Memorial Day in the Midwest isn’t just celebrated on the last Monday of May, but it starts weeks before when volunteers from the local VFW stage themselves in front of the grocery store (or stores; bigger towns may be graced with two). In exchange for a buck or two they will give you a paper poppy.
If you’re a man, you can wear it on your lapel. If you’re a woman, you can twist it around your purse strap. But the important thing is to make your poppy visible, so that the next time you run in for a gallon of milk, the volunteers will nod and smile encouragingly, but they won’t trouble you for another donation.
If you happened to pay a May visit to Grandma Johnston, who lost her cherished brother in WWII—and whose own husband pulled through the Battle of the Bulge with tremendous injuries—the first thing she would chirp is, “Where’s your poppy?” If you didn’t have one, you’d better find a member of the VFW auxiliary fast.
The Midwestern Memorial Day itself usually starts with damp and fog. The townspeople manage to wipe the sleep from their eyes and attend the local parade of various units of veterans and the members of the National Guard. Some look very sharp in their uniforms, with everything in tip-top order. Others are less organized and do their best to squeeze into their dress uniform, which can’t accommodate their civilian weight gain. But, they can’t be judged too harshly. They’ve done their duty, and they continue to do their duty to those who served before them.
The Cub Scouts, Girls Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Brownies tag along, with the high school band not far behind. It isn’t a long parade, and ends at the cemetery, where a wreath is laid. and the first-chair trumpeter plays taps. One of the old-timers, not used to public speaking, will make remarks that are humble, but do not speak directly to his personal sacrifice, but the sacrifice of those who didnâ€™t make it home.
After a prayer and tears, there is a 21-gun salute, and before the powder clears, the children are on their bellies scrambling for the precious shells. The band will play again, and that is Memorial Day. It is a time for people to come together and remember.
In the past fifteen years as a resident of New York City, I’ve only had the privilege to buy two poppies. One was from a WWII veteran at Grand Central Station. From what I could tell, he was by himself, and he didn’t have any backup. I’ve gone back to look for him when the time seems right, and he—or others like him—are not there.
The second one was from a Ukrainian-born US veteran, who had a little table at a street fair. To be fair, I know that there aren’t as many WWII veterans about as there once were, but poppies still manage to be in evidence in the Midwest, albeit from younger volunteers, and ones affected by our most recent foreign wars.
Finding something that resembles a Memorial Day commemoration in New York City is a challenge. Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn all sponsor popular parades. Today in Manhattan there will be a small ceremony at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Riverside Park. At 11:00 am, interested parties will meet at Columbus Circle for a walking tour of the war memorials in Central Park. The Intrepid Museum marks the day with celebrations that are “open to the public” (with admission).
Manhattan as a whole seems to be lukewarm, patriotically. There is no Fourth of July parade, and maybe this is because everyone has already left town if not for the weekend, then for the summer. That said, to make up for it, the Veterans Day parade stretches for more than four hours to accommodate more than 25,000 marchers.
But a big blowout in November doesn’t make up for not having more opportunities to mark Memorial Day. There is a small memorial in Central Park just off the Mall, and every year, someone lays red-white-and blue wreaths. Someone remembers. I just wish that I could join them.