West Tisbury: Decoration Day memories


I am writing this column on Monday morning, Memorial Day. The weekend brought heavy rain on Saturday, followed by bright sunshine on Sunday. Today the sky is rather gray, quiet and solemn like the holiday. Hard to call it a holiday when its purpose is to honor so many men and women who died fighting our Civil War, and in all of our wars since.

The first Decoration Day, as it was originally called, began on May 1, 1865. Two dozen or so freed slaves reorganized the mass grave of Union soldiers, reburying them in rows, and building a fence around the former Martyrs of the Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, S.C., which had been commandeered by the Confederate Army to house Union prisoners. Schoolchildren paraded around the new burial ground, singing “John Brown’s Body,” and the rest of the day was filled with speeches and the singing of patriotic songs. At day’s end, three Union regiments of both black and white soldiers marched around the graves and staged a drill.

Other early Decoration Day events were held by communities to remember their dead soldiers and decorate their graves with flags and flowers. On May 5, 1866, businesses closed in Waterloo, N.Y. The townspeople continued the practice annually, leading to the federal government naming Waterloo as the official first Memorial Day. The date was changed to May 30 after General John Logan called for a national day of remembrance in 1868. That year, General James Garfield gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, where the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were decorated by participants in the day’s memorial events.

Decoration Day became a federal holiday in 1938. Decoration Day was legally renamed Memorial Day in 1967, although the name had come into use beginning in the 1880s. After World War II, the day expanded to a memorial for all American soldiers killed in wars. Congress established Memorial Day as a uniform Monday holiday in 1968, to be held on the last Monday in May. The law went into effect in 1971.

All this got me thinking about the Memorial Days of my childhood. We still called it Decoration Day. I remember going to the American Legion Hall with my dad, buying poppies to pin onto my shirt and his lapel, and riding my bicycle, heavily decorated with red, white, and blue crepe paper streamers, in the parade down Main Street. I had heard about poppies and Flanders Fields, but wanted to know more, so back to history.com and time.com to continue reading.

Red poppies grew wild, and appeared self-sown on the war-torn battlefields of Western Europe after World War I. A Canadian brigade surgeon, Lt. Col. John McCrae, wrote the famous poem after the Second Battle of Ypres, where the German army used chlorine gas for the first time. It was published in Punch magazine in 1915.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That marks our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

Moina Michael was a professor at the University of Georgia when she read the poem in the November 1915 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. She had taken a leave of absence at the beginning of the war to move to New York City, where she volunteered at the YWCA, training and sponsoring workers overseas. After reading the poem, she vowed to always wear a red poppy to honor the lost lives in Flanders Fields. She bought some red silk, made her poppy, then decided that selling silk poppies could raise money to support returning veterans. By the mid-1920s, she had enlisted Georgia’s branch of the American Legion to adopt the poppy as its symbol; eventually it became the official U.S. national emblem of remembrance.

At the same time, a Frenchwoman named Anna Guerin also saw the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance. She invited American Legion members to speak and inspire French women, children, and veterans to make and sell artificial poppies to fund the restoration of war-torn France. She brought the idea to Britain, where Major George Howson opened a poppy factory in Richmond, giving jobs to disabled veterans. A second poppy factory opened in Edinburgh, Scotland. Together, they make approximately 45,000,000 poppies a year. They are still worn on Remembrance Day or Armistice Day, Nov. 11, in the U.K., Canada, France, Belgium, Australia, and New Zealand. In America, we wear them on Memorial Day.

The American Legion Auxiliary maintains an active program using the red poppy as a national symbol of remembrance. They sponsor an annual poster contest for American schoolchildren in grades 2 through 12. See them on alaforveterans.org. Poppy sales help support programs for veterans, active-duty military personnel and their families, and disabled and hospitalized veterans. They still make poppies and sell them on their website. Not just the crepe paper poppies I remember, but poppy jewelry, aprons, T shirts, and bags.

Vineyard friends have told me stories of walking from school to the harbors in their respective towns to toss bunches of lilacs into the water on the Friday before Memorial Day — Vineyard friends of many generations. I watched Edgartown schoolchildren taking this flower-laden walk down Main Street in Edgartown when I first moved to the island. It is a charming custom, and I am glad to know it continues to this day, somewhat redesigned to accommodate social distancing, but continuing on nonetheless.

