Most Americans know that Memorial Day honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. What people might not realize, however, is that Memorial Day had its beginnings right after the Civil War. By 1866, many towns and cities had already begun paying tribute to some of the 620,000 soldiers who had fallen (roughly two percent of the population at the time, and more lives lost than in any other war since) by decorating their graves with flowers in the springtime and remembering them with prayers and ceremonies. In 1868, General John Logan, the leader of an organization of Northern Civil War veterans, called for a national day of remembrance; it was named Decoration Day and set on the 30th of May.
Decoration Day continued to honor the Civl War dead into the 20th century, but as America became embroiled in more wars, WWI and WWII especially, the holiday evolved to commemorate all American military who died in all wars. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The last Monday in May was designated. That law went into effect in 1971 and Memorial Day officially became the federal holiday that it is today.
UN-officially, Memorial Day is also considered the start of summer for millions of American school children and their families. In many states, schools are out by the end of May, the weather is warm enough to open swimming pools, and traffic begins to build on roads headed to the beach — even in New England where it is still most likely too cold to swim. Monarch butterflies and migratory birds — songbirds and shorebirds, including Florida’s “snowbirds”— are all headed home. Patios and decks get cleaned off, gas grills get fired up, and automobiles get checked out and tuned up for those weekend trips.
When I was a kid growing up in South Texas, Memorial Day ushered in a full three-months of summer vacation, days to spend as I pleased. And I was pleased to spend many of those days in and around water, down in Port Aransas or Rockport, where my friends’ families had bay houses, or at swimming pools, where friends had club memberships or pools at home. I was hardly an Olympic swimmer, mind you, but I loved swimming and diving and playing water volleyball. Everybody did. Even when my Mother and I took little summer vacations, we spent them at a hotel with a pool, on the Gulf in Corpus or Galveston or down at South Padre. In an era before universal air conditioning, being in or near the water was the only sure way to combat the oppressive Texas heat.
By the time I was in high school, I had learned to water ski and had even taken up surfboarding (if you can believe it) on those “pint-sized pipelines” out on Mustang Island. It was the 60’s, after all, and we did live right along a Coast, even if it wasn’t in California. “Good Vibrations” was the soundtrack of our lives. We watched all those beach party films, saw ourselves as Annette Funicello or Frankie Avalon, and promptly divided everyone we knew into two camps: the bikers and the surfers. Any doubt about which group was the cooler?
Of course, as I got older and moved on to college, I still wore my hair long, still grooved to the music of the Beach Boys and The Mamas and the Papas, and still made sure that I had at least two swim suit/cover-up sets at the ready for the summer, but I also began to realize that life was not always a beach and that lazy days lolling around the pool or “laying out” on the sand were harder to come by. I got summer jobs or took summer classes and, as the back-to-school days of August approached, I often lamented over how few days that year I had actually spent in a pool or on a beach. Gradually, Memorial Day came to signify a gateway day to bigger events, to college graduations, June weddings, and emerging adulthood into “the real world.”
I can’t say that I didn’t appreciate the youthful summer fun I had while I was having it, but as with most things, I probably also took much for granted — certainly the physical prowess that enabled me to do back flips off the diving board or to slalom on one ski. But memories die hard. When we retired back to South Texas ten years ago, the one thing I was adamant about was that we would have our own swimming pool in the back yard. And so we do, and it is lovely. My husband swims almost every afternoon from early April to late October.
Don’t ask me how often I swim these days, but the sounds of the waterfall are peaceful and soothing as I sit on the patio and read.