A Place Called Honey Island

(Dusty’s note – I have printed this article in the past, but it is my favorite story about Labor Day, so I’m going to run it again. I hope you don’t mind.)

Labor Day always brings back memories of family reunions at a place called Honey Island. How that came about is the story I want to tell you.

My grandmother, Mazura Linscomb Garison, died in July 1964 – less than a month after the picture was made. (The date shown, August 1964, was the processing date. Mom was a little slow in getting to the drug store sometimes.) Anyway, as I understand the story, after Grandma’s funeral, several family members were talking and decided that it was a shame that we needed a funeral to see each other. So, a few weeks later, our tradition of a family reunion began, with all of the cousins, family members, the Garisons and the Garrisons (we spell our name with only one “R,” but we do have some “2-R” cousins), the Linscombs, the Cottons, along with the in-laws, out-laws, and some assorted friends.

Here I am with my grandparents, my brothers, and a bunch of my cousins. I’m the shirtless one, second from the left. My grandmother died not long after this snapshot was taken.

In the heart of Southeast Texas, in the middle of an area known as “The Big Thicket,” you will find the towns of Saratoga and Kountze. And back in the day, there was a little place called Honey Island, where there was a large park with open air pavilions, picnic tables, and two giant swimming pools, fed by artesian springs. One of the pools was shallow and perfect for us kids, with water that went from about three feet to eight feet deep. The other (which mom wouldn’t let us go in) was deep, with a diving board that must have been 200 feet in the air! (Okay really, it was probably 20 or 30 feet over the water, but it LOOKED really high and scary to me.)

I remember the water had this vague, sulfur-y smell – kind of like the crude oil that was just under the surface in that part of Texas in those days. We didn’t mind the smell. It was a great place to swim, to play, and to see (or meet!) kinfolks we hardly ever saw.

Near the swimming pool was an open-air pool hall with a jukebox. CCR’s “Green River” and The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” seemed always to be playing. (“Saturday night I was downtown, workin’ for the FBI…”) Momma didn’t want us going near there, but you could hear the music from the pool. And I remember a sign in the pool house/concession stand that said, “We don’t swim in your toilet. Please don’t pee in our pool.”

And the food that we shared at the potluck, of course, was great. Lots of (homemade) fried chicken and potato salad. Mom would sometimes fix a giant pot roast, with lots of potatoes and carrots, and always plenty of other good things to eat. Sometimes there would be homemade ice cream, and ALWAYS, lots of ice-cold watermelon. It was a great time to be a kid. And part of the family. The tradition continued for many years.

Eventually, of course, we stopped going to Honey Island. One by one, the older folks passed away. The kids grew up, moved away, had kids and families of their own. But I remember those good times of Labor Days past, and those cousins and family members I loved so much. Each funeral makes thinking of heaven that much sweeter.

Having family reunions is a lot of bother and fuss, no doubt about it. But I deeply appreciate my parents for going and for taking us, and for all the trouble they went to so that we could enjoy those times together with family. Those memories are very precious to me.

Meanwhile, here’s a shout-out to all those cousins and loved ones who remember with me our family reunions at Honey Island. And to all of us, let me say, cherish your families. Try not to wait for a funeral to see each other.

Happy Labor Day.

Remembering Dad

Harry Louis Garison, Sr., was a remarkable man. Known to his friends as “Buddy,” he was born at home on August 25, 1928. When he got married, his father gave him an acre of land across the road, where dad built a house for his new bride. He lived in that house for the rest of his life. It was where my brothers and I grew up, and that was where he died on December 6, 2018 – about 75 yards from where he was born. When Hurricane Harvey flooded us out in August 2017, dad had to go live in a nursing home while my brothers and I rebuilt the house, but other than that, and the time he was in the army, he lived on that same piece of property in Orange County, Texas, his entire life.

My son Drew with his “Paw-Paw”

Dad had a long career as a mechanic and a business owner. When we were boys, my brothers and I took turns working for him. Watching him went a long way towards making me who I am today.

One of the most important things learned from my dad is that Christianity is not something you just talk about; it’s how you live. Dad lived his life in accordance with the scripture that says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18).

