The first thing I thought of upon waking this morning was my grandma. She died at the age of 80 when I was a sophomore in high school, 23 years ago. Though my mother did what she could to have us go down and visit as much as possible, I don’t feel like I knew her very well. And visits were not particularly pleasant, as my uncle, who was an alcoholic, lived with her and dominated the visits. But I loved her very much and still miss her sometimes.
Because I didn’t have many deep talks with her about what her life was like, I’ve had to learn much of what I know of my grandmother from my mother. My mother likes to tell stories about her family, and I figure that’s where I picked it up from.
My mother tells how my grandmother grieved. She grieved much in life, mostly over the death of her tenth-born child, Hazel Marie, who succumbed to pneumonia at the age of two months. Grief was very ritualised for my grandmother. Most notably, it involved annual visits to Hazel’s grave on important dates–her birth, her death, and Memorial Day, or as it was known at the time, Decoration Day. She did the same when her husband, my grandfather, died several years before I was born, right up until her health no longer permitted her to make the journey.
My grandmother would spend the whole day crying as she had the family dress up for the pilgrimage. Several members of my mother’s family are buried in a cemetery several miles down a gravel road near the Indiana-Kentucky border, or about 15 miles from the house she lived in when I was a child. (Indeed, my grandmother rests in that cemetery now.) I’ve been down that road many times to visit my aunt Pearl and uncle Ernest. It is not an easy trip.
She would fall on Hazel’s grave and wail and mourn. This is what Memorial Day meant to her. And so, as I awoke this Memorial Day, my grandmother’s ritual was my very first thought.
It is a day about which I am horribly conflicted. Being from Indiana, I know that for most of the people I know, their primary association with Memorial Day (or, more accurately, Memorial Day Weekend) is the Indianapolis 500. (Interestingly, ever since I moved to Minnesota, I forget about the Indy 500, despite the fact that, unlike in Indiana, the race is not on tape-delay here.) The Indy 500 is a huge spectacle, with a month’s worth of time trials and qualifications, a parade, a beauty pageant, and the race itself. The hubbub is about as far removed from my grandmother’s solemn ritual as you can get.
My father died and was buried right around Memorial Day, in 1997. (At the funeral, my father’s family remarked, “He was born on Veteran’s Day, buried on Memorial Day, but wasn’t in the military. What a coincidence.”) He was 59. I had not seen him conscious for five years (his last three weeks of life, when I was beckoned to his death bed, he was comatose), and after my parents divorced when I was 9, he gradually drifted out of our lives, despite having the most generous visitation rights you could imagine. His was a painful life, and he inflicted that pain in kind on all around him. I do not visit his grave. I’ve grieved and moved on. I have told myself that the best way to honor him is to live my life better than would be expected from his influence.
So, as you can see from my family’s history, I really can’t comprehend how the exclamation “Happy Memorial Day!” came into being. I mean, I understand how people want to honor the holidays of their culture, and that they may want to offer a parting word a tad more thoughtful than, “See ya!” But it seems that there is yet not much thought put behind that phrase.
And then we wrap the solemn day in red-white-and-blue bunting. We charge the day with patriotism. Yes, I understand that, traditionally, today is a day to grieve fallen American soldiers. The day was born in the shadow of the American Civil War, which took over 600,000 lives. In sheer numbers, that would be like losing every man, woman, and child in Boston. In proportion, it would be like losing the entire state of Missouri today. And we have fought in a great many wars since.
Now, I can open up a big can of worms and argue about whether wars are ever just. My answer is far more complex than can be sufficiently explained in a quick blog post. And so, right on Memorial Day, I guess I’ll open up an even bigger can of worms and say that I have to reach a fair way back in history before I can find an armed conflict in which the United States’s involvement might have any reasonable justification, and it is also very easy to come up with many unjust rationalizations for why we have entered or started the many wars of the recent past.
I understand that the motivations to enter the military are complex (often coming from financial necessity), and that to lose one’s life in battle is a truly tragic thing that ought not to be taken lightly. But I cannot abide the continued glorification of war. We have had for some time the capacity to completely make our species extinct. We forget that. We think that capacity for destruction existed only during the Cold War, which ended before today’s college students were even born. But, not only have our nuclear weapons not disappeared, we have since invented remote-control drones and biological weapons and dozens of other ways to snuff out our whole existence.
As a human being, as for all human beings, it is my duty to preserve my species. This is the most basic law of nature. For me, this means speaking out against those things that put us at risk of extinction. Thus, I must speak out against war, as well as the attitudes that push us towards war.
And for all of those reasons, abstract and concrete, personal and universal, I can’t think of the foggiest reason why today should be “Happy”.