Memorial Day at les Invalides
Peter's suggestion for a visit to les Invalides on Memorial Day seemed appropriate, since the complex of buildings houses the military history of France, and by extension, its allies. Our plan was to revisit the exhibit devoted to WWII resistance efforts, which we had found particularly interesting the last time we were there. This time however, it was closed for renovation. Instead, along with quite a few other English-speaking people with the same idea, we found a fairly new and very extensive exhibit devoted to World Wars 1 and 2. Reading through the history of both wars, battle by battle, and seeing the related photographs and artifacts made for a different, more involved and more emotional Memorial Day than we anticipated.
For years, we haven't done anything related to Memorial Day on the 30th, though as a child I remember more recognition of the specific day. Up in Orange, we would dig out the tall wicker baskets from over the garage that we used for flower arrangements to put on the graves of all our relatives. The baskets were probably better than two feet tall, including the handle, with pins sort of like tent stakes, that stuck down through holes in the base to hold them firmly in the ground. Grandma Pete and I would go down to the florist at the bottom of the hill to pick out bunches of flowers of all colors, nice and tall to fill the big baskets, and then supplement them with wild flowers that I gathered in the woods behind the house. Next, down in the cool basement, we'd fill all the wicker baskets, make a few simple wildflower arrangements in smaller vases, load everything into the car and drive them up to the cemetery above Lake Mattawa. There we'd place each on one of the family tombstones, making sure they were firmly anchored and wouldn't tip over in the wind. Later in the day, according to the schedule of cemetery visits published in the newspaper, we'd go back for the ceremony. There would be a small parade of veterans, a minister who delivered a few words remembering those who had died in war, and a gun salute to mark the ceremony's end as the parade left in silence. Usually the day was bright and sunny, all the graves were decorated, people were milling about chatting and kids were running around. Though the firing of the rifles at the end was a reminder of the day's meaning, the bright skies and thoughts of the traditional family picnic to follow interfered. At les Invalides, we had none of that to detract and the results of war, with its atrocities and sacrifices, came through powerfully.
Back home the next day we came across Howard Mansfield's Globe editorial equating "Decoration Day, as it was once known" with "the opening bell of summer, its meaning lost in the three-day weekend." He called for a return to a more thoughtful holiday and we're in agreement; we already got a start on it.