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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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May 26, 2006

Plans for Memorial Day?

If you’re like most Americans, you’ll relax or “do nothing” and spend some time with your family and friends, too (62 percent). Some of you will take to the highways (14 percent). But just a very few plan to attend a community parade or memorial service (3 percent) or visit gravesites (4 percent). That’s the report from The Gallup Poll report that popped up on my e-mail this morning.

Makes me take out a little bet with myself that sometime over the weekend I’ll read a letter-to-the-editor or op ed piece in the newspaper lamenting the fact that Americans don’t honor the holiday in the spirit of its founding. And that was in 1868, by Gen. John A. Logan, first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, for the purpose of commemorating the thousands who had so recently fallen during the battles of the Civil War. But it was a druggist in Waterloo, N.Y., Henry C. Welles, who’s credited with having the original idea three years earlier for decorating the graves of the patriotic dead.

There isn’t a day in my life I’m not reminded of the sacrifices and losses of the Civil War. I’m not a history buff. It’s just that hanging over my fireplace are two portraits: one is a charcoal of my great-great grandfather, in his uniform; the other is of his wife and 13th child, my great-great grandmother with the little girl on her lap. I don’t know much about this couple, not even their first names. Their surname was Jeanette, and they were French Canadians who had settled in Bourbonnais, Ill., in a settlement of other immigrants. They were in their early 30s when the portraits were made, shortly after the war ended.

Within the year, the young veteran who had fought in an all French-speaking regiment would die of his war wounds. And the young woman would be left to raise this little girl—and her 12 older children—by herself. This much I learned from my mother, who was the granddaughter of the little girl. My mother didn’t remember much about this grandmother, perhaps because she, too, spoke only French, even though she grew up the downstairs apartment in a Chicago two-flat. She did know her name, Eloise, and had liked her fluffy white cat.

I grew up with these portraits, which had always hung in my parents’ home. When I look at them my first thoughts, though, aren’t so much of the sacrifices of their lives as of the living of the ordinary days. History tells me their hardships. I like to think about the good times they must have had, too—loving each other and their children and enjoying family and friends...dancing, fiddle playing, fishing... I don’t know.

But I somehow think that the best way to honor their sacrifice and, for that matter, that of my parents who were separated for the three years during WWII when my dad served in Europe, is to do exactly what those who answered the Gallup Poll said they planned to do this Memorial Day.

So have happy weekend with the people you love. And don’t feel guilty if you're not there when the parade marches by.

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