Monday, May 30th, is Memorial Day in America, a federal holiday originally conceived as a day when flags and flowers would be placed on the graves of soldiers who had died in the American Civil War. Over the ensuing century, it has become a day in which those who have died in all of America's wars are honored.
But many Americans today experience Memorial Day as simply the official start of the summer vacation season, or confuse it with Veteran's Day, a holiday that honors those who fought in America's wars and lived. New York City's Central Park is a good place to sample the range of meanings this holiday has assumed. "Mike," a twenty-something from South Carolina who is visiting the Big Apple with his girlfriend, is succinct in relating what the day means to him.
"Not a whole lot," he says. "Honoring veterans. It was a little before my time, so [it has] no personal significance. I didn't experience any of it. But I think it's great for the people that did. It's a nice day off though. So why not?"
Nearby, three retirees sitting on a bench are deeply absorbed in a game of cards. One of them puts down his cards, and referring sarcastically to the affluent young professionals who flock each summer to the beach resorts of eastern Long Island, he offers this opinion of what Memorial Day means:
"It means all these yuppies get to rent their houses out in Southampton and we [others] get New York to ourselves," he said. After pausing, he looks up and says "I mean it should mean more, right? You should think about people who have made sacrifices for this country, right? That's what Memorial Day should be about."
A dapper gentleman who was a sailor in World War II begins to nod his head, as if in both agreement and disgust. "It [Memorial Day] means that a lot of men and women gave up their life for our country," he says, "and too many people don't appreciate that. They should read American history!"
Like many New York area residents, "Sam" recently experienced American history up close. He says the event changed his view of Memorial Day forever.
"It didn't use to mean as much as it does. With September 11th, it has a lot more significance… just to remember what has been done for our country and the sacrifices that have been made. I think we forget about it very quickly and I don't choose to do that."
Unlike "Sam," "Elizabeth," will not fly an American flag on her front lawn this . But that doesn't mean she is apathetic about Memorial Day.
"I do not celebrate it [Memorial Day] in any way," she says, "I just acknowledge it. … It's remembering the guys that gave us our freedoms -- the ones who fought and died, and the ones who came home…."
"Chris," a park groundskeeper from Long Island, New York, appreciates that attitude.
"I am a veteran," he says, "and so it's nice to know that we are remembered for the work and the service that we have done for this country. I've known a lot of people who have gone to other countries for the cause and some of them came back injured. It's a real tough situation and I'm glad to know that it's being recognized. It's definitely a serious day."
When asked how he intends to note the day, Chris shot back "I have a family full of veterans so we kind of get together and sit around and talk about some of the things we did in the service. And then we get around with the family and we go out and try to make the best of the holiday that we can."
At 105 years old, World War I vet Max Grill can afford to take the long view of Memorial Day and all the war-related sacrifices it commemorates. Memorial Day seems to make him sad.
"I always look backwards and think of the mistakes that people around this world make [and] how they hate one another." After a long pause, he adds, hopefully, "Perhaps in days to come, the world will be a more peaceful world to live in where people will respect one another. It's always good to be alive!"
The range of attitudes about Memorial Day seem almost as diverse as America itself, and on Monday, when most Americans are free from the urgency of work, many will be free to ponder its meaning for themselves, their families, their country, and the world.