Dependability, honesty, hard work, loyalty – these were the principles by which dad carried himself. It was how he operated his business and how he raised his family. To his final days, he remained a role model for my brothers and me. Always tell the truth. Treasure your family. When you give someone your word, follow through, even if it’s not easy. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Give a fair day’s work for a day’s pay. Do it right the first time.

One thing in particular that I remember about my dad as a working man was how diligent and focused he was at work, but when the working day was over, he had that special gift of being able to shut it off, come home to his family, and not think about work. He was that most rare of breeds – an honest mechanic. And I wish I could put into words how proud it made me whenever I would meet someone who would say, “Oh, you’re Buddy’s boy. You know, your dad is the only man I trust to work on my car.”

Another thing I learned from him was patience. (He was a lot better at that than I am.) Whether it was fixing some stubborn problem on a car or dealing with a difficult customer, my dad always modeled patience for us, even though he would probably say he didn’t do a very good job at it.

In his last years, dad showed great patience in another way. He suffered from non-diabetic neuropathy, which destroyed his balance, crippled his ankles and feet, and left him confined to a wheelchair. It also turned his hands into claws and left him unable to use his fingers. He had to get very creative to find ways of doing things he used to do without thinking about them. He still got them done; it just took longer. But he was patient enough (and stubborn enough) to keep working at the chore in front of him, until he finished it.

There’s plenty more I could say about my dad, but one story reveals a lot about him. One of his favorite treats was ice cream; he used to buy frozen goodies from the Schwan’s truck that came to his house. One day he bought a box of ice cream sandwiches, and decided he wanted one right then, so after the truck left, he opened the package and took one out, and was putting the box in the freezer above the refrigerator. As he was stretching up in his wheelchair, he lost his balance and fell, spilling ice cream sandwiches everywhere. Just at that moment, his home health nurse arrived, and came into the kitchen to find him sprawled out in front of the fridge. “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing on the floor?”

“Never mind that,” he said. “Help me get this ice cream back in the freezer before it melts!”

That was my dad.

It’s NOT ‘National BBQ Day’

This coming Monday, May 31, is a national holiday. For some, it’s a chance to head out to the lake and maybe catch some crappie or bass. Some see it as a chance to soak up some sun. For auto racing fans, the weekend means it’s time for what is perhaps the most famous competition in motor sports – the Indianapolis 500. For many communities, it’s a time for patriotic parades, with flags, bands and floats. Some folks see it as a chance to fire up the grill and have family and friends over for a fun time. A lot of retailers have big sales, while other folks are happy just to have the day off. For many, it’s the unofficial start of summer.

All of those things are fine, and each can be appropriate in its place, but Memorial Day wasn’t originally designed for any of those things. And although the exact origins of the day have been lost to history, its intention is clear: to remember and honor those who have given their lives in defense of this country.

“Decoration Day” (as the day was originally known) began during and especially, immediately after, the American Civil War (or the War Between the States, if you prefer). Several communities, in both the North and the South, held ceremonies to decorate the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers.

One of the earliest was on May 1, 1865, when a group of several thousand recently-freed slaves reburied with honors the remains of 257 Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison camp. The Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus (Georgia) established a program in the spring of 1866 to decorate the graves of soldiers throughout the south. Similar events had been happening in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and elsewhere in the north.

In 1868, Union General John A. Logan issued a proclamation establishing “Decoration Day” to be held on May 30, annually and nationwide; Logan was the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization made up of Union Civil War veterans. Some have claimed the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any specific battle, but instead could be universally recognized; others have suggested that it was chosen because it was the best date for flowers to bloom in the north.

There are more than 25 different communities that claim to be the founder of the observance. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill recognizing Waterloo, New York, as the “official” birthplace of the holiday a hundred years earlier, but the evidence for this is sketchy, at best. Rochester, Wisconsin, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and Grafton, West Virginia, all host annual parades that have been continuously running since the 1860s. During the first half of the 20th century, the focus graduated shifted from exclusively honoring those who fell in the Civil War, to remembering all those who had died in our nation’s defense. The name “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882 and gradually became more common, especially after World War II; Congress made that the “official” name in 1967.

