The small town along the Ohio river where I grew up (Ironton, Ohio, population 11,129) isn’t well known, but it has one national claim to fame–the longest running Memorial Day parade in the country. When I was a child I didn’t realize this; I just knew that come the last Monday in May, everyone in my town–whether 5 or 85–was either part of the parade, or one of the thousands lining the route by 8:30 a.m. Since my cousins lived closer to town, they usually saved us a spot near the Catholic church where we would meet them. Our parents sat in folding chairs talking about “parent” things, and we kids perched on the curb awaiting the start of the parade. We chattered with anticipation and listened carefully for the “rat-tat-tat” of snare drums from one of the many high school marching bands leading the way through Ironton’s tree-lined streets. As younger children, we loved the loud fire trucks blaring their sirens as they passed, the funny shirtless Shriners in cars way too small for them or gyrating their pelvises while wielding fake scimitars as they danced by, and the CANDY!! OH! The CANDY!! Every passing vehicle or marcher carried bag fulls which they hurled to bystanders. We sat poised, ready to scurry out onto the street and nab a piece of Dubble Bubble or a Jolly Rancher. The parade always ended with the horses and their riders, I guess because nobody wants to follow a group of horses…
After the parade, my family would visit the graves of Granny and Papa Goydan, my mother’s parents, and place fresh flowers on their headstones. Woodland Cemetery was always covered in American flags for the Holiday, giving it a distinctive patriotic yet solemn feel. The juxtaposition of visiting a cemetery after all the fun of the parade struck me as odd back then. Not until I was much older did I understand that both events were important: the celebration and the remembrance.
Years later, my husband and I traveled to Normandy, France, and visited the American G.I. Cemetery and the beaches stormed by the Allies in WWII. Gazing upon the thousands of perfectly lined up white crosses, I had, for the first time, a true appreciation for the phrase “the ultimate sacrifice.” I could picture in my mind young soldiers heading towards those foreboding cliffs housing machine gun nests, knowing the odds were they would not make it home alive. The cemetery was at once peaceful and haunting, yet undeniably beautiful. Not only did that experience move me to tears, it humbled me in a way I will never forget.
As an adult, I sometimes miss those simpler days and times of my youth. I didn’t understand the true meaning of Memorial Day; to me it was all about fun, good times, and a day off from school. What I’ve come to realize is we need both the parade and the cemetery–the celebration of what we have combined with an appreciation for those who made ours lives and our freedoms possible. Happy Memorial Day.