Memorial Day in a Small Town

Memorial Day is one of the days each year that I actively miss New England. Most days, if you ask, I’ll agree that I miss living there, that even after 10 years in Virginia it’s still only home, not Home the way Massachusetts will always be. But there are a few days that it’s impossible to forget, and Memorial Day has always been one of them.

Today, all the Scout troops, veterans groups and school bands in towns all across Massachusetts are lining up for the annual Memorial Day parade. I marched in my first in first grade, with my Brownie troop. My last was 2002, the same year I moved to Virginia, when I was helping with the high school marching band. Every year was the same.

1995 Memorial Day paradeWe would line up in the parking lots of the original Town Hall, then the senior center, now the town museum; and the original high school, then the municipal building, now home to the town planning and engineering departments. The parade would head down the street to the railroad bridge, then turn to go through downtown on Main Street, past the post office. The college was the first stop: Words to remember the fallen, laying of wreaths, a 21-gun salute and Taps by the high school band. Silence throughout, remembering those who gave their lives.

The parade would pass the library, head down behind the second high school, then and now an elementary school. Another stop, this time at the town cemetery, gravestones worn by time and years of weather. From the street where we stood, we could see the ceremony, hear the guns, hear words being spoken too quietly to understand, hear the single trumpet playing Taps, a faint echo in the distance. Only in high school did I learn it was a second member of the high school band providing the echo.

Another corner, another sharp turn and we reversed direction to head east again, to the Catholic cemetery. The only shady part of the route on a day that often was blisteringly hot, the crowds were often three or four deep here instead of just two. Small children with little American flags on sticks, grandmothers watching their husbands and sons march or ride with the veterans, their grandchildren wearing Scout uniforms or playing an instrument. Neighbors and friends, gathered for a piece of the town’s year that everybody was aware of.

Then up the hill to the Town Common, another peculiarly New England thing, this open space originally for shared grazing of animals. Now the green swathe in each small town is common space of a different sort, with bandstands and summer music, benches, paths and most of all, memorials to the town’s fallen. Large rocks with brass plaques, polished granite with names of those lost, statues wearing the uniform of the times, cannons or guns no longer used for fighting — each a place to pause and honor those lost in that war, police action, operation.

The metal bleachers brought out just for the parade, red, white and blue bunting draped along the sides as the sun scorches the seats. A microphone, a ceremony to remember those from the town lost in each battle from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 to Korea and Vietnam — and later Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a child, I watched a neighbor who had fought in Vietnam march each year, the father of a classmate. Grandparents of friends who had fought in World War II, men I later would know when I became a reporter because they gave back to the town on boards and commissions, volunteering their time for the town they had grown up in and fought for. These days, some of my own classmates will be remembered in today’s ceremony, lost in a war that began the year before I moved to Virginia and continues today.

Down here, Memorial Day is different. The big parade is Veterans Day, when people line downtown as veterans, scouts and school bands march in honor of those who served. My first year in Virginia, we had a lot of snow — and a lot of snow days. As spring rolled around, the schools were trying to make up days and decided that Memorial Day would be a school day. In the weekly planning meeting, I remember asking “Don’t the veterans get upset by that?” — only to be told that Memorial Day started during the Civil War, so it’s considered a Northern holiday and not a big deal. Today, there will be a laying of wreaths at the county courthouse and town park. The first Monday concert of the season for the community band will have a patriotic theme. This year, there is no school because there was no snow. But the town as a whole will not stop and remember. There will be no parade, no stop at each cemetery, no crowds lining the streets to salute as the veterans walk by. That comes in November, on Veterans Day. Because even after 150 years, even though the war ended a couple of generations before anybody today was born, we still have differences in how we remember, how we honor.

3 Comments on “Memorial Day in a Small Town”

  1. Having grown up in two small, Southern towns, allow me to dispute something someone told you. We don’t think of Memorial Day as a “northern thing.” The South adopted it quite quickly. Merely, we see parades as being celebratory, and “celebrating” Memorial Day is something that doesn’t quite jive with a Southern mindset. We honor the dead on Memorial Day, and we believe that’s done quietly, with little fanfare, because it’s basically a sad occasion. (Some historians believe that the practice of visiting graves regularly and leaving flowers had its modern origins in the South from what was then called Decoration Day.) Yes, we’re more intent on Veterans Day because that is a celebration of service to the country.

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