Happy first birthday wishes to Zinnia Fischer. She will turn 1 on May 26.

Here’s what is coming up at the West Tisbury library:

Thursday, May 28, at 10:30 am, Little Bird MV’s Laura Jordan will continue her virtual music class for kids through Zoom. Classes include seasonal songs and movement. Email mlawson@clamsnet.org for the Zoom invitation to join.

Friday, May 29, at 8 am, Jason Mazar-Kelly will continue teaching an all-levels Kripalu Flow Yoga Class via Zoom. Please contact wt_mail@clamsnet.org to sign up.

Friday, May 29, at 11:30 am, Kanta Lipsky will lead her weekly Balance Class through Zoom. You will need a chair for some of the movements. Kanta will be leading her class on both Mondays and Fridays at 11:30am. Email wt_mail@clamsnet.org to join.

Friday, May 29, at 3 pm, K.T. Herr will lead an online Poetry Workshop via Zoom. This is a more or less traditionally structured workshop discussion of each poet’s work, finishing up with a reading by each poet of a finished, favorite poem of their own. Email kt.herr@gmail.com to sign up.

Saturday, May 30, at 10 am, Jen Burkin will lead an online painting class for kids ages 5 to 12. Jen will continue teaching online kids’ painting classes on Tuesdays at 4:30 pm and Saturdays at 10 am. Email lhearn@clamsnet.org to sign up.

Monday, June 1, at 5 pm, join us for virtual Sci-Fi Book Club with librarian and lifelong sci-fi nerd Alexandra Pratt. Check the library website for titles. All readings will be available online for free. Please email apratt@clamsnet.org to join.

Tuesday, June, 2 at 2 pm, the library will host an online conversational ESL class with instructor Jonah Kaplan-Woolner. Classes will meet weekly. This class is open to all levels. Visit the library website for more info. Email wt_mail@clamsnet.org to join.

Tuesday, June 2, at 3:30 pm, Heather Capece will lead an online Watercolor Class for teens and adults. Email lhearn@clamsnet.org to sign up.

Wednesday, June 3, at 8 am, Jason Mazar-Kelly will lead a weekly Chair Yoga and Meditation class on Zoom. Email wt_mail@clamsnet.org to join.

Wednesday, June 3, at 5 pm, Andy Herr will teach an online Beginner Bass Class. This class is for adults and teens ages 12 and up. This is a weekly, five-class series. Email wt_mail@clamsnet.org to sign up.

Wednesday, June 3, at 6:30 pm, the library presents another virtual Death Café on Zoom, hosted by Heather Massey and Joyce Maxner. Email wt_mail@clamsnet.org to join.

Wednesday, June 3, at 6:30 pm, the M.V. Quilt Guild will be meeting online. This group is always open to new members. Please email Katherine Long to receive the Zoom invitation:

Jane Austen virtual book groups will run continuously through the summer starting with “Sense and Sensibility” in late June. Please contact Dee Leopold at dleopold@clamsnet.org to hear more and sign up.

Town clerk Tara Whiting-Wells asked me to remind everyone that application forms for early and absentee ballots are available in the lobby at town hall and on the town’s website: westtisbury-ma.gov/town-clerk. Mike picked up our applications Thursday morning, then brought home the envelopes containing our ballots, which were already in our mailbox by that afternoon. We filled them out and got them back to Tara the next day. Tara is amazing. The town annual election isn’t until the end of June, so you have lots of time to vote early.

The front page of Sunday’s New York Times was a moving visual testament to the devastation of COVID-19. It listed names of 1,000 Americans who have died from the virus. They represent only 1 percent of the almost 100,000 people in our country who have died thus far.

We have been so careful here on our Island, but every night I watch the news, watch people standing in close proximity, no one wearing masks or gloves, still hugging and shaking hands, still believing there is no risk to them or their loved ones. I wonder if there will be a symbol of remembrance for them? Will it be red poppies, or pink ribbons or purple wristbands? Or will they pass in silence, perhaps remembered by family and friends, but with little notice by a country that turns away, that wants to reopen as we were before coronavirus?

If you have any West Tisbury Town Column suggestions, email Hermine Hull, hermine.hull@gmail.com.