Observing Memorial Day

Thoughts on how to spend the weekend, no matter how you honor the day

Where do you want to spend the day?

I’m a beach kid. For as long as I can remember, society has claimed Memorial Day weekend as the ‘unofficial start of summer’. It’s the first weekend when droves of locals and tourists alike hit the shores and put on their full-fledged relaxation faces.

But though it may signify the returning of lifeguard stands, the resurgence of ice cream anytime, and the influx of sunscreen purchases, Memorial Day weekend means far more than beach access.

For many, the last weekend in May signifies an ending to the stress of the school year or the entrée to a season centering on festivities and family fun. Whether you’re headed directly into veg-out mode, participating in a parade or finding, amidst the insanity, your own way to observe Memorial Day — the long weekend invites a time for memories, a time for celebration, a time for honoring and a time for reflection.

“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or the coming generations, that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic. If other eyes grow dull, and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains to us.”
 — -General John Logan, General Order №11, May 5, 1868

Throughout the long weekend, across the nation and at United States military installations around the world, Memorial Day traditions are shared. Thousands participate in and watch parades in countless small towns and urban centers like New York, Chicago and Washington DC. Families ensure that the past isn’t forgotten while educating and honoring at national cemeteries, museums, war memorials and monuments. Stories are told, people are remembered, history is passed down, flags fly at half-mast and millions commemorate the occasion in powerful, personal and sometimes private ceremonies.

I grew up on Long Island, New York and spent a decade living on the coast of the Atlantic in Long Beach. Whether it was American flags on the beaches and boardwalk in May and September or welcoming veterans and residents of Walter Reed Medical Center every summer — the occupants of the city by the sea remember and honor veterans often. After Hurricane Sandy, the husband and I spent a lot of time volunteering with Rebuilding Together and Team Rubicon. It was and continues to be a true honor.

Today, I’ve shifted Atlantic for Pacific and the beaches of Long Beach for those of San Diego, yet the respect for those who serve has only continued to grow. This city, this military town, is filled with sailors, marines, SEALS and thousands of servicemen, servicewomen and their families. War memorials, aircraft carriers, ships, fighter jets, bases and many more military-centered areas that we don’t yet know about surround us. We have the privilege of living in a town where we get to talk to military police officers guarding bases, watch BUDS and SEALS run along the beaches, chat with marines at a celebrated air show, awe at the stealth and strength of the fighter jets blazing across the sky, glance at an Osprey as it crests the horizon and interact with countless active duty and veteran service personnel on a daily basis. The husband and I volunteer regularly with The Mission Continues and we count ourselves lucky to have been welcomed into the fold of this special city.

With friends, family and passionate protectors previously and presently serving around the globe, we know how significant it is to remember the importance of Memorial Day — regardless of how you choose to spend the day. Each has his/her own story, person or people to remember and way in which to choose to manage the day. Each experience is different, each experience is special and each experience is warranted.

The founder of Pathfinder, Elana Duffy, is one for more of a private observance. The US Army Veteran told me:

“I’m not one for the parades and hubbub on Memorial Day and instead want to reflect and remember. One of the best places I spent the day was on the beaches of Normandy, France. It was like you could feel the ghosts on Omaha and Utah beaches, and it was the perfect way for me to remember and honor all those who came before and alongside those I lost. It helped keep the day in perspective, and made it somehow more comforting”.

An Active Duty, Sergeant First Class, US Army Special Forces Medic has a different perspective.

“Every two years I have to attend specialized medical training in order to re-certify in advanced skills in trauma management. The main hallway of the building that houses the training has become a growing memorial to special operations medics who have lost their lives in the perpetual conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. While waiting to in process the course, I stand among the names and pictures of the fallen. A testament to the intensity of the fight overseas at the time I chose this career path; no less than four of the names on that wall were classmates of mine. The first morning of training is always a little difficult for me. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve lost several close friends, classmates and a more than a dozen other coworkers and acquaintances. I choose to spend my Memorial Day and long weekend with close family and friends enjoying the freedom and liberty those men and many more have died to provide. I do not believe that honoring their sacrifice and enjoying the day with loved ones are mutually exclusive. I believe one can and should enjoy this day that was bought with their sacrifice. To do otherwise, in my opinion, would be disrespectful to the life they gave to our nation.”

There are as many stories as there are veterans and the families and friends who are part of their experience. Some stories can be shared today while to hear others we need to quietly learn and listen. Each experience is unique to the individual. Whether it’s spending the morning in quiet contemplation or noisy revelry, the afternoon at a memorial, barbecue or beach, in the borders of the nation or somewhere far beyond, Memorial Day is made of memories. Beginning after the Civil War as ‘Decoration Day’, this day of remembrance grew national identity after World War II.

How you choose to spend the 24 hours of the last Monday in May is up to you. Wear a red poppy, help the family of a fallen soldier, hug a veteran, listen to a service, place flowers on a grave, spend time at a memorial, fly a flag, volunteer, give thanks to those veterans and the families who do and have served, share your story or take part in teaching the next generation of veterans and civilians about the past. Whatever you do, take a few minutes to honor, observe and remember. However you choose to spend the day, know that whether you know them or not, someone somewhere is thinking of you.

How do you choose to spend Memorial Day? Where did you spend your most memorable last Monday in May? We’d love to hear your story.

Stacey Ebert is a former educator and event planner, turned travel blogger and freelance writer. Stacey’s articles appear in Rolf Potts Vagabonding and Wandering Educator, American Camping Association Camping, tourism sites, Elephant Journal, and more. Follow Stacey’s adventures on The Gift of Travel.

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