Memorial Day traditions stem from a time even before history’s chronicling began. War always has been a part of life: victory, defeat, winners, losers — and death — the price that is paid.
Today, in the cemetery on the hill above our town, we come together, neighbors with our own traditions. It is springtime. Lush green has replaced winter. Setting aside day-to-day disagreements and also greater differences, we see the small American flags that mark the resting places of those who have served in the military, and we feel the impact of awakening awareness. Looking back into their lives, we revisit what has been and, in doing so, we reach in hope for what will be.
Memories fill the path from past to present, sustaining us as present becomes future. One generation follows another. Touching the stones that mark their places, we trace the names and dates of loved ones’ time upon this earth. Listening to the silence, we long for their voices. Our traditions help us hear.
Here in America, new traditions took shape after five years of war that divided the nation and its families. That conflict ended on an April afternoon at a place called Appomattox when two generals sat at a table and signed the document that would send their soldiers home. Flowers bloomed that year, but there was too much blood to take notice.
However, by the next spring, when golden forsythia bushes and buttercups brightened the earth and tender pink blossoms of peach orchards colored southern lands, survivors remembered their fathers, brothers and sons, their sweethearts and their husbands. They chiseled names into stone and gathered flowers to place upon the graves.
A tradition: Decoration Day.
Then, some 50 years later, time enough for grandchildren of those survivors to come of age, ships carried Americans across the Atlantic to fight in another war. Too many never returned; they lay where poppies grew in freshly dug earth. Those red flowers became a symbol. Memorial Day.
When young Guy Utter’s body was brought home from France to the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, newly formed American Legion Post 44 honored his burial with a Color Guard Presentation. Since that Monday in 1921, Memorial Day recognition of fallen service men has been a Steamboat Springs tradition.
Lewis Kemry, now 93, tells of times when as a boy he rode with his family the four miles to town. Not big enough to hand pump from the well or help with hitching horses, he carried water-filled jars and coffee cans to the wagon, to keep fresh the white chokecherry blossoms they had picked earlier in the morning. In those days, before there was a cemetery committee, everyone brought picks and shovels to clear the weeds away from their families’ final resting places and place fresh flowers at headstones. Now, years later, the day lingers in his memory, as does the day when, with the rest of the Rainbow Division, his unit entered a place of horror in Germany. World War II left its signpost on our path.
Army veteran Jim Stanko looks back to 1958, when, wearing his Boy Scouts uniform, he marched in a parade up Lincoln Avenue from the courthouse to 13th Street, and rode in a bus to the cemetery for the ceremony. Twenty-five years later, he teamed with John Daughenbaugh, a Marine, and Warren Weber, who served in the Navy, to re-enervate the Color Guard, a joint effort of VFW and American Legion.
Today, we tend the weeds that grow around the past, honoring those who stood to protect us. We are the future they stood for. That future is up to us. Tradition, old and new, will mark our path.
Harriet Freiberger has lived in the Elk River valley since 1982.