To most of my New York City neighbors, Memorial Day weekend means the beginning of their summer rentals. To my students at the community college, it signals the end of the semester and the start of their vacation.
The holiday had a much different meaning when I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s. On the morning of Memorial Day, we all stood out on the front porch of our Victorian house in downtown Paterson, N.J., to watch the troops file past.
Every other day, that spot was just a platform for entering and exiting our three-story residence. But on Memorial Day, when the city parade marched past our home, the wooden porch became our personal reviewing stand.
My father put the flag on the pole, which he did only for patriotic holidays. It was not like today when Old Glory flies everywhere.
It was fun hanging out with my parents, my sister and brother, my great-aunt, and my godparents and their kids. We all lived on different floors of the same house and usually saw one another only when passing in the hallway. The annual event brought us together as a family. My mother made a pitcher of lemonade, which we drank from paper cups. My godmother brought out cookies.
Army tanks from the Paterson Armory came rolling past our noses. Their guns and rumbling noises scared me when I was little. National Guard units accompanied the tanks. We applauded as World War II veterans filed past.
A convoy of Cadillac convertibles carried the Gold Star Mothers, women who had lost a son or daughter in World War II. They got the biggest hand every year.
Bands from the two high schools marched, and the music director from Central High always waved to my dad. They were colleagues at the school where my father taught English. I liked that annual interaction.
I'm not sure what year the Memorial Day parade stopped. Maybe it ended during the controversial Vietnam War or after the assassinations of the '60s and the race riots downtown. But the procession was over by the time I graduated from high school. I missed it, not just because I liked the excitement and the music, but because it had brought my household together as we honored the veterans.
Every Memorial Day, I flash back to all of us on the porch, cheering and waving. It felt right, almost festive, to salute those who had sacrificed for our country.
I had a similar feeling in 2001 when I stood on the West Side Highway after the terrorist attacks and cheered the rescue workers going to ground zero.
Today, more than 2,000 men and women have been killed in Iraq and many more wounded. Whether we support or oppose this war, I think we need to honor our veterans. Their service was not a day at the beach, and partying should not be the