That’s the day the pool opens!
Children visiting Washington D.C.
This isn’t what Carmella LaSpada wanted to hear when she asked the school kids what Memorial Day meant to them. Twenty-five years earlier she had been coordinating USO tours as a special projects aide for the White House. On a tour to Vietnam she was visiting wounded soldiers when one made an urgent request. He was a medic and told how 35 men had died in his arms before he himself was wounded. He asked her to promise to do something to ensure that these men and their families would not be forgotten. LaSpada made the promise and in 1971 founded No Greater Love; an organization dedicated to providing emotional support to the families of fallen warriors and tirelessly promoting Memorial Day. It was now 1996 and she realized that keeping the memorial in Memorial Day was becoming an increasingly elusive goal.
It wasn’t always that way. The first Memorial Day was held on May 30, 1868. The date was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle and because there would be abundant flowers to decorate the graves of the war dead. And there were many graves. The Civil War had cost 620,000 lives or roughly 2% of the total population—the equivalent of 6,200,000 dead today. Vast sections of the country had been ravaged and hardly anyone had not been personally touched by the conflict. That had changed by the time LaSpada began to fulfill her promise. In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act establishing Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend took effect. Gradually, Memorial Day became more associated with the start of summer than with the remembrance of the nation’s war dead. Now picnics, beach parties and concerts have largely supplanted parades led by Gold Star Mothers. Crowds at the cemetery tend to be sparse and even Arlington attracts only about the same number of people who showed up in 1868 for the first Memorial Day gathering. None of this is surprising given the Gallop poll that revealed 72% of the public doesn’t understand the real meaning of the holiday.
If we are losing touch with Memorial Day it isn’t for want of trying on LaSpada’s part. After her encounter with the school children she lobbied Congress to create a National Moment of Remembrance. Congress agreed and in 2000, President Clinton issued the first proclamation calling on, “Americans everywhere, to pause for one minute at 3:00 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day, to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom for all.” Similar proclamations have been issued every year since.
When we hear of our recent war dead, politicians, pundits and stony-faced local newscasters intone that, “we will never forget.” That’s hard to believe. We’ve already forgotten what Memorial Day means and most of us have never heard of the National Moment of Remembrance, let alone keep it. But we owe it to the fallen to remember. More urgently, we owe it to their families and friends. For while we as a people may be hard-pressed to remember, they feel the loss every day. They need to be reassured over and over again that their loved ones died for something important and that their sacrifice is remembered and honored. In the years ahead, others will be called and some will pay the ultimate price defending our country and our values. In profound honor of the fallen and out of respect for those who courageously take their place, let’s keep the memorial in Memorial Day. Let’s at least keep that one moment of remembrance and with full hearts say, thank you. —Ebert