Growing up, I never once visited the grave of a relative who'd died. I don't remember ever standing in a cemetery, at a funeral. Whatever funerals our family had, the kids stayed home. We weren't the kind of family that had reunions in parks on holidays. The closest we came was Christmas at Grandma Fanny's house, where the kids ate as fast as we could, then went and played in the creek we'd been told to stay out of.
My husband grew up much differently than me. His relatives had moved around the country together, searching for work, finding it farming others' fields then their own. They stayed in one place for years and years, and there are cemeteries with groups of headstones that bear their family name.
The only cemetery I've visited where I saw my maiden name on a headstone is a national one, with rows and rows of white sameness. No bigger and smaller plots, no rose bushes planted, or little figurines left behind.
Memorial Day, for Cub Sweetheart, was a not-to-be-missed family day, spent cleaning up the family burial plot. Weeds were pulled and bushes and flowers planted, then a meal was spread in a park nearby. Consequently even in my adult years I came to think of Memorial Day as a day to remember family members who'd died.
Memorial Day for remembering family. Veteran's Day for soldiers.
If there ever was a lesson otherwise, I missed it.
Now I get it that what, according to Wikipedia, possibly started with a day of remembering departed family members and ended in cream pies, was actually intended to remember our armed forces - those who died serving and those who served at all.
Cub Sweetheart's family never missed a single Memorial Day together. Their family plots were cleaned up, tidy and boasting flowers to declare to anyone who saw that THEY had remembered. I have to suppose they lost men to war. Of course not all who went away to serve came home, even in pine boxes. My mother-in-law was a strong woman, of strong opinions and well-set patriotism, but I never once spoke with her about war and such. I wish I had. Looking back, I wish I knew what she thought, how she felt, and being born in 1912, what she remembered. A rich experience I missed out on, and now can't share with her grandkids and great-grandkids.
Although I don't have the memory of honoring that day, we had one cousin who went to war in Vietnam as a young man. He came back in a box. I can still recall standing outside my aunt's and uncle's house, all the young cousins, talking about him. There wouldn't be a funeral because he'd been 'shot up'. I don't even remember his name, or which family branch he came from.
I won't be cleaning up any graves today, or spreading a meal in a park, but I do now understand what the day means. Especially in the world we live in today, one where wars run one into another, and many of us question if there will ever be true peace in the Middle East. I will remember that many have died so that the mundane things that make up my day, my life, are mundane, expected. The taking for granted speaks a blessing in itself. Once a year it's good to remember that the mundane, routine, expected are not, and never have been, free. We'll fly a flag on our house to remember all those who paid a price, for my unnamed cousin and so many others.