Sophia Raday lives in Berkeley, California, with her soldier/police officer husband, their two children, a bipartisan dog, and assorted firearms. She is the author of Love in Condition Yellow: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage, which chronicles her peacenik/warrior love story and provides insight on age-old political divisions in the United States. This post originally appeared on military.com.
In a very un-scientific survey, I asked kids around the country what Memorial Day meant to them:
"Memorial day is about playing games, resting, and celebrating the Lincoln memorial too." Boy, 8, MT
"Picnics" Girl, 4, CA
"I think Memorial Day is about honoring our troops. I think it's about loving and caring for our troops and we should honor it and respect it." Boy (whose dad is in Iraq), 11, TN
"Watermelon" Boy, 3, CA (with Momma's help)
"We celebrate the soldiers that died. But it just came to mind that we celebrate this day because our flag was still there in fort." Girl, 8, MT
"My daddy has people tell him thank you all day for his hard work for the USA and Chico." Girl, 6, CA
"I don't know what Memorial Day is. I do not even know what the word means." Boy, 8, MT
"It is a day to acknowledge the men and women who have died serving our country." Boy, 11, NJ
"Where are you going with this? I don't want to answer." My son, 9, (who is tired of being the subject of his mother's writings and knows his Miranda rights.)
Among military families, I'd wager most everyone knows what Memorial Day means. But the rest of the country?
Before I married my soldier/police officer husband, it meant a day to pull out the Hibachi, argue over mesquite or regular charcoal, see if I could master lighting the grill without lighter fluid. And in the first few years of our courtship, circa 1996-1997, little changed. I had yet to even imagine Barrett's deployment to Iraq or experience the loss of a fellow Oakland Police officer. So for the first few years, I chided Barrett about cleaning the grill better so the ants wouldn't invade it, while he pretended to be horrified by the tofu dogs and portabellas I placed beside his ribs and steaks.
No one seems to know what city first started officially observing Memorial Day; women honoring the Confederate war dead began the tradition in various towns in the south. After WWI, it evolved into a holiday to honor Americans who died fighting in any war.
An even lesser-known Memorial Day is May 15th, National Law Enforcement Memorial Day. A few weeks ago, I met Barrett in Washington, DC, along with thousands of uniformed police officers and their families to attend the candlelight vigil at the National Law Enforcement Memorial. The director of the Memorial opened the ceremony with a statistic that really shook me: on average, every 53 hours, somewhere in the United States, a law enforcement officer is killed in the line of duty.
The website usmemorialday.org notes a decline in Americans who understand the meaning or origins of the day. It does not explain why, but I believe it is due to the widening gap between the civilian and military communities in the U.S., the erosion of the notion of citizen-soldier, and the diminishing respect for police officers in many communities.
In the crowd I could not make out the dais or even the giant screens projecting the speakers, but through the leafy trees, I could see a bit of the wall where four Oakland Officers' names are engraved and could occasionally make out my husband, directing the honor guard officer standing in front of each name. Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano spoke, but what captivated me most were the words of Jennifer Thacker, a police widow and president of the national organization, Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS). She told of the abruptness of her husband's death twelve years ago, and how it not only crushed her with grief, but robbed her of her imagined future, sending her down a dark and unfamiliar road as a 26-year-old widow and single mom.
Just before the candles were lit, Ms. Thacker spoke of how she managed after her husband's death, and how she regained the ability to hope again. She asked for help, and she began organizing police survivors to support each other. At the end of her talk, Ms. Thacker lit the first candle at the vigil and the flame was passed person to person until thousands glittered in the warm dusk. I hope we can expand the number of Americans who are aware of the darkness of grief that envelops military and police survivors and expand the circle of people who stand with them and hold the candle of renewal.
If you have your loved ones with you this Memorial Day, enjoy it to the fullest! For those of you whose family members are serving abroad or right here in our towns and cities, please know that we thank you for what you contribute to our communities. And for those who travel the difficult path of having lost a loved one, who have to re-imagine their lives and their future, please know that I honor the courage of your family, and am proud to count you as part of mine.