Then in 1968, as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Congress changed the date from May 30, to the last Monday of May, which we still observe today. In 2000, they passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking all Americans to pause at 3:00 pm, local time, and remember the fallen. The National American Legion has chosen to honor those who died by distributing and wearing red silk poppies – a tribute to the poem “In Flanders Fields,” about the flowers that grew over soldiers’ graves in World War I.

However you choose to observe the holiday, let us take a moment, each in our own way, to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice and the families they left behind. Let us pray for our nation and our leaders, and pray that the Lord will bring His peace on earth.

I’ll give the final word to British poet Rudyard Kipling, whose son was killed while fighting with the British army during World War I. In his poem Recessional, Kipling writes

The tumult and the shouting dies –
  The captains and the kings depart –
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
  An humble and contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
  Lest we forget – lest we forget!

Missing Mom

Ten years ago today, I lost my mom. But in all the ways that count, she has never left me or our family.

It was a Friday that had started like any other day. Mom and Dad had gone to Beaumont from their home in Orangefield for an eye appointment, then they stopped at one of their favorite restaurants, IHOP, for lunch. As they were heading home, Mom said that she needed to use the bathroom, but she dropped her keys as she was trying to unlock the front door. She had already had the stroke that would claim her life.

Dad called the ambulance, and the EMTs promptly arrived. She ended up at Baptist Memorial in Beaumont. One by one, my brothers and I, along with other family, arrived as soon as we could get there – in my case, about 3:30 Saturday morning. The nurses were great, and the doctor was as gentle as he could be later as he explained that she had suffered a “terminal brain event.”

One of my brothers had been on a mission trip to Guatemala, helping drill a water well for a village that needed a new source of good water. Flights in and out of Central America have a somewhat loose connection to scheduled times, but he was able to get out on time – less than an hour before a Gulf hurricane came ashore and shut everything down for three days. He and his wife set a new record getting from Houston Intercontinental to the hospital in Beaumont.

An hour later, Mom was gone. Personally, I think she was just waiting on all her boys to get there before she left. One by one, we got to say our goodbyes, kiss her, hold her hand, and let her go. It was Saturday, September 25, 2010.

There were so many wonderful friends who supported us, at the hospital, with their cards and visits, and so much sharing of food, of laughs, of tears, of memories. My brothers and I got to preach her funeral, and that was a special time. The funeral procession was over a mile long going out to the cemetery. And even the funeral director felt the need to comment publicly at the graveside about what a remarkable woman she was.

This is one of my favorite snapshots of mom – it’s from Christmas about 2006, with a whole big, rowdy bunch of us crammed into their small kitchen, and her directing traffic and enjoying the chaos and noise of our family. And that’s not even all of us.

I still hear her voice in my head, and desperately wish we could have had more time together, but I’m thankful for many things. And so much of what she taught me, I still hold on to today.

  • I learned to love God’s Word from the countless Bible stories that she read to us every night.
  • I learned to be passionate about worship from hearing her strong, clear alto voice as she boldly sang out.
  • I learned to serve others by watching the way that she volunteered at church and in the community.
  • I learned to respect people who were different by the way she would never let us use hurtful words, even in jokes.
  • I learned to cherish the moments we have with family and friends, to laugh a lot, to forgive from the heart, and to say “I love you,” and always give “just one more hug.”

Because you never know when you won’t be able to anymore.

A Look Back: 19 Years Ago

There are certain days that stand out in one’s memory. In fact, you can often tell a person’s age by the first significant news event that they remember.

For some people, it’s Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. For some, it’s JFK’s assassination, November 22, 1963. Some folks have January 28, 1986, seared into their memories, as the day the Challenger exploded. They are days where you know that the world has changed. History has been made, right in front of your eyes.

Nineteen years ago today – September 11, 2001 – was such a day.

