When I was a child, Memorial Day was a special event. Then, before it became the barbecue holiday, it was a day of belonging for family and friends – the old folks called it Decoration Day. Then it was a day of memorial, a time to remember and decorate the graves of dead soldiers and to remember the sacrifices they made.
Each year on Decoration Day, my grandmother would cut roses and my family, including parents, sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins would go to the cemetery, clean the graves of great grandparents and aunts and uncles we’d never know. We would place a rose in front of their head stone and solemnly say their names. It was then I learned of the family before me, before my parents, and even before my grandparents. It was there I learned I belonged even if the world tried to tell me I didn’t; I knew I did. How could anyone be nothing if they were supported by all of those who had come before? Surely, they were proof that you mattered; That you belonged; That I belonged.
Each Decoration Day, when we arrived at the cemetery, there would be a section on a hill off to the left a good way from our family plots. In that area, white folding chairs were lined up like toy soldiers waiting to be given their orders. A podium would face the chairs and red, white, and blue bunting would festoon the area. Soon, the chairs would fill and dignitaries would speak. We were too far away to hear their words, but it was all very formal and, seemingly, very important.
It took a while for me to understand that the annual event on the hill was the official commemoration of the city’s white soldiers who had been laid to rest. The graves of the black soldiers, lying in the segregated section less than a quarter mile away, were not allowed the honor of their white counterparts. They received no thanks, nor honors from the community or the country they had served.
So, as children, my sister, cousins, and I would hold our own ceremony. We would find the graves of the black soldiers and place a rose, or, if we were running out of flowers, a petal on their plot. As we placed the flower, we would call their names with solemn respect and let them know they had not been forgotten and their service had not been in vain. The memories of our ceremony, done each year until we moved too far away to easily return home, are etched into my soul.
We take this moment to remember and declare that all who have fought for this nation belong – ceremony or no. And all are cherished.