Memorial Day has a way of sneaking up on you

When I was a child, Memorial Day was a strange mix of being immediate in the present day and looking backward over time. This was a holiday that snuck up on a child. We did not anticipate it in the 1950s and 1960s of my youth. There were no advance advertisements that we saw.Christmas was burned in our brains, we could see it coming when the leaves changed color. Thanksgiving could be picked up from grownup chatter at home about food, and at school we were coloring turkeys in art period. Easter possessed various advance warnings and anticipations. But Memorial Day arrived almost unannounced if you were a child, a surprise as spring seemed flowering at a peak. Death is not easy for adults to talk about and harder for children. It seemed odd for a holiday to arrive suddenly and one that was not about fun. I’m not so sure that much has changed. We look forward to a long weekend but not as much the somberness that comes from seeing flags on tombstones for military veterans or other life stories etched in granite. But once there, with spring weather and greenery making the day seem so alive, observance of the holiday seems rewarding. Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. My family usually still calls it that. My kin decorate graves of all family, sometimes even a marker for someone our grandfather always talked about. For some reason, I always associated the holiday and its traditions with perhaps the early 1900s. Maybe that’s because the oldest people I knew as a child were seeped in that time period. The holiday is generally traced to the Civil War. Memorial Day is officially to honor those who have served in the military. Dates and names that are tradition become official. Memorial Day officially replaced Decoration Day as the holiday name in 1967 under federal law. Then in 1968 Congress officially changed the federal holiday from a traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. This made the three-day weekend an annual passage to summer. States followed, eventually. Some folks still want May 30 as the date. On the other hand, many people don’t know the difference between Memorial Day or Labor Day or why they’re getting Monday off. If they are at leisure, because convenient dates make for better shopping and tourism travel and in today’s climate a holiday just means a busier work day for some. We certainly in Platte County can claim a military veteran history to celebrate at our cemeteries. Some young people rest with military honors in painfully recent graves. Our precious World War II veterans are still passing, and Korean War and Vietnam War veterans are making the crossing. A century hence since World War I is upon us. The older cemeteries hold veterans from the Civil War’s blue and the gray. Quite a few Platte Countians marched off to the Mexican-American War, 1846-48. Our histories mention War of 1812 veterans. We have at least one, or maybe a few more, Revolutionary War veterans. The 150th years of the Civil War are passing. If Platte Countians were embracing Decoration Day observances in those times, historian W.M. Paxton does not mention it. In a county where neighbors might be on opposite sides and vengeance stalked the night, perhaps such observances were not wise. Or maybe the majority rested in little family plots outside farms, or if killed in service, in battlefields far away. You can, by the way, see Mr. Paxton’s grave marker if you are visiting the Platte City cemetery on Monday. He was a champion of remembering people. To remember and honor, that’s why we still go on Monday to lay flowers, or perhaps we’ll go Saturday or Sunday to beat the crowds. The day might be nationally official, but for those who observe with flowers and thoughts only the heart matters.

Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area with his family, may be reached by e-mail at