Terrorists succeeded in hijacking four airliners. Two were deliberately crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, New York; both hi-rises caught on fire and collapsed. One plane crashed into the Pentagon, causing significant damage to the military office complex. Another was also headed for Washington, D.C., perhaps to be dived into the Capitol building or the White House, but some gutsy passengers fought back, and the flight crashed instead into the Pennsylvania countryside. Thousands of our fellow citizens died in the first major attack on American soil made by foreign terrorists.

Much has changed in the years since the attack. The United States has gone to war in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and our nation has paid a costly price to bring about a more secure world. We have learned many lessons as a people, and along the way, discovered things that are now more precious to us than before.

One of the lessons that 9/11 taught us is to appreciate our first responders: our police officers, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, and others, who are the first to answer our calls for help. I wouldn’t say that they were completely UNappreciated before 9/11, but I believe that the events of that day helped us to see just how special those men and women really are. There were entire battalions of New York City firefighters who were practically wiped out by the tragedy of that day when they went to Ground Zero to help the people there.

These are the people who answer our calls for help, 24/7. These are the folks who run INTO burning buildings; they are the ones who run TOWARDS the gunfire. They are some of the everyday heroes who walk among us. And I believe that the events of 9/11 helped us all to see, perhaps a little more clearly, how special these first responders really are, and how much all of us depend on them.

And so, on this anniversary of the September 11 attack, let us all pause and pray for the families who lost loved ones on that horrible day. Let us pray for our service men and women, and their families. But let us not forget also to offer a prayer of thanksgiving and support for those who serve us as first responders, and for their families. More personally, when you see one of these quiet heroes, be sure to give them a “thank you,” and let them know you appreciate their work

And, God bless America.

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye

No matter how much we try and plan for the future, none of us can know the twists and turns of “what’s next.” The truth of this principle has recently been reinforced to me. I have resigned from CCC, effective by the end of February. How this came about is a bit of a long story, but I think it’s a good one, so please bear with me.

My 88-year-old dad has been battling a crippling neuro-muscular disease for about 10 years. (Some of you may recall that I wrote a post about him back in the fall of 2016.) This disease has left him unable to walk, confined to a wheelchair, and essentially homebound. He lives in Orange County, Texas, between Orange and Beaumont, in the same house where I was raised, and on the same piece of land where he was born and raised. Recent events, including a visit last month to help care for him, have convinced my brothers and me that dad is simply no longer able to stay by himself.

My brothers and I have discussed this at length, and considered all the various options available – hiring an outside caregiver, relocating dad to live with one of us, moving him into a nursing home. For various reasons, none of these options can work for him, or for us. We have decided that the best course of action would be for me to move in with dad and serve as his full-time caregiver.

While I am looking forward to spending more time with my dad and serving him, I am overwhelmingly sad about leaving Abilene and the non-profit I work for, Connecting Caring Communities. In the nearly nine years since I joined CCC, I have been blessed to make some wonderful friends and see amazing things done, working with neighbors and others to better our community.

(I’m also going to really, REALLY miss our church, Beltway Park, and so many friends from our Sunday School class and our Bible Study life group. The folks in my Sunday class gave me a great send-off yesterday, with lots of prayers, hugs, tears, kind notes & cards, and even gifts of cash and more. Our Sunday night group had a farewell dinner for us last night. It was a very rich, full day of love and friendship, and one more thing I will miss about Abilene. But right now I’m talking about work…)

I have learned so much during my time with CCC – especially about what it really means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The opportunity to meet some great people, to get to know neighbors from different backgrounds, different cultures, different religions, and to host them in our home – these have been priceless blessings that I will always cherish.

I think of friends I made who have passed away: people like sweet Sandy, a tattooed elderly lady that I met through Meals on Wheels. Sandy, you must have lived an interesting life in your younger days; I’m sorry I never got to hear the stories I’ll bet you could have told. People like David, confined to a wheelchair, yet always with a smile on his face. Rhonda; Jimmy; Paul; all of you blessed me with your friendship, and I thank you. I will continue to miss you, and remember you fondly.

