Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in May 2009, but Kitty’s message remains equally timely today.
I had four brothers in World War II: three in the Air Force and one in the Navy. Unlike so many others, all four made it home — but two with service-related disabilities.Jim came back with malaria and a lung infection he’d picked up in New Guinea. He lived until the late 1960s, but he had health problems all his life and eventually died in a veterans’ hospital. And my younger brother Bill died at age 29 of yellow fever he’d contracted in Sicily, leaving behind a wife and two sons, aged 1 and 3.
Both Bill and Jim were buried in the cemetery in our hometown of Archbald, Pa., outside Scranton. And so Memorial Day was a sad occasion for my family, as it was for so many other families in our community.
The American Legion would place a small flag by the gravestone of every fallen veteran, and I still remember how disheartening it was to see so many flags in our little town. When the bugler sounded Taps, every head was respectfully bowed, and few eyes were dry. Decoration DayBut at least there were flowers to add color to the solemn setting. Many family members who had moved away would return home on Memorial Day to clean their loved ones’ gravesites after the winter, scrub the markers clean, and decorate them with flowers. Florists did a land-office business. You see, in Archbald, we still referred to the holiday by its original name: Decoration Day.
The day’s activities also included American Legion marching bands playing military anthems as they visited each of the three local cemeteries. The parades would start in the nearby town of Eynon, proceed to the Protestant cemetery in Archbald, and end in the Catholic cemetery, where Mass was celebrated.
People of many faiths attended all the church services, not just those of their own religion. In this environment, children learned to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs. They also learned the meaning of reverence, respect for gravesites, and for other people.
It was a time when parents taught their children the importance of remembering relatives, those who had died, the men and women who had served our country — and those who had died for it.
Not everything was so solemn. I remember all the colorfully festooned cars, the clanging fire engines, the trucks full of people waving flags and then the picnics that followed the parades. But what I remember best about Memorial Day is all the lengthy conversations around the kitchen table or the living room sofa about neighbors and family members now departed. I learned a lot about relatives I didn’t know well, and others who had died before I was old enough to know them.
Remembrance of things pastThat’s why Memorial Day is a perfect time to get children interested in putting together a family tree. Many tombstones show military service, rank and other details of the lives of grandparents, aunts, uncles and whole families. By collecting dates of birth and death, children can see generations of families.
Even if your little ones are too young to do research from gravestones, Memorial Day can still be an excellent opportunity to pull out family albums and scrapbooks (which may be on DVD these days) and get them acquainted with their roots. Children are naturally curious about their relations; learning about them helps them orient themselves to the widening world around them.
This summer many of us will spend time with our families. We may stay with a brother or sister, a son or daughter, an aunt or uncle, or they may stay with us. Though times are tight and many of us face economic challenges, this may be the perfect time to go somewhere, visit someone, do something we always wanted to do but never got around to. And to share that experience with loved ones — particularly the littler ones.
I remember a quote from Dostoyevsky: “The soul is healed by being with children.” May this summer be a healing opportunity for all of us.
Kitty Schindler, 86, grew up one of 10 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner during the Depression. Now she shares her perspectives on challenging times with TODAYshow.com readers. If you have a question for Kitty or an insight of your own to share, send her an e-mail! To Ask Kitty, click here.