calling me to climb it. Now I’m drinking a beer and getting ready to go to a cookout.
And I am not sure where to find the memorial in this day.
I think of friends who have served in the military, of the stories they’ve shared about their time in war zones. I think of people I’ve known whose parents went to war, and the scars of trauma and the streaks of pride that marked their families as a result. I think of the damage we’ve done in hurting others, all in the name of war, when nothing is fair and so much is awful.
It was interesting to have conversations about war while in Europe. I heard about Germany actively working to improve its reputation, with a hangover from the Second World War that continues to live in close memory. People repeatedly teased me about the popularity of “Freedom Fries” following the September 11 attacks, when France hesitated while the president of this country ridiculed. And a friend whose country did not get involved in World War II talked about the fact that the nation still feels shame around that decision.
Driving around today, Eminem on the radio – because it’s true that Eminem is just about always on the radio here in Michigan – I thought about war, and privilege, and the opportunities I’ve been granted for so many arbitrary and yet multilayered reasons: my white skin, my middle-class background, my assurance of quality education from the day I was born. There is an obvious sorrow that permeates many of the streets in Detroit, and so many of these privileges escape the majority of people here, where hollowed-out buildings and the echo of broken promises line the streets. I’m not sure how to process of all of that.
And yet. And yet, even in the midst of such sadness, and even in the midst of so many things that need to be fixed, I know too that the people here have been granted privilege by their birth as Americans. I know that there are people in the world who would give just about anything to be in these broken buildings, because of what this country still offers. We fail at many things, and I don’t for a minute believe that every person in this country is treated equally, but I also know that there is a backdrop of freedom that is not something we should take for granted.
We have many things to work on, many inequalities to even out, many opportunities that we have yet to recognize and put into motion. There are so many wonderful things about other cultures and other ways of life; I think there are many ways to live well, and fully.
I know that all of this is complicated. I have lived in very liberal areas, and very conservative areas, and I’ve heard many perspectives. I’ve also lived in Washington, D.C. longer than I’ve lived anywhere; I’ve seen people protest, and I’ve seen people work their asses off to make things better. In all of it, we live with the right to have our ideas heard, and that’s a bigger deal that most of us – myself very much included – normally realize.
But the truth is that my life is incredibly easy, and that’s worth recognizing, with gratitude, regardless of when and where this holiday started. I hope that someday we will have no need for it. I do not glorify war, and I believe we are capable of coming up with better solutions to conflict.
I don’t have an answer to violence, sadness, loss, or cruelty. Still, I admire the people I know who have served in the military because they believed it was a way to give something of themselves to others.
Tonight, I sit on the back porch of a house in Michigan, about to go to a cookout. I’m having a beer, and will probably have a few more soon. We’ll grill out and swat mosquitos and tell stories. Another Memorial Day will, officially, pass, and another summer will, unofficially, begin.