A dear young friend — she is 45 and to me that is young! — and I were discussing the upcoming holiday weekend and I asked if she had any plans for Decoration Day.
“For what?” she asked. “What’s that?” and I corrected my question to Memorial Day.
Which got me thinking about the last Monday in May, the national holiday known to me in childhood as Decoration Day.
In our small village of Poland, we children eagerly awaited the holiday, as it meant a picnic down by the creek where the table would be covered in oil cloth and a citronella candle lighted to fend off mosquitos.
There would be a bouquet of peonies and the creek would murmur happily and Liza, our dog, would splash in the shallows.
Out-of-town relatives would be coming and the American Legion ladies would be selling red crepe paper poppies.
There would be a parade down Main Street and rifles fired over the bridge over Yellow Creek. Kids would have crepe paper woven in the spokes of their bicycles and a few horses and ponies would spook at the gunfire.
After an uphill walk to Riverside Cemetery, we’d sit on the gravestones and sort of listen to speeches.
The symbolism of the solemn marching veterans meant nothing to us at the time.
All of these poignant memories made me wonder what had happened to “Decoration Day,” and how and when it came about in the first place and got swallowed up by Memorial Day.
As an unrelenting resister of the Internet, etc., etc., I called the public library’s always reliable reference room.
Dates to 1868
Did you know that Decoration Day dates to 1868 when flowers and wreaths were placed on graves of fallen Civil War soldiers? By 1882, there were occasional references to Memorial Day, and after World War II the term became more common.
But not until 1967 did Memorial Day become the official name of the holiday, and long before then the custom of decorating graves of only war dead expanded to those of loved ones and friends.
Observances will go on
Of course, since then there have been far too many more wars, and far too many more war dead and injured and therefore Memorial Day observances will go on ad infinitum.
(Here, I place flags at my own little cemetery where there are the memories of many friends and loved ones.)
Except for veterans’ organizations, the military, families of those serving their country or those who have served and paid the final cost, most folks today celebrate Memorial Day because of having a three- or four-day holiday from work, more playtime, picnics and extra beverages.
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Now is the time that buttercups gild the pasture and green foliage has finally screened development all around me. If I stand just right at the open barn door, I can believe I still live in the country.
I revel in the beauty of “the boys,” knee-deep in those buttercups: old Apache, with his gleaming black and white coat and typical Appaloosa blanket of black spots on his fat white rump, and the contrasting beauty of little honey-colored Toby whose white mane and tail are just as spectacular as Apache’s rump.
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In Beryl Markham’s West With the Night (1942), she wrote, regarding the sad fact that man has but two friends, the dog and the horse, “…and if I were, even now, without either a dog or a horse in my keeping, I should feel I had lost contact with the earth.” (Amen I say to that!)
Prose is pure poetry
I read this book many years ago, but rereading the new (1994) illustrated edition is to experience the old Africa and the remarkable woman who was so ahead of her time. The photographs themselves are special and her prose is pure poetry.