I think of the kids who spent part of their afternoons with me and our volunteers at “Kids’ Club,” and the parents who trusted me to watch their little ones for a while. It was my honor, and my pleasure. We had a good time doing homework, drawing on the sidewalks, climbing trees, doing crafts, and more. And I remember the Bible stories we told – “they say stories like that make a boy grow bold, stories like that make a man walk straight.” The Fruit of the Spirit and the Armor of God, David, Deborah, Moses and Esther. Mary & Joseph, Peter and John and the boys, and best of all, Jesus, the manger, the parables, the miracles, and the cross. And the twelfth and final egg, which is, of course, empty.

I think of the meals, and all the laughs we had around the table and out in the yard. Easter egg hunts and Halloween carnivals. Banana boats and dirt cake, hot dogs and Frito pie. A dunking booth on a certain very cool October day, and kickball games. Swing sets and bluebonnets. The prayer walks and recruiting volunteers. Working with teens for the “Young Leaders of Abilene.” Finding unexpected skills, like the time I handed my neighbor Diego the spatula during a cookout, then couldn’t get it back, only to learn that he used to be a short-order cook! I wouldn’t trade a minute of any of it.

And I think of so many friends who have supported, and continue to support, our work through your prayers, your gifts and your financial participation, a huge and heartfelt “thank you.” We literally could not do this without your gracious assistance and partnership.

To the colleagues I’m leaving behind, past and present: Please know that I’ve enjoyed every minute of working beside you. It has been a privilege to serve with you. I’m praying for your continued success.

Working for CCC has been one of the greatest blessings of my life, and I shall always cherish the opportunity to live out the call to love our neighbors, to bind up the broken-hearted, and to seek the shalom of our city. Thanks to everyone who participated in this ministry, and may the Lord continue to bless and guide all of you, as you continue to work on behalf of CCC, our neighbors, and our community.

Happy Birthday, Mom

Last September, I wrote a tribute to my mom on the anniversary of her passing, and with the reader’s kind permission, I would like to re-post that article today in honor of her birthday. She was born July 7, 1937, and was always somewhat pleased about having so many “Lucky 7s” on her birthday – 77-37.

So here are some recycled thoughts about my mom, presented with love. Thanks for reading. And if you still can, give your mom a call, just because.

“Thanks, Mom”
(Reposted from September 25, 2013)

100_0190Three years ago today, I lost my mom.  But in all the ways that count, she has never left me, or our family.

Friday, September 24, 2010, started like any other day.  Mom and Dad had gone to Beaumont from their home in Orangefield for an eye appointment, then they stopped at one of their favorite restaurants for lunch: IHOP.  As they were heading home, Mom said that she needed to use the bathroom, but she dropped her keys as she was trying to unlock the front door.  She had already had the stroke that would claim her life.

Dad called the ambulance, and the EMTs promptly arrived.  (The house is out in the country, so thank goodness for enhanced 911 service!)  She ended up at Baptist Memorial in Beaumont.

One by one, my brothers and I, along with other family, arrived as soon as we could get there – in my case, about 3:30 Saturday morning.  The nurses were great, and the doctor was as gentle as he could be later as he explained that this was a “terminal brain event.”

One of my brothers had been on a mission trip to Guatemala, helping drill a water well for a village that needed a new source of good water.  Flights in and out of Central America have a somewhat loose connection to scheduled times, but he was able to get out on time – less than an hour before a Gulf hurricane came ashore, and shut everything down for three days.  He and his wife set a new record getting from the Houston airport to Beaumont.

An hour later, Mom was gone.  Personally, I think she was just waiting on her boys to all get there before she left.  One by one, we got to say our goodbyes, kiss her, hold her hand, and let her go.  It was Saturday, September 25, 2010.

There were so many wonderful friends who supported us, at the hospital, with their cards and visits, and so much sharing of food, of laughs, of tears, of memories.  My brothers and I got to preach her funeral, and that was a special time.  The funeral procession was over a mile long going out to the cemetery.  And even the funeral director felt the need to comment publicly at the graveside about what a remarkable woman she was.

IMG_0001Here’s mom on her wedding day, and 50 years later, at the church, during their golden anniversary reception, visiting with her dear friend Mary Russell.

