I found it very hard to read this 30-year-old essay about Memorial Day in the context of the now in which we find ourselves. My children are all adults, good people. Two of them have children of their own. These are troubled times.
My father was a patriot who wrote speeches for Henry Wallace (go look him up), avidly supported Adlai Stevenson II (him too) and believed firmly in free speech. He would be very sad and angry were he alive today.
Growing up on West 83rd Street there was the annual Memorial Day parade, there was the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. I don’t think that the parade was the political event it became after Vietnam or maybe I was too young to see anything but the excitement of a parade.
The New York tabloids of that time had political beliefs that were promoted on their editorial pages and I suppose in what they chose to report. The gray lady, that I read every Sunday and in which this piece appeared, promoted her positions on the editorial pages as well. But in those days we trusted that the news was reported truthfully. In those days the most trusted man in America was a journalist, Walter Cronkite. No more.
Memorial Day 1985 found me with three children under the age of 4, a house on Long Island and doing pretty well. College in the 60’s had prepared me for many things. That Memorial Day was not among them.
The war in Indochina, colleges clamping down on student rights, demonstrations for equality; the 60’s weren’t a time that you loved the Stars and Stripes just because it was the American flag. My peers were wearing it; some were burning it.
Who would have guessed that less than 20 years later I would find myself struggling for answers to the questions of children in front of my house in suburbia, while putting up the flag?
This was my first attempt at a substantive lesson on America. In a way I was teaching me, too – letting them know what the flag stands for and why, and that no matter how bad things may get, it is a symbol worthy of respect. Those stars and stripes were something to bring to mind the ideals that, even if lost at some later date, should be fought for fervently.
The metamorphosis was now complete; the antiwar liberal of the 60’s had grown into the antiwar liberal of the 80’s. But the perspective of age and parenthood has added an understanding of, as well as a willingness to understand, freedom and its symbols.
The two oldest children, 3 ½ and 2 at the time, love books, particularly Dr. Seuss, so I tried to use what they could fathom to teach them what Old Glory means. I told them it stands for freedom, freedom to have books like Dr. Seuss’s and the Berenstain Bears.
I told them that in some places children aren’t allowed to have books or, if they are, it may not be just any book they want; that libraries like ours are not available everywhere; that in some places and times books have been burned. These things they grasped. The images were powerful, even for children so young.
It is hard for them to see freedom in every wave of the flag on the front porch, but the seed needs to be planted. There were more images to be used; full advantage should be taken of an opportunity such as this.
The children love going to religious services, and when they heard that in some places these were not permitted, that churches and synagogues were locked, they were mortified. Missing those special family events would be just terrible. All the fun we try to give them in that setting had paid off.
The freedom to read and the freedom to pray were only the beginning. We talked briefly about choosing friends, going to the movies, walking where you want and visiting friends and relatives in other cities, states and countries.
We even talked about newspapers. They see me read a big one every weekend, and see the pleasure I get from it. When they learned that people everywhere do not have access to the news as freely as we, they showed concern.
But Memorial Day is even more than freedom, more than displaying the flag. Putting out the flag means something extra special on that day. It means remembering and honoring. These concepts were a lot more difficult to present to children 3 ½ and 2, but it was another opportunity not to be passed up.
It was the chance to plant a seed that might grow. It was a chance to set them on the right path. Something to look back at, to support them if ever they needed to fight for those ideals.
I mentioned war and killing and dying. There was some comprehension: television, the violence of our times, even, sadly, at their ages. And when I spoke of remembering and honoring, remembering was easy.
Honoring was harder. I said it was a special remembering for having done something special, like keeping us free to read, to play, to have a house and to watch television. That’s not quite how Webster’s would define it, but they understood.
The flag is a symbol of all these things. It is supposed to make us think of the freedom to read and play, the soldiers who fought and died and those who serve today to keep our freedom safe.