A few years ago a reporter from this paper on assignment to do a Memorial Day story, visited the Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale where those who fought and died in America’s wars are buried.
He came upon Roberto Gonzalez, a Vietnam veteran and a caretaker of the cemetery, washing and polishing headstones, working alone in the aisles of white marble. Mr. Gonzalez said that when cleaning, “I like to do it by myself. Do it right.”
Asked where he would be on Memorial Day, he answered, “Here.” The caretakers of national cemeteries don’t have long weekends, because by law the cemeteries can’t close for more than 48 hours at a stretch.
“People say ‘Memorial Day, oh, a day off, great beach day, shopping,’” Mr. Gonzalez said. “But you know, most people don’t know why they got this day.”
He pointed to the grass at his feet. “This right here is why they got it.”
Memorial Day once struggled to keep its original meaning. But the day has recovered some of its essence because of the rising number of dead Americans that their families will honor this weekend for service during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout these long, bloody 15 years.
The day we honor our war dead came about 149 years ago this month when a military order came down to place flowers on both the Union and Confederate graves at Arlington National Cemetery. It then became what was originally called “Decoration Day,” when families would go to cemeteries to clean the graves of their loved ones and plant flowers.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural speech gave the country direction in the aftermath of the Civil War, and a clue to how future generation’s should act: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive … to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan …”
We’re lucky here, for many reasons, and one is that Shelter Island hasn’t forgotten what the day signifies at this crossroad of the seasons.
Come to the parade tomorrow, and enjoy the beginning of summer with a free barbecue provided by the American Legion.
Remember all who served, especially those who died wearing American uniforms, and their families who carry on bravely without them.