When I was young, Memorial Day was quite different. This was after the days when everyone walked 10 miles to school no matter what the weather, but we were still in the era of black and white TV where the test pattern came on after the 10 o’clock news. Though I now live in Flagstaff, Arizona, my recollections are from Iowa, where I grew up. Somehow, I think the way things were observed in Iowa were not much different from in Flagstaff in the 1950s.
One way in which Memorial Day was different is that every adult called it Decoration Day. Another difference is that it was not always on Monday as part of a three day weekend. It was on May 30, no matter what day of the week that happened to be. (The change to the last Monday in May happened in 1969.) May 30 came at a convenient time of year to take a day off in Iowa since the crops were in (meaning corn and soybeans were planted) and it was usually before the first round of hay baling (farmers tried to get three in each summer/fall in order to keep the cattle in hay during the winter).
So, everyone dressed up as though it were Sunday and got in the car and visited cemeteries. Sometimes, someone would go out to a nearby cemetery the Sunday before the actual holiday so the graves would be decorated before anyone arrived on Memorial Day – there was often a little competition about the most elaborate decoration.
In our family, Decoration Day had little to do with military honors. It was a day to remember the grandparents and others who had died by decorating their graves. By the time we finished the circuit of graveyards (first picking up an aunt and uncle or two to ride along), we may have put over 200 miles on the car at an average of 40 miles per hour on the narrow two-lane roads. We started early and got home long after dark.
Along the way, we looked forward to each cemetery to come because it meant getting out of the hot (no auto air-conditioning then!) car to run around under the shade of the big old trees surrounding the graves. We also learned a lot about our families. All the grandfathers had come directly from Germany to Iowa to claim and farm new land, and to avoid the Kaiser’s military draft. One of them had been born in New York harbor and was thus a U.S. citizen though no one else in his family was. The origin of the grandmothers was a bit less clear, but at least one of them was German since that’s the language she spoke at home. There were also a few of their children buried nearby – still-born babies and victims of life on the plains without the miracle of antibiotics. That sort of thing was much more common in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and the evidence and history lesson was evident on the ground around us on those Memorial Days.
I was off to college by the time Congress changed Memorial Day to just one of those Uniform Holidays conveniently always located on a Monday to make a nice three-day weekend. Somehow, I think we’ve lost something important to gain these mini-vacations.