The ongoing lessons of Memorial Day

Published 9:14 am Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Memorial Day means a lot of things to different people. It is the unofficial start of the summer season. It is a big shopping day for those who like to spend their times at malls hunting bargains. For all Americans, however, it is a time to remember those that have given the ultimate sacrifice so that we can enjoy the freedoms we hold so dear.

Memorial Day is celebrated with parades and speeches around the country. Cemeteries are covered with flags marking the graves of those who died in service to our country; 300,000 in Arlington National Cemetery alone.

For most of us, we celebrate by spending time with our family and friends. This holiday is usually one of the top days of the year in grocery store sales of hamburger meat and hot dogs as backyard chefs clean up their old grills to show off their culinary talents. Beaches, lakes and parks fill up with groups gathering to enjoy the time together.

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So it is with my own family. Memorial Day is a holiday my family has always celebrated together, almost always at Compass Lake. As a child, I remember stories of my Great-Great Uncle Gordon, who hunted U Boats in the earliest submarines after Pearl Harbor. One of the legacies of the war for him was that he always thought someone was trying to poison his food. He would come to Compass Lake and wait for my mother and my aunt to taste the food before he ate his own.

My Great-Grandparents, some of whom lived until I was a teenager, talked of their own parents’ recollections of the Civil War and the difficult aftermath of all the carnage from that deadliest of American wars. How I enjoyed listening to them on the front porch of our old lake house.

Two generations later, we are still celebrating in the same fashion. My children, their spouses, and my two wonderful grandchildren made their way down to Compass Lake (the Water House, as Henry calls it) for the long weekend.

Life at the lake is a bit different with the little ones around. We set up tents on the beach so they can play in the sand. The floating island is anchored just deep enough that Laura and Henry can jump into the water until they are worn out. The coolers are nearby and snacks are frequent.

Some things are slightly different than in my childhood. Henry and Laura are copiously slathered in 50+ sunscreen from head to toe. In my day, we not only didn’t use sunscreen but we used baby oil to accelerate the effects of the sun.

The boom box that made beach music so easy to listen to in my day has been replaced by a small wallet sized speaker that is connected via Bluetooth to someone’s IPhone. From there we listen to music via Pandora or other internet sites. I didn’t even know such a gadget existed until this weekend.

In my mind, the family gatherings are really the same over all these years. We eat, nap, swim, talk and play games. We actually talk a lot and that is one of things that make these types of gatherings so special. We aren’t texting or emailing each other; we are talking.

We talk about stories that are a hundred years old and we talk about things that happened yesterday. My children know family stories that happened long before they, or even I, was born. My sons-in-laws are both good sports and seem to love Compass Lake and the gatherings as much as we do.

And then there are the children. Compass Lake has always been about the children. They learn so much while relaxing here. Even children live hectic lives these days. They learn from watching us and they get to see us at our best in these types of settings. Many of the lessons of my own life were learned in these very waters at holidays just like this.

Laura and Henry spent the entire weekend playing together as hard as they can. Their mothers got to reconnect with each other a bit. I got to cook with my sons-in-law’s assistance, and they got to fix things that I have put off repairing. Mary Lou got to play mother to an extended family. All was right with the world.

Without fail, we always offer up a prayer on Memorial Day for those brave men and women who died so we could enjoy weekends like this. I want my children and grandchildren to know that we can’t take our blessings for granted. The freedoms that we enjoy and too often take for granted came at a terrible price.

Somehow, I believe that the good times we have on Memorial Day is a way of honoring those who fought and died on my family’s behalf. I can’t know the pain of those families that lost loved ones. I can only tell them that on behalf of my family, we are grateful and we remember.

Dan Ponder can be reached at