On this frenetic holiday, pause for Memorial Day’s true meaning

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Here comes the sun. Or at least, that is the hope for this Memorial Day weekend, as the unofficial start to the summer season gets underway. 

College graduations are mostly over, and students are beginning a steady return to the Island, or perhaps coming here for a summer job. M.V. Regional High School students are waiting for that last ring of the school bell, like the gate opening in a horse race, as they charge into the fun and free time that defines summer. Families are flocking to supermarkets to pick up what they’ll need for picnics and cookouts this weekend.

The people who live and work on this Island have been bracing themselves for Memorial Day, as they do every year. It is when all the spring cleaning, carpentry, gardening, inventory, and general preparations need to wind up and give way, ready or not, to the busiest time of year. This weekend marks the start of a 10-week period when most Island business owners will have to earn well over half their annual revenue before Labor Day heralds the end of summer. Many are dreading the onslaught as the summer population swells the number of souls on our Island by a factor of five, to about 100,000.

Despite all the pressure on the workforce, this weekend many families will still find time to gather on beaches and in backyards. With the weather forecast looking pretty good, some will take part in the 30th running of the annual M.V. Memorial Road Race around Oak Bluffs Harbor and East Chop Lighthouse, and others may spread out a blanket at the Memorial Day Picnic at Tashmoo Spring Waterworks.

Amid all the hard work for Island businesses and the frenetic schedule of fun, social events, it is too easy to forget what this holiday is really all about. And we want to invite our readers to be sure to pause for a moment to consider the true meaning of Memorial Day: to honor America’s war dead. It is a somber day of remembrance, which has been held on the last Monday in May every year since the end of the Civil War. 

The idea grew from the ashes of the Civil War, as all Americans — Northern, Southern, Black and white — struggled to find a way to share a tradition that could honor the estimated 750,000 fallen soldiers and the untold number of civilians killed. 

There are competing claims as to which community was the first to place flowers and wreaths on the graves of the men who died. It is a fact of history that many of the remembrances began in the South with fallen Confederate soldiers. It is also certain that Union soldiers were honored as well. In May 1865, just after the end of the war, the burned-out rubble of Charleston, S.C., was among the first places to establish a procession to commemorate the Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave at what was once a horseracing track on a former plantation. 

Thousands of Black Americans, many of whom had been enslaved until the city was liberated just months earlier, commemorated the lives of Union captives who had been buried at the former plantation. The service was led by some 3,000 schoolchildren carrying roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Hundreds of women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses, according to historical accounts. It was Gen. John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, who called for a national day of mourning in 1866, and on May 30 signed an order for it to be carried out. And it was in 1967 when President Lyndon Johnson made it an official federal holiday on the last Monday in May, giving shape to the three-day weekend. 

This weekend, there are many opportunities for reflection. There is the traditional Tisbury School’s March to the Sea on Friday, and the Blessing of the Fleet on Sunday morning in Menemsha Harbor. And perhaps most powerfully meaningful, there is the ceremony of the Avenue of the Flags at Oak Grove Cemetery, at the corner of West Spring Street and State Road, carried out by American Legion Post 257. The post, headed by long-serving Commander Jo Ann Murphy, will place 450 American flags at the headstones of Island veterans who served in America’s wars. 

Remember that there are still U.S. troops deployed on missions around the world in relatively small numbers in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere. The Navy operates in many oceans and seas, including off Japan and Singapore, as well as in the Persian Gulf, and it routinely coordinates exercises with NATO forces in the Black Sea region. There is a looming threat of the U.S. becoming more deeply involved in the war in Ukraine against the unprovoked attack by Russia, and in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. 

So today, if you have a moment to ponder the sea of small American flags placed at the graves of veterans fluttering in the wind of a cemetery, consider the sacrifice of those who have fallen to defend our freedom; contemplate the profound tragedy and trauma of any war, and think through just how fateful a moment this is in the world, when it sometimes feels as if we are sleepwalking back into a global conflict. If you have a chance to pause and remember the fallen and think about all that, then you are truly embracing the meaning of Memorial Day.