Harriet Freiberger: What is it we want to say on Memorial Day?


Most of us associate the other nine national holidays with personal experiences that make the days especially meaningful. We connect with townspeople at a parade, with family at a dinner or picnic or with neighbors at a community breakfast. Sometimes, without particular observance, a day away from work allows simply time for ourselves

On this fourth Monday in May, we come to a brief halt in a somber recognition of death, remembering our nation's soldiers, many who died in combat to be buried far away and others who made it home, now interred in U.S. soil. In spite of all our differences, we unite at the graves of those whose lives have guaranteed our own. We share a need to appreciate those who stood on our behalf, in places and times where we have never been.

Only the youngest among us has never known the death of someone we care about. The older we become, the more losses we experience and the closer to our gut they pierce. The deeper and longer the relationship, the longer it takes for the wounding separation to heal. Unlike scars remaining from physical injuries, death's emotional ripping apart leaves no physical imprint, no place on our body to touch with an index finger or massage with soothing lotion, no mark behind which pain receded.

Instead, we sometimes keep something physical of the one who is no longer with us. We want a keepsake, a memento - a book with dog-eared pages that Mother kept by her bed or a handkerchief that Father pulled from his breast pocket to dry our tears, a stuffed bear that slept with our little girl or cowboy boots our son wouldn't take off at bedtime. Some years ago fashion popularized bronzing babies' first shoes; nowadays, we keep albums of digital photographs on computer discs. We store our loved ones in our minds as best we can: a friend's distinct voice on the phone, a husband's hand held tightly; scent of a freshly bathed baby; a puppy's nibble at our ears. Our senses help us keep memories alive.

While all who donned the uniform of service to our country were precious, each individually to someone, their names awaken no visual images for those of us who never knew the men and women who fought our battles. Their families and friends have personal memories, but even when we see their pictures posted in newspapers or on television, we never looked into their eyes or heard their spoken words. All we have of them are names chiseled into stones.

It is up to us to give some meaning to those markers. Different from a day in the fall when our country honors its living veterans, this national holiday honors our dead. Having accepted and taken full advantage of our soldiers' gifts, we should, at the very least, demonstrate our respect. We share an obligation to stand on their behalf.

To accomplish that, we can do more than pause in front of a cold and lifeless piece of marble or granite. We can go forward, neither as super patriots nor arguing about whether we should or should not be at war. We can work together, as individuals, with a renewed sense of our nation's larger purpose and building its strength for future generations of our children. Having learned about death, we know the importance of living to the fullest of our potential. We can stop looking at what is wrong and start seeing more of what is right.

This is Memorial Day. We don't need to SAY more than that. We need to DO. Making their lives count, we can be assured that our own will do the same. We lower the flag to half mast today; tomorrow, we can each do our part to lift it higher.


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