Memorial Day is not just about swimming

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 29, 2010

When I was young, my friends and I couldn’t wait for Memorial Day weekend. That’s when the pools opened and summer officially began.

Nowadays, many pools are always open, and with the first warm day comes the first question of the year, “Can I go swimming?”

My daughter’s been in and out of the pool since early April, well, actually, late March. She and a friend begged one Saturday until I finally relented, and they actually stayed in the pool quite a while. The following day they begged again, but this time they were out within a few minutes.

Too cold? I couldn’t believe it.

You can’t even enjoy going barefoot in March — the ground’s still got a chill to it. So imagine what the water feels like.

But young blood doesn’t care. Old blood like mine does, though.

These days it’s hot outside, and perfect pool weather. And I’ve spent many hours lately sitting by the pool watching children.

This weekend likely won’t be any different. And Monday? It has to be pretty outside. That’s the day you are supposed to start swimming.

It’s kind of funny how we associated things with dates when I was growing up. Memorial Day – time to go swimming. Easter – now you can wear white. Labor Day – no more white until Easter.

Not sure anyone cares about those rules anymore. I’m not sure many people even know why we celebrate Memorial Day.

Do you know how Memorial Day actually got its start? Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. It is not about division but about reconciliation. It is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

According the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic— established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.

Local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well.

By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.

It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars.

In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.

To ensure the sacrifices of America ’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.

The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.

Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada stated: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”

Sandy Cunningham is publisher of L’Observateur. She can be reached at