Garison's 50TH aniversary 065

Dad has been so strong and brave.  He has learned to live by himself (well, along with his faithful canine companion, Chica), in spite of falling almost two years ago and breaking his leg, which has left him in a wheelchair.  I know that he misses her terribly, but he is determined to carry on and make her proud.

christmas06This is one of my favorite snapshots of mom – it’s from Christmas about 2006, with a whole big, rowdy bunch of us crammed into their small kitchen, and her directing traffic and enjoying the chaos and noise of our family.  And that’s not even all of us.

IMG_0004

Here’s Mom, from about 1959, I’d guess.  That’s her with my brother Buzzy, and yours truly, displaying the blazer, bow tie and cowboy boots that the well-dressed young man was evidently wearing that year.

I still hear her voice in my head, and desperately wish we could have had more time together, but I’m thankful for many things.  And so much of what she taught me, that I still hold on to today.

  • I learned to love God’s Word from the countless Bible stories that she read to us every night.
  • IMG_0041I learned to be passionate about worship from hearing her strong, clear alto voice as she boldly sang out.
  • I learned to serve others by watching the way that she volunteered at church and in the community.  (That’s her, in her hospital volunteer uniform.)
  • I learned to respect people who were different by the way she would never let us use hurtful words, even in jokes.
  • I learned to cherish the moments we have with family and friends, to laugh a lot, to forgive from the heart, and to say “I love you,” and always give “just one more hug.”

Because you never know when you won’t be able to any more.

TwoDollarBill

History All Around

I love history. I love good stories, and history is all about the stories. Those stories are all around us, if we will just take the time to listen.

I don’t understand people who say they don’t like history. Undoubted, they had a poor history teacher somewhere back along the way – someone who thought you could teach history by making kids memorize dates from a calendar. But just as there is more to music than notes on a page, so also there is much more to history than dates on a calendar.

abilene stories coverA dear friend recently gave me a copy of a wonderful book, Abilene Stories: From Then to Now. It’s a collection of fascinating recollections and remembrances by and about people from Abilene. Most of the stories are no more than two or three pages long, and the book contains dozens of them. It was compiled by Glenn Dromgoole, Jay Moore, and Joe W. Specht, three guys who know something about Abilene and how to tell a good story.

I’m still reading through the book, enjoying the stories, intrigued by what I’m discovering about this town. That street corner on Chestnut and South First, where they’re putting in new sidewalks? That was the corner where Abilene’s first chief of police used to fire his gun on New Year’s Eve, to tell the bars it was time to close. That stretch of concrete across the north end of the airport, disconnected from everything and looking like it was put there at random? It’s actually a remnant of the Bankhead Highway, the first paved coast-to-coast, all-weather road in America. It came right through Abilene.

Camp Barkeley? It was named for a Texas soldier in WW I who died three days before the war ended, and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in the face of the enemy. And he is now recognized by the Army as the first Hispanic recipient of the nation’s highest honor for valor. The stories go on and on.

It’s a great book, but you don’t have to read a book to discover amazing stories – they are literally all around us. Even on the block where you live.

  • That sweet little old lady who hobbles around with a walker? She had polio as a little girl, spent a year and a half in an iron lung, and showed incredible determination in learning to walk again. She can tell you a thing or two about courage, for those who will listen.

  • The old man down the street who keeps to himself? He’s the last surviving member of his unit from WW II, that liberated a concentration camp. No one knows the nightmares he has endured for this country.

  • That quiet couple across the way? They spent 30 years overseas as missionaries before their retirement. Let them tell you about raising their kids in another culture, and what they learned together.

These are my neighbors. Your neighbors. When we take the time to get to know them, we discover they enrich our lives in ways we can’t even begin to expect. It’s history, not from a book, but from people who were there and who lived it. It’s a special wisdom that they will share for those who will turn off the TV long enough to listen.

It’s history all around us.

Reflections on Memorial Day

(Some of you may have noticed that I have taken a break from writing these columns for a few weeks.  Well, break’s over, and it’s time to get started again.  Thanks for reading!)

This past Monday, America celebrated Memorial Day.  I’ve been thinking about that, and wanted to share some thoughts.

Memorial Day is NOT national barbecue day.  And it’s not a time for the linen sale at the mall, nor for the opening of the city’s swimming pools, nor the unofficial start of summer.  It may have taken on some or all of those meanings, but that is not why it exists as a special day.

Memorial Day was originally known as “Decoration Day,” and originated during the Civil War.  Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claims to have started the tradition, when local ladies decorated the graves of war dead with flowers on July 4, 1864.  Unfortunately for their claim, there are several documented cases in Virginia, Georgia, and elsewhere, of similar observances in 1861 and 1862.

To further add to the confusion, President Johnson signed a proclamation in 1967, naming Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day.  The truth is, it was such a good idea (and an obvious one), that it originated in several places, independent of each other, at about the same time.

Back in the days when families had private cemeteries, many Southern families would gather once a year in the spring or early summer to weed the grounds, repair any damages and place flowers on the graves.  This was often done in connection with a family reunion and “dinner on the grounds” at the cemetery – it was a way of retaining family connections with those who had gone before, and in my opinion, a lovely custom.  (My good friend Joel Fox has told me of attending his family’s cemetery get-togethers, and I always thought it was a nice tradition.)

So, it wasn’t a big stretch to go from such occurrences to placing flowers on the graves of those lost in the war.

One of biggest early celebrations of the day came in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865, when nearly 10,000 recently-freed African-Americans came together to honor the hundreds of Union soldiers who had died in a POW camp there.

The term “Memorial Day” was apparently first used in the 1880s, and both terms seem to have been used until after World War II.  However, it was not until 1967 that “Memorial Day” became an official Federal holiday – originally set for May 30, and later changed to the last Monday in May.  Some localities still hold their observances on May 30, which is coming up tomorrow as I write this.

Memorial Day should not be confused with Veterans Day, which comes on November 11. (That was previously known as “Armistice Day,” and originally marked the end of hostilities of World War I in 1918, but that’s another story.)  Memorial Day honors those who have died in the service of their country; Veterans Day honors the service of all military veterans.  Both are appropriate, but they are not the same, and should not be thought of as interchangeable.  (Thanks to Woody Turnbow for helping me appreciate this distinction!)

Besides honoring the sacrifice of those who have died, Memorial Day has also been a time of asking the larger questions of the cause for which they died.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, for example, the day was often used to decorate the graves of the Southern Civil War dead, and to promote the “Lost Cause” of Southern independence.

The day can be divisive and hurtful to some.  For some, it is a time to mourn the waste of so many lives and the loss that represents; for others, it is a time to celebrate liberty and promote patriotic values.  So what are we celebrating?  Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism?  Or the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?

It’s a good question, I think.

On the larger issue of remembering, here are just two Biblical truths to consider.  First, go read the book of Deuteronomy, and notice how many times Moses commands the Israelites to “remember” during his farewell address – by my count, 16 times, or about once every other chapter.  You definitely come away from that heartfelt speech with the sense that he wanted them to hold onto and cherish the thoughts of all that God had done for them, and to live accordingly.

Second, in the first chapter of Romans, when Paul is making his list of all the depravities of which unredeemed humanity is possible, notice that it all begins with the refusal to remember or give thanks to God for His many blessings.  As he says, “They did not think it was worth their time to retain the knowledge of God” – sounds to me like a failure to remember.

Draw your own conclusions, my friends.

In my opinion, Memorial Day should not be used as a way of glorifying war, or whipping up some misguided patriotic fervor for a cause some may wish to promote.  But it IS appropriate to remember those who have given “that last full measure of devotion,” who have “laid down their life for their friends,” and “who have died that this nation may live.”

It IS appropriate to ask if I am honoring their sacrifice not just with flowers or parades, but with a well-lived life.

And it is appropriate to remember the awful cost of war, and the terrible price paid by the families and loved ones.  My grandmother Sallie McMillan had a brother who was killed in Korea, and I think she grieved his loss to her dying day.

So, to honor those who have given their lives for this country, and to their families:

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self, their country loved,

And mercy more than life.

America!  America!  May God thy gold refine,

‘Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.