Everything has been different this year.
Instead of the pomp and circumstance usually involved in Cheshire’s celebration of the holiday — the only one for which Cheshire holds a parade — Memorial Day passed with no floats slowly traveling down Route 10; no marching bands happily playing patriotic tunes while cheering residents enjoyed a sunny afternoon watching the festivities pass by.
If there was any celebrating to be done, it was confined to our own homes and yards. It as done with an eye towards social distancing and keeping people at arm’s length.
It was done in the midst of a pandemic that is still evolving, forcing us to not only reflect on what’s transpired in the past, but also on what our future — long and short term — may look like.
It may be easy to forget now, but our country has passed many a Memorial Day in the midst of a crisis. This was not the first time we’ve reached the last Monday in May unsure of exactly how the next day, month or year would look. And while this year may have been different as no parade was held, and no gatherings allowed, it certainly wasn’t the only time we’ve faced the fear of the unknown.
In fact, Memorial Day has its roots in a time when America was at its most important crossroads. Though it would not become an official national holiday until 1971, the first commemorations of America’s fallen soldiers began shortly after the end of the Civil War.
The country had been devastated by a conflict that had killed between 620,000 and 750,000 people, and there was no guarantee a reunited union would survive. Would any American, whether they lived in the north or south, have predicted that, more than 150 years later, the nation would still be one?
The symbol of Memorial Day is now recognized as a red poppy, which was popularized by the poem “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Canadian army who served in World War I. The somber poem memorialized the dead from that terrible conflict, which also happened to conclude right at the moment when the world was facing the Spanish Flu.
That pandemic would cost millions of lives across the globe and more than 600,000 Americans are reported to have succumb to the illness between 1918 and 1919.
And then there was Memorial Day 2002.
In May of that year, the country was eight months removed from 9/11. We had already invaded Afghanistan to take on the elements of Al Qaeda known to have planned the terrorist attacks, and our forces had also invaded Iraq in what would turn out to be the most controversial military conflict since the Vietnam War.
Intelligence experts continued to warn that terrorist organizations were planning more attacks on U.S. soil. Signs were emerging that the struggle to establish some sort of peace in the Middle East would prove a significantly more difficult — and more deadly — affair than had been the taking of Baghdad and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. And the country was watching as young men and women were deployed to war zones thousands of miles away from home, with many returning in coffins.
It was one of the reasons why the mood around Memorial Day 2002 felt different than it had in decades, as The Cheshire Herald’s May 23 editorial explained:
Many communities have abandoned their Memorial Day observances years ago. The quaint festivities apparently cut into the long holiday weekend too much so interest was lost. Also, any threat to the country was a thing of the past, many of us thought. So, the day set aside to remember the sacrifice many have made to provide us that blanket of security was easy to forget.
Unfortunately, that’s not to be the case any longer. Given what’s happened to the country since last fall, it’s likely there will be a revival of patriotic observances and many more towns will see observances on their Main Streets this weekend.
The editorial went on to commend Cheshire for having set aside Memorial Day as the one holiday per year for which the community held a parade, and suggested that the recognitions would take on new meaning given what was happening in the country:
Sadly, we’ve put more names to that list (of fallen soldiers) over the past few months and still more are likely to be added. When you’re watching the parade, listening to the patriotic music and paying attention to the speakers this Memorial Day, remember them.
For parade organizers, the hope was that a renewed sense of patriotism would encourage people to not only attend the parade, but also the many other Memorial Day events planned around the main attraction, as a the May 23, 2002 story in The Herald explained:
John White of the Veteran’s Council of Cheshire said the parade usually attracts between 200 and 400 spectators. He hopes the “resurgence of patriotism after September 11 will bring the biggest audience ever.” White said Cheshire’s veterans are making “a heightened call for participation” from neighborhood groups, businesses and civic organizations.”
The fourth annual Memorial Day Concert … will include the premiere for the general public of the song “Stand Tall, America,” written by Jane Bate and performed by students from Doolittle and Norton Schools.
Included in that week’s edition was the poem “In Flanders Fields,” along with a lengthy biography of the author and how the poem came to be. It served as a somber reminder of the sacrifices made by generations past as well as those in the present.
It’s unknown whether a record number of individuals turned out for the parade as organizers had hoped — The Herald did not provide an estimate as to the size of the crowd in its coverage of the event the following week. However, participation was reported to have been as good or better than all previous years, and more participants from Cheshire groups and those based in neighboring communities came out to march in the parade than ever before.
Looking back, it’s easy to forget just how frightening and unsafe the world looked at that time. Thousands had died in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, war was now raging in different parts of the world, and no one knew how much bloodier it would all get.
When Cheshire residents lined the streets to cheer the Memorial Day Parade, they did so believing that more names would be added to the list of fallen heroes, and more families would be without a loved one come Memorial Day 2003.
And yet, the country survived. Life went on. Yes, the world looks different today than it did on September 10, 2001, before the Towers fell. Yes, there are certain inconveniences with which we live today that we didn’t have to before.
But life returned to normal. Our world was not unalterably changed. We went on living, day by day, with a little less fear of the unknown.
That’s what will happen in 2020. We will adapt. Certain changes will take root and become a part of our lives. But this will not always be the state of things. This will not always be how the world looks.
It’s hard to see that reality when in the midst of a crisis. That’s why, looking back on another time of uncertainty helps to show us the path forward.
Next year, we will celebrate Memorial Day with parades and concerts, even if there are a few more masks than normal in the audience.