For Ella’s first Memorial Day weekend, we drove from our home in Westchester County (30 minutes outside of NYC) to visit my grandparents on Canandaigua Lake, 30 minutes outside of Rochester. It was a nearly six-hour drive – Ella’s first big trek – and, given that I’d only recently returned to teaching full-time after finishing up my maternity leave, we were more than a little overwhelmed by the whole packing-with-a-baby road trip thing… but, if memory serves, it was a delightful weekend.
And it introduced us to: the swing.
Every Memorial Day weekend since – this marks the tenth (the TENTH, omg) – we’ve ventured to the lake (something that is considerably easier now that we’re only thirty minutes away instead of five-plus hours). And, every single Memorial Day Weekend, we’ve taken pictures of Ella – and then Annie – swinging away.
We’ve done other things as well – help clear the beach, bring out the furniture, restock the fridge and freezer, air out the bedrooms, and generally help to get the house ready for the summer, which unofficially begins… NOW.
We’ve eaten hot dogs and hamburgers (every year, without fail) and baked beans and potato salad, lit bonfires, and – when the weather cooperates – have even donned bathing suits and gone for a dip. (After this year’s punishing winter, the water remains at a balmy 55 degrees, so dipping was out. Bonfires and beer, however, were still very much in.) There is red, white, and blue attire, laughing with the neighbors, gasping over how the kids have grown, and hitting the pillow each night thoroughly exhausted, with dreams of the sparkling summer days that are sure to follow.
And, ever since the girls have been old enough to understand – even a little – every single Memorial Day weekend, there is a discussion about why we are so tremendously fortunate to have this last May Monday off of school and work, why we can revel in these ever-longer early summer days and dip our toes in the lake that holds so many of our memories.
We talk about the wars our country has fought – the ones, less well-defined, that we’re still fighting – and about the tremendously brave men and women who have served to protect our freedoms. We talk about the girls’ great-grandfathers, their Grandpa Ray, their daddy’s cousins, and the myriad other members of our armed forces.
We have long had these discussions, about what Memorial Day means, about how it’s more than just a three-day weekend where we grill to our hearts’ content, about why there are flags decorating the headstones at the tiny graveyard around the corner. We don’t always watch a parade, and we don’t have anyone in our immediate neighborhood to thank for their service… but we certainly remember.
It was only this year, however, that I read two different stories (that had been posted by friends on Facebook) and learned when the first unofficial celebration of our troops, and of those who died preserving our freedom, took place. I was surprised and quite moved to discover – back in 1865, just after the Civl War’s end – that newly freed slaves in Charleston took it upon themselves to unearth the bodies of Union soldiers (that had been hastily and disrespectfully buried by Confederate troops) and properly bury them. Following that, the freedmen marched together, alongside some Union troops – with song-singing former slave children and flower-bearing women, too – and celebrated their newfound liberation, while simultaneously paying their respects to the men who had fought (and died) to free them.
We all know that our servicemen and women have fought to ensure our freedoms, our rights, our country itself – including the freedom to not be judged by the color of your skin. Despite these hard-won victories, the pathway to equality has hardly been without stumbling blocks (nor have we reached its end). It is not lost on me that interracial marriages were only legalized eight years before Nick and I were born – and that, not a generation before us, Ella and Annie would not have had the legal right to even exist. The efforts of those recently-emancipated slaves to honor the men who struggled and died to free them, as well efforts of those men themselves, is absolutely humbling. I am so deeply grateful to them, and to all of the men and women who have served since then.
We fill up on hamburgers and hot dogs, knowing that we are allowed to eat what we please. We listen to music, knowing that our government does not tell us how we should celebrate and how we should not. We go to church – or not – knowing that we are free to worship whom and what and however we want. We disagree vehemently on everything from gun rights to sports teams (GO YANKEES!), global warming to whether or not Botox is liberating or nasty… because we have the freedom to do so, a freedom that was, and is, given to us by hundreds of thousands of men and women far nobler than I.
We celebrate today, and all of this weekend, because of the sacrifices of these amazing men and women. Our girls laugh on the swings, growing before our very eyes, because of their courage, valor, and selflessness; we are forever grateful. America still has many injustices to overcome, more battles to fight, more wounds to be healed… but one thing is certain: we are absolutely the home of the brave.