Memorial day has been celebrated since shortly after the Civil War. It began as a day set aside to decorate the graves of soldiers who had lost their lives during that war. It was celebrated at the end of May so that flowers would be plentiful. After World War I all who had lost their lives in any American war were honored on that day. In our family the day of remembrance and honor extends to all who have gone before us.
As a child, I remember walking with my grandparents through the cemeteries where my ancestors were buried. It was so beautiful with all of the flowers, and the small flags that marked the graves of those who had died in the service of our country. I remember listening as Grandma talked about the people whose graves we were decorating with fresh flowers. I believe that this was one of my earliest introductions to family history.
A few years ago we visited my husband’s mother on Memorial Day weekend, and had the opportunity to visit the graves of his ancestors. We cleaned the graves, trimmed back the encroaching grass, and were filled with love for all of the sacrifices that were made on our behalf. Names and dates carved in stone meant so much more to us that day as we did something tangible to show our respect.
The next year we went camping as a family, but took the time to drive a short distance to a little Wyoming valley where many of my mother’s ancestors are laid to rest. We were fortunate to arrive just as my Grandparents did, and they took my children around and showed them each of the family graves. Grandpa showed us where his parents were buried, and then took us to a space where he would one day be buried. He talked about how happy he would be to see all of his loved ones again someday, and be buried here among them. How comforting his words were when only three months later we stood on that very ground to lay him to rest. The impact on my children was touching. They remembered his words, and walked around to some of the graves talking about how happy Grandpa was to see his mom again, and this special grandma that he had told them about, and that dear uncle over there, and especially his daddy who had died when he was only three. Thanks to my grandfather these people were very real to my children, and they had a beautiful sense of peace about being with people who love us when we pass from this life.
Memorial day is a perfect time to teach our children about their family history. It’s a wonderful time to teach them respect for those who have sacrificed for our freedom. When my daughter kneels by the grave of my great-great grandmother, for whom she was named, I know that it is one way she’s able to tie the stories she’s heard to something real and physical. She knows it’s not just a fairy-tale, and she has the opportunity to show her love in a special way. I hope that one day my children will look back on this holiday and say to themselves as I do that this was when family history became part of them.