As we emerge from a challenging year of isolation and uncertainty, Memorial Day weekend will likely mark a significant turning point in how we spend our time and with whom.
Schools are letting out, temperatures are rising toward T-shirt weather and high vaccination rates offer safe opportunities to gather once more.
Although this weekend symbolically marks the start of summer, the meaning and solemnity of it are often overshadowed by barbecues and three-day getaways.
Because of this disconnect, many of our children have a weakened understanding of its importance. After many months of home schooling, I thought it smart for parents and guardians to don their teaching caps once again and use this long weekend as a teachable moment in my annual Memorial Day column. Use it to start a dialogue and educate children about servicemen and servicewomen who made the ultimate sacrifice.
I spoke about the significance of Monday’s holiday with Army Sgt. Nathaniel Ashbaugh, who is a senior musician with the 44th Army Band, the state’s only military band.
A Santa Fe native, he is a music teacher with Albuquerque Public Schools, which gives him perspective on how to expand a child’s knowledge about Memorial Day and honor those who have died for their country.
Due to public health concerns, many public ceremonies and events have moved online, with the military and Department of Veterans Affairs offering meaningful ways to participate from home. I encourage kids of all ages to share their technical wisdom to help elders connect to these sites.
Memorial Day is steeped in tradition and protocol spanning three centuries. Dating back to the Civil War, Decoration Day, as it was known, was born out of the tradition of decorating the graves of loved ones. The tradition continues today as a way of memorializing the heroes who died in service. This is not to be confused with Veterans Day (Nov. 11), which is largely intended to honor the living.
Talk about service members in the family, living or deceased. It’s easier to find meaning or understanding if a child can attach a history to a person they know or have heard about. The branch and rank can be illustrated by looking at uniforms, medals or photos.
Use maps to show the bases they lived on or places they were deployed. Share age-appropriate stories about their basic training, combat or ceremonies.
It’s always appropriate and thoughtful to approach and thank an officer for their service. If your child is too shy or young to do so, lead by example. Explain that service members are highly respected. Whether they have seen combat or not, they have given of themselves to protect the freedoms of our country and to defend the vulnerable abroad.
“There are so many countries who cannot defend themselves. We’re fighting for those people, too,” Ashbaugh said.
Discuss what freedom means to your child. Topics might include segregation, religion, democracy and human rights.
“They will have opportunities that their great-grandparents never did,” Ashbaugh said, which can also segue to the topic of immigration and refugees. “There are people who want to live here who are appreciative of what we have to offer.”
If you and your child wear sports caps or hats, remove them during the national anthem, Pledge of Allegiance or when a flag goes by in a parade. Women and girls wearing hats for fashion need not remove them. Servicemen and servicewomen do not remove their hats when outdoors but always indoors.
A little trivia: If your child sees an officer with their hat on indoors, they are on guard or on a mission.
A symbol of Memorial Day is the vivid red poppy worn as a tribute to fallen servicemen and servicewomen. The poppy pins are assembled by disabled veterans, and proceeds go to assist veterans and their families. Men place the pin on their left lapel over their heart, and women a bit higher on the chest, nearer the shoulder and collar bone to lie flat. The tradition is inspired by Canadian poet John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” which you can read with your child.
Introduce members of the military, active or retired, using their titles and surname, such as Sgt. Ashbaugh. After introductions have been made, the title alone suffices.
On Memorial Day, flags fly at half-staff until noon. One raises the flag swiftly to the peak and then lowers slowly to half-staff. There is meaning in every movement. Use this opportunity to explain the Stars and Stripes.
Study “The Star-Spangled Banner” together, Ashbaugh suggests. There’s quite a visual story to be learned from “bombs bursting in air” and “our flag was still there.”
Use this opportunity to review anthem etiquette. When it’s played, remove sports caps, stand, face the flag and place right hand over heart. Military in uniform stand at attention, render a salute and do not remove their hats. Sing along or remain focused and silent.
Service members, Ashbaugh said, find it very disrespectful when someone talks, texts or moves around while the anthem is being played.
Although some public events have been canceled, the opportunity to pay tribute to our war dead and engage and educate the public is plentiful.
- The usual Memorial Day ceremony and wreath laying at Santa Fe National Cemetery will be closed to the public and will not be livestreamed. However, you may visit the national cemetery. Looking out, explain to your young ones that over 40,000 American flags are placed with precision by volunteers at each headstone. Flags are placed upright and 12 inches from the front of the marble graves at the center line. At flat granite markers, they are placed directly above center.
- Pause for the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. Monday. Observe a moment of silence, collectively or privately, in your own way.
- Visit the Veteran’s Legacy Memorial online, vlm.cem.va.gov, where you can write tributes about loved ones interred at any national cemetery across the country.
- Volunteer to remove the tens of thousands of flags placed at Santa Fe National Cemetery at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
No matter your political leanings, Memorial Day encourages young generations to become familiar with and serve as stewards to honor those who sacrificed to protect our freedoms.