Meaning behind Memorial Day easily overlooked

A coworker asked me a few days ago, “Do you think Memorial Day is too commercialized?”

I balked, because I’d never considered it. I could only stammer, “Not really, do you?”

She said yes, noting the emphasis on sales, cookouts and Facebook posts that missed the point.

I agreed with her premise — that we’re proving George Carlin was onto something when he said America morphed itself into “a coast-to-coast shopping mall.” I’m convinced we don’t have sales and campfire cookouts and “my patriotism is bigger than yours” Facebook posts on Arbor Day primarily because most Americans have no clue when Arbor Day is.

But I never thought Memorial Day was commercialized before that conversation, because I’d never looked forward to those sales, and I leave those other activities to people more closely connected to a fallen soldier. Maybe my self-absorption blinded me to what my coworker presented as clear evidence.

Even in communities with a heavy military presence such as ours, it’s easy to forget. I can’t even imagine how many times I’ve paid no mind to the war memorial at the Clovis-Carver Public Library. It’s easy to walk to the library or the county courthouse, and think nothing of those slabs of stone, or the 173 names of local people killed in military action written on them. Likewise, it’s easy to drive along Third Street in Portales or Llano Estacado Boulevard in Clovis and not think of the names of those veterans killed in action, buried throughout the hallowed grounds along those streets.

A common sight is easy to forget, but perhaps the mind also blocks them out to avoid emotional overload.

I don’t look at those names at the library and think, “There are 173 stories there.” I think of the 173 lives that preceded their decision to serve. Were they drafted? Did they volunteer? Did they join to pay for college, or was military service their definition of a formal education?

I think of the 173 lives that didn’t continue, and the countless ones that never started. Would the single ones have instead married? What of the families they never got to create? Would any of them have been inventors, or teachers, or doctors, or the next president?

I think of the countless friends and family they left behind. How had a parent’s life changed the first time they referred to a son or daughter in the past tense? How was a childhood changed when it was revealed that Dad wasn’t coming home? I think of all that, and I know it was worth my work day Monday to tell a small fraction of those stories.

We’ll never tell every story. But we should never stop trying, and we should be vigilant in telling the right ones. My coworker did a great job reminding me of that. What follows might offend some people, but it needs to be said.

It’s fine to be proud of a veteran on any given day of the year, but I’ve seen too many people claim Memorial Day as their own because they know a living, breathing veteran. “Celebrating Memorial Day, in praise of my active-duty husband,” or something like it, made its way to far too many Facebook walls. That’s not what Memorial Day is about. Please save that post for Veterans Day, or one of the other 363 days.

Monday was a day for the people who don’t get to make that Facebook post, because their lives ended on the battlefield. Monday was a day for the friends and family they left behind to reflect on service above self. Monday was a day to give respect pay tribute to those families who have paid the ultimate price, and to take comfort if your family has not joined those ranks.

That doesn’t mean the people who posted that type of status are bad people. Maybe they momentarily attached too much of themselves to the topic at hand, just like I did a few days ago. Nor does it mean you should feel guilty for going to a cookout or a sale at the mall, or for having an opinion different from mine.

Just remember the fallen soldier who fought for our rights to do those things, and keep the credit there. For at least one day.