Randi Kreiss

What is Memorial Day about, if not memories?


Memorial Day events will take on new urgency this year as a kind of collective anti-insurrection rally. Political stability fractured on Jan. 6 when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol at the urging of former President Donald Trump. As our friends on the other side of the pond said in a headline posted by The Guardian, it was “ANARCHY IN THE USA.”
That week, I wrote, “Even though I saw the mob storming the Capitol in real time, I still could not fully absorb the impact of what was happening. Trump followers were incited by the president of the United States to loot and destroy the Capitol building because, inside, a fully legitimate election was about to be formally signed and sealed.”
The subsequent sound and fury distorted the disturbing truth of that day: Americans went to D.C. to thwart the processes of an orderly transfer of power.
Our democracy stands, but it is wobbling. As divided as we are, when we gather in our communities on Memorial Day and honor a common past, I hope we can summon the best of ourselves. I hope we can agree that the Jan. 6 insurrection, the violent manifestation of our political division, was an anomaly and must never happen again.
All my life, in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day (and I am going back decades), we could hear the marching band from Hewlett High School, several blocks away, practicing for the parade. In those days we had both a patriotic and a personal interest.

One year our son, Jason, played clarinet in the Franklin Elementary School band. We walked from our house to stand on Central Avenue in Woodmere and watch as the band halted at the Hewlett Veterans Memorial for a brief ceremony. Jason did his bit, catching my eye from the corner of his as he marched by. Men and women who had fought in World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam gathered in their old uniforms to pay their respects.
We have always been a country divided, lurching forward in fits and starts toward common democratic values and respect for commonly held truths. But on Memorial Day it always seemed important to put our hands to our hearts and bless the memory of the servicemen and women who died fighting for this country. My wish is that we gather again this Memorial Day to honor them and remember what those battles were about: equal rights for all our citizens, freedom from authoritarianism, respect for the truth and the integrity of our voting system.
Memorial Day was established in 1868 by General John A. Logan, a Union general in the Civil War. He called for a nationwide day of remembrance on May 30. He urged people to decorate the graves of “comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” So our common holiday identified the confederacy as a rebellion.
Today, 153 years later, we are still riven by rebellion, civil and uncivil. The January insurrection, a direct hit on the Capitol, made us seem closer than ever to losing the way of life and the kind of government we have fought to preserve. The threads of our Democracy are twisted and frayed; heaven help us if they break.
I plan to attend a Memorial Day event to honor our past and commit to our common future. Wherever you live, you can find a parade this year or a memorial ceremony. You can listen to the sounds of the marching bands and hear that as the soundtrack of our democracy.
Many of the bands and ceremonies were canceled last year because of Covid-19 restrictions. This Memorial Day we will also remember those lost to a pandemic that has wrung this country dry of tears. One loss does not supersede another. Grief abounds. It is the common language of mothers who lost sons in battle and children who lost parents to a pandemic.
Memorial Day is our moment to come together, to heal the wounds of Jan. 6, to heal the sadness of this year.
I asked what Memorial Day is about, if not memories, and I know it is about love of country, not just in one’s heart, but also as reason to participate. It is about getting up and out to the parade in your town, one foot in front of the other, to stand together and remember what it means to live in a free country and the need to defend that freedom, from threats here and abroad.

Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.