Monday, May 19, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 5-25-08
Jeff Gill

If You Need a Reminder

Monday is Memorial Day, or “Memorial Day (Observed)” as many calendars remind us.

We’ve mostly forgotten the story of the Grand Army of the Republic, with many of her members laid to rest in the GAR section of Cedar Hill and other Licking County cemeteries under the slanting barrels of Civil War cannon.

Gen. John Logan, commander of the veteran’s association and senator from Illinois, called for the thirtieth day of May to serve as a time set apart for memory, for decoration and maintenance of memorials to the War Between the States. . . in 1868.

About a hundred years later we got forgetful, and had trouble remembering much more than weekends, except when a Monday holiday extended the time for grilling and shopping, and Memorial Day went to the last Monday in May, which is good enough most years.

Except we have to remember to get up, and join a parade or a procession or simply to stand and salute (Left hand? Right hand? Take off hat? Can’t recall…), to put out the flag (where did we put that old thing?) and figure out where the cemetery is, anyhow.

We remember with aids to memory in the paper (list of Memorial Day observances), the flag that the neighbor who was in the service once, long ago, always puts out, with bunting on courthouses and flags off of light poles.

Our communal recollection is assisted by granite and brass, old limestone slowly crumbling and carved letters faintly legible. Those cannons are quaint, but once deadly serious. The flagpoles often need a coat of metallic paint, hard to get up to the bronze eagle high above and harder still to get out of your clothes, so it isn’t always done when it might be.

There are plaques with names, letters upraised seeking our attention, letters carven deep pulling us in. Names with a familiar ring to them, recalling streets and roads and faded labels on mailboxes just down the block, along with names that don’t mean a thing, but bring us to a pause just the same.

Age we know to be cruel when it comes to memory. There are things that no one should forget – a spouse’s face, a friend’s laugh – and yet the years can steal them in life, let alone in death. We’ve all seen how a blank stare can wound when it comes from someone who has forgotten.

Is it any better to see the collective amnesia of faces who should know, but do not, what it means to see the commonplace sacrifice of four elderly men, slowly walking under the proud burden of color guard banners? How cruel is the forgetting of that oblivion?

Formality is certainly a lost art, or at least a forgotten one. Fedoras and white gloves and bowing at an introduction belong to a former age. That’s a page which has been turned, and having turned, will not look back.

Do salutes and pledges and brass polish and careful arrangements of flowers belong to that chapter, or can we write them anew on the blank page ahead? Remembering is often a question of writing something down, I’ve found. We should make a note to set up the flagpole and join the parade and salute the flag, what she has stood for and what she might yet represent.

Or you could just clip this and stick it on the fridge. Whatever helps you remember Memorial Day.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what you remember at

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