Memorial Day

The history and significance of Memorial Day (or Decoration Day) is complex. For centuries, people have decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers, flags, and other tributes. Naturally, following the carnage of the Civil War, commemorations were made at the graves of soldiers, whether Federal or Confederate. At least twenty-five cities claim the honor of creating Memorial Day to remember all Civil War soldiers. By 1868, the custom across the nation had developed that May 30 was the day to remember soldiers who lost their lives on Civil War battlefields. Gradually, the custom expanded to include all soldiers who died while in battle, including all the wars and military actions in which the United States has been involved.

Beginning in 1971, Memorial Day has been observed on the last Monday in May. The three-day weekend has become, in the United States, the unofficial beginning of summer, which then ends at the beginning of September with the three-day weekend of Labor Day. Many communities still have parades on Memorial Day, and generally ceremonies are held at cemeteries to mark this holiday. (I remember marching in the high school band to two cemeteries each Memorial Day.) But for many families, the weekend is marked with outdoor gatherings and meals, generally with little thought of military matters. I grilled hamburgers and bratwursts for the family last Sunday as part of our Memorial Day observances.

Often people confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day (November 11) and with Armed Forces Day (the third Saturday in May). Memorial Day specifically remembers soldiers who died while serving the United States. Armed Forces Day salutes those who currently are serving in the armed forces. Veterans Day thanks those who served in the armed forces and survived their military career.

In my family research, I have discovered numerous veterans but no one who died while serving in a military force. Last weekend I used my Facebook page to honor three veterans—my grandfather, my uncle, and my father—and no one corrected me with the blurring of holidays. Here are two photographs I shared last weekend: the first was taken by my grandfather at Camp Hancock in Georgia. It shows Lieutenant G. M. Kuntz and Lieutenant Nygeberger with a World War I rifle and was taken in 1918. The second picture, taken by my uncle in Banneaux, Belgium, shows a World War II tank and an unnamed soldier. My uncle landed in France on D-Day plus 2 (June 8, 1944) and saw action in France, Belgium, and Germany.

We remember and honor those who died while defending our freedom and battling against the enemies of our country. We promise that their sacrifice will never be forgotten. J.

Remembering my uncle

He was my uncle. When I was a boy, he was also my neighbor, my keyboard teacher, and my mentor. He passed away December 23, 2019, at the age of 97.

During the Great Depression, my grandfather went to a famous food company and offered to work at any job they had available. They had him loading trucks for a few weeks, until one company official discovered that the new man was very talented mathematically. They hired him as a bookkeeper, a position he held for many years. By the end of the 1930s, my grandparents had purchased a farm house and three acres of land in a western suburb. They intended that their son and their daughter, after each of them married, could have a quarter of the property on which to build a house. My uncle and my mother accepted this gift, and so the family remained in close contact. Traveling east to west, or west to east, one would encounter a street, a front yard, a house, a back yard, a garden (two adjacent cultivated gardens, one belonging to each household), another back yard, another house, another front yard, and another street. Both households had a small orchard at the north end of the garden, and journeys through the orchards from one household to another were common. There were also paths from each household to my grandparents’ house to the south.

My uncle was hired as a chemist by the same company that had hired my grandfather. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War II. His company was among the waves of soldiers that continued the invasion and occupation of German-held France in Normandy after D-Day; he and his fellow soldiers landed on June 8, 1944, the third day of the landing, and he saw action in France during the war.

He had two sons and two daughters. One daughter preceded him in death (due to cancer), and one son became estranged from the family. His four children were all older than me; in fact, during family gatherings I frequently joined the two sons of my cousin, playing in the basement while the adults visited upstairs. The family came together to celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries, as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Even children’s birthdays were marked by multi-generational gatherings that featured cake, ice cream, and (for the adults) coffee.

When he was working outside, my uncle would frequently have a young boy following him. That boy was me. My uncle teased with riddles. (Can you identify the longest day of the year? It’s the day each fall when we turn back our clocks to end Daylight Saving Time, because that day lasts twenty-five hours.) I learned a great deal from my father and from my mother, but my grandparents and my uncle were also part of my life nearly every day.

My uncle played the piano. I am sure he taught his children how to play. My sister also took lessons from him. When she wanted to quit, I was ready to start. Since I was only in the first grade, my parents doubted that I was ready for lessons, but my uncle was willing to give it a try. I still remember the triumph of mastering the piece that had frustrated my sister, leading to her quitting and my starting the lessons. But I did not practice on a piano. My grandparents had an electric organ on which I would practice my assignment every weekday afternoon. When I thought I was ready, I would make an appointment with my uncle and play the piece for him. He would either suggest improvements or pass me and assign a new piece. We completed all three books of the Thompson Method, and then he suggested various classical pieces for me to learn. His favorite was Schubert’s “March Militaire.” Because I practiced on an electric organ, I did not learn the fine points of piano technique until I was in high school, where I finally had regular access to pianos.

Eventually I grew up, took on a full-time job, was married, had children, and only occasionally visited my parents. When I stopped by the old place for a visit, I usually took time to cross through the orchards and visit my uncle as well. In his later years he battled failing sight, hearing, and strength. Despite these limitations, his mind remained strong, and provided I didn’t mind shouting and repeating myself, I was able to converse with him.

The death of my uncle produces a mild melancholy, not a deep grief. He had a long and meaningful life, and I have many fond memories of our time together. I know that I will still think of him from time to time. I am thankful to the Lord for my uncle’s place in my life and in my memories. J.

Turning into my parents

An insurance company advertises that they can save you money, but they can’t keep you from turning into your parents. I guess all of us become more like our parents as we age, no matter how often we told ourselves as children that we would never say or do certain things that our parents said and did.

The other day I was preparing to mow the lawn and the mail carrier said, “Looks like someone is getting ready to have some fun.” I laughed and told her, “No, but it has to be done.” Instantly I remember how many times my mother and my father said the same thing about lawn and garden work or about housework: “It has to be done.” I felt at times that they were committing themselves and their children to a lot of chores that really didn’t have to be done. Pulling weeds was never my favorite summertime activity. But they justified their own efforts—and the efforts they demanded of their children—with that simple slogan, “It has to be done.”

Both my parents grew up during the Great Depression. There were probably a lot of things that “had to be done” in those days, from growing their own vegetables to taking small jobs to earn a few coins to help support the family. Then they had the wartime years, where certain things “had to be done,” such as going without food to help feed the soldiers and collecting scrap metal and rubber for recycling as part of the war effort. Many of their peers settled into more comfortable lives in the Fifties and Sixties; but for my parents, life remained full of chores and duties that had to be done.

I wrote an essay in college about my parents’ “work ethic,” saying that I hoped I would not be as duty-driven as an adult. Some years I have succeeded in living up to my college dream, treating the things I do at my job as things I get to do, not things I have to do. At home I try to reduce the work that has to be done—as I’ve written before, one hour of lawn work a week is enough, in my opinion. My children have had chores, but they were meant to teach them life skills, not as something that “had to be done.”

To my surprise, that slogan of my parents came out of my mouth as naturally as if I invented it myself. “It has to be done.” The grass has to be mowed. The city will fine me if my lawn exceeds a certain height, and given all the rain we’ve had lately and all the rain in the forecast, there was only a window of a day or two open to get the grass cut.

What things do you say or do that you learned from your parents? J.