Isn’t it weird that we say: “Happy Memorial Day”?

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. It’s a federal holiday in which some Americans enjoy a day off work, have a BBQ with friends and family, or hit up the sales at their favorite store. The real purpose of this day off is to honor and remember Americans who died while serving in the military. So while I am happy to see my friends and family on this day, “happy” doesn’t seem like the right word to use to greet each other.

I’m coming up short on ideas for other ways to say hello on this day. “Peaceful Memorial Day” has a nice sentiment, but not a good ring to it. “Somber Memorial Day” is likely true for some, but I’d like a more neutral word that leaves room for people to remember, express, and grieve those who were close to those who served and are no longer with us in the way that works best for them.

I feel confident we can figure out another word to say that doesn’t force an emotion on a person who has experienced loss of someone they cared about. “Memorable Memorial Day”? “Memorial Day Greetings to You?” I’m not sure if any of these work. But we owe it to our service members to do better and not force an emotion like “happy” on them during a day of national remembrance of the war dead.

Both of my grandfathers served in WWII and my uncle served in Vietnam. My mom’s father was the antithesis of your typical veteran; while most WWII vets came home, put their uniforms in the attic, and never spoke of their experiences again, my grandfather came home and told story after story about his experience. As older people are known to do, he told stories of his time in the military over and over again so often that I can retell some of them.

I remember that he credited a regular diet of fresh island papaya to staying healthy and relatively free of stomach sickness while he served in the South Pacific.

As for homesickness, he and my grandmother both had it bad. They wrote letters to each other while they were apart for four years. I’ll repeat that. They were apart. For four years. Few to zero phone calls and if they were able to connect, it was only for a few minutes. My grandmother wrote him a letter every day. Sometimes the mail was delayed for days and on those days, I imagine my grandfather sank into despair, allowing stories that his buddies told him about ‘Dear John’ letters they’d received from their girlfriends, financeés, and wives back home to sneak into his consciousness. “What if that happened to me?” I imagine he’d ask himself. But he never received a ‘Dear Roy’ letter. My grandparents were married for more than 50 years before my grandfather passed away in 2009. They attended military reunions in their retired years together. They stayed connected to the people who meant so much to him during a very turbulent and terrifying time.

My favorite story of all is how my obedient and rule-abiding grandfather subverted national security to inform my grandmother where in the world he was. Back then the US Mail was screened to make sure that national security threats were being minimalized which mean that my grandfather couldn’t tell my grandmother in his letters that he was serving in the South Pacific. So whenever he moved, he’d change her middle initial when he wrote her address. She finally figured out after awhile that he wasn’t forgetting her middle name; he was spelling out his location to her in multiple letters.

My takeaways from these stories from my grandfather are:

Eat fresh and local food to stay healthy. Make time for and communicate with your loved ones. Stay connected to your people. Be appropriately creative in your subversion.

And remember. Re = again. Member = your people. Remember to me means: to again be reminded of what matters most. Healthy food. Loved ones. Connection. Creativity.

As for what to do with our ill-worded “Happy Memorial Day” greeting, I’d like to know what military service members and their families have to say. I believe that we can come up with a greeting that honors honest emotional expression on a somber day rather than forcing a cheerful emotion on those who are remembering and honoring their loved ones who are no longer with us.

Breathe and believe.

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