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Editor's Notebook: Please don't say 'Happy Memorial Day'

It has always bugged me how Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day and other national holidays are mass marketed as shopping days instead of what they really are — a time set aside to reflect upon what is truly important.

Five years ago when I was living in Seattle, it floored me to hear my co-workers leave on Friday afternoon and wish me a “Happy Memorial Day.” It seemed strange to me that someone would wish me happiness on such a solemn day.

That Monday — Memorial Day — I visited the Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, Wash., with my camera. As a former Marine Corps journalist, I was no stranger to capturing emotional military funeral ceremonies.

I had covered several such ceremonies and have watched countless honor guard riflemen fire volleys into calm skies as buglers sound “Taps.” All the pageantry makes it formulaic over time. Each time I witnessed the ceremony, it became less about the people impacted, and it faded simply into the enduring traditions and symbols.

But when I went to Tahoma National Cemetery in 2010, I missed the ceremony altogether and rediscovered the true meaning of Memorial Day. Because of a mixup about the ceremony’s start time, my friend and I arrived just in time to see everyone disperse.

We missed it.

But because we missed it, we were able to see a truer version of the holiday. As the featured speakers and honor guard packed up and drove off, countless families dispersed to find their loved one’s grave marker.

I watched as an older man searched row by row for 10 minutes until stopping at a marker, laying a single blue carnation and silently weeping as a younger woman comforted him.

I watched as three people, presumably siblings, in their teens and twenties, stood around a marker and prayed.

I watched as a man overcome with emotion wandered aimlessly among the markers unable to find the right one.

I watched as a woman in Native American garb bent alongside a marker, bowed her head and just spent some quality time with the person she lost.

And there were countless others in the midst of their own personal rituals that had nothing to do with salutes, buglers, draped flags or rifle volleys.

They weren’t just nameless, faceless soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to these people — they were Dad, Mom, Husband, Wife, Son, Daughter, Uncle, Aunt, neighbor and beloved friend.

What I was witnessing, and capturing with my camera, wasn’t merely a symbolic military ritual. It was love itself.

So, I just want to remind you not to take your Monday off just to head to a sale or a picnic without first showing some love for someone you have lost. Whether you attend a local Memorial Day observance, or if you create your own special moment, don’t forget to remember.

A version of this commentary was originally published on Hudson Patch in May 2012. 

Micheal Foley
Micheal Foley worked at RiverTown Multimedia from July 2013 to June 2015 as editor at the New Richmond News. 
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