Wednesday, May 20, 2015


   Years ago my mother-in-law complained to me in serious tones that, "May 30 is the real Memorial Day; they should return it to its rightful place."
   She was referring, of course, to the successful negotiations by Labor Unions (of whom her husband was a member) for Memorial Day to be observed on a Monday, giving America's workers the luxury of a long holiday weekend.
   Admittedly, my callow young self did not begin to understand the reasons she was upset by the change. "After all," I said to her, "the calendar still pays homage to both dates"
   THE MAY 30 DATE, which had been in place for well over a century, had itself represented a change. The tradition behind the commemoration had begun during the Civil War, when America was deeply grieving its astounding casualties in its inner war that spilled vast quantities of its native blood on native soil.
   Each May when the spring flowers bloomed, the people of the North and South separately expressed their collective grief on different days, taking the fresh flowers to the countless graves of loved ones lost in the war.
   Not until May 5, 1868 did General John Logan at Waterloo, N.Y. proclaim May 30 to be Decoration Day, in honor of the fallen soldiers. Though the North commemorated on that date each year, the South commemorated on a different date in May, until after World War I. That they would later merge those observances into one unified holiday would, in itself, represent a monumental change. And not a bad one.
   In 1882, the name of Decoration Day was also changed, officially becoming Memorial Day. (As I was growing up in the 1940s and '50s, grownups around me still had not accepted the name change, and were still referring to the holiday as Decoration Day).
   Not until 1971, though the holiday itself had been long established, was Memorial day officially declared a national holiday to be observed each year on the last Monday of May.
   Three years before that, another change had been made with Lyndon B. Johnson's Presidential Declaration naming the town of Waterloo, N.Y. as the official birthplace of the holiday. Ostensibly, this was because Waterloo had observed Memorial Day each May 30 for 100 years.
   But others had laid reasonable claim as birthplace of the holiday. That included but was not limited to the Pennsylvania town of Boalsburg, whose women shortly after the battle at Gettysburg had begun the May tradition of decorating the graves of the soldiers killed; the Mississippi towns of Vicksburg and Columbus, whose women in May of 1865 began to yearly decorate dead veterans' graves; and Charleston, S.C., whose freed slaves in 1865 had begun to decorate the battlefield graves of Union soldiers.
   IN MODERN TIMES, Memorial Day expanded to include yet another change---decorating the graves of deceased friends and family members as well.
   Soon after that, despite the June 21 summer equinox, Memorial Day began to be seen as the true beginning of summer, and the sober morning commemorations at burial grounds were supplemented by the rising tradition of Memorial Day gatherings of families and friends.
   Under rigid guidelines of that same era, well remembered by so many of us, Memorial Day had also become the marking point for seasonal style rules. However cold or warm the weather, the arbiters of fashion dictated firmly that we must wait until Memorial Day to haul out our pastel colors, lighter fabrics, sleeveless dresses, white shoes, straw hats... all of which must be promptly sent back into storage on Labor Day---a silly ritual no-one really missed when it too disappeared with changing times.
   The labor-negotiated "last Monday of May" observance of Memorial Day was but the most recent of so many changes, and perhaps not the last, when my mother-in-law and I discussed them.
   "With all the changes through the evolution of this holiday,"  I asked her, "what does it really matter? After all, if the calendars now list the last Monday of May as 'Memorial Day Observance,' May 30 is still dutifully and correctly listed as 'Traditional Memorial Day.' "
   "The next thing you know," my mother-in-law responded firmly, "they'll be changing ALL our holidays to Monday, for convenience... You'd better keep your eyes on the Fourth of July."
   THAT SPECIAL AND traditional lady has been gone from this world for quite some time. But I think of her each time I see the May 30 square of my calendar no longer carries any written mention of 'Traditional Memorial Day.'
   Perhaps it really doesn't matter; perhaps a date is really just a date.
But I am older now and have a better understanding of what Blanche Moore was trying to say to me. She was trying to hold firm against what she saw as swift, unnecessary changes, large and small, that were threatening her spirit of tradition.
   Quietly now on this Memorial Day, I am promising my older self and her that "I will keep my eyes on the Fourth of July. And Christmas."