Each year growing up, I biked several miles with my parents to watch the huge Memorial Day parade. It was a big deal, and of course to a kid, it was a day to have fun. It started with Dad putting the American flag up on our house. I wasn’t sure why—I assumed it was because Memorial Day ushered in the start of summer, and it seemed the Fourth of July was right around the corner.
When we got to the parade, it felt more like summer than anything else. There was such energy and happiness. Kids ran around discussing summer plans and counting down to the end of school. I remember vendors selling inflatable animals, cotton candy, and all manner of colorful treats. I never understood why my parents only ever let me buy one thing, though: a little red poppy.
And Dad didn’t buy the poppy for me, either, even though he usually made the purchases. He gave me money and told me to hand it to the person selling the poppies, and to say “thank you.” I even remember being small enough (and shy enough) that he held me in his arms as I made the purchase. I’m sure he tried to explain what the poppies were, and who made them, but as a little girl, I was more interested in the bright red color and the way I could bend the twisty wire to attach the flower to my bike helmet or handlebar. There was something unique about my having to purchase the poppy myself, but combined with the excitement of the day, it became one of the quirks of childhood I shrugged off: some kids got inflatable bears, and I got a poppy. I didn’t dwell on it—I focused instead on the colors and the sounds and the fun of the holiday, knowing that summer was just around the corner.
But when the veterans marched by in the parade, Mom and Dad always said how sad it was. I didn’t understand: what was sad about people marching in a parade? It’s a parade, for goodness sake! My parents told me it was the veterans NOT marching by that tinged the day with sadness.
I didn’t get it at first, but the year I did, it sent chills down my spine as I rode home, and suddenly there was much more depth to my little world: it was because of those NOT marching that I could ride my bike down the street, and stop at McDonald’s for breakfast, and cheer on the parade with friends, and go home to have a cookout.
This is one of those holidays that words can’t really capture.
The greatest gift one human can give another is the gift of freedom. Though he admits to being against war in general, Thomas Paine said it eloquently in The Crisis when referring to the American Revolutionary War:
“A generous parent should have said, ‘If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace;’ and this single reflection, well applied, is sufficient to awaken every man to duty…. Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”
Those who made the ultimate sacrifice understood this concept and bore more hope for our future than anyone else—for they saw something in our future worth fighting for, worth dying for.
As Memorial Day fades into summer, let us remember their sacrifices—and in doing so, make our futures and our world something that would make them all proud.