Memorial Day has become a lot of things, but as its very name implies, it’s not intended to be any of those things.
It’s a three-day weekend, the official start of summer in America, a chance to picnic with friends and family. Barbecue and cookout season is in full swing. What’s your favorite grill recipe?
It’s a day for parades, and perhaps a visit to the cemetery to remember our lost loved ones.
Yes, it’s all of those things, but Memorial Day was created for one very specific purpose: to remember those who gave their lives in service to their country, mostly through military service.
My father and his brothers served their country in a time of war. Thankfully, all but one survived the war and lived long lives.
We mark my father’s grave each year with the American flag, propped into a stake that bears the World War Two emblem. But if Memorial Day is to be true to its original intent, there is another grave across town I think about on this day. It’s the grave of my father’s brother which represents the sacrifice of the last full measure of devotion to our nation of the kind Memorial Day represents.
According to his military records, Lawrence O’Brien flew as a tail gunner in a B-24 aircraft on missions over Europe during World War Two. He earned several medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. My uncle officially enlisted in the U.S. Army the next day. No hesitation. He started his military career as a Private. He finished a Staff Sergeant.
He was 25 years old as the war neared its end. My uncle died on the ground somewhere in Germany for reasons the Army never quite explained. All we know is he died in uniform and was buried with full military honors.
My father would share stories of his older brother. He was a kind and caring person who had spent the years before the war working as a laborer in a steel mill in Pittsburgh. He was dependable and even before the war exhibited a sense of duty to his family, always looking after his younger brothers. He was a friend and a confidant to my dad. He was loved.
It would be disingenuous for me to wax emotionally for an uncle I never had the chance to meet. He was gone long before I was born. But I am here, and he is there. And this is Memorial Day.
My uncle is my connection to this day where we pay respect to those who not only were willing, but who actually did sacrifice their lives for something bigger than themselves, our country and our freedoms.
For that I do feel a tremendous amount of grateful emotion. The very least I can do – we can do – on Memorial Day is to remember someone who at some point decided to lay down his or her life for people they would never meet – us. We owe it to them to remember them, to thank them, and to take very seriously the freedoms they died for, and to be the people deserving of their ultimate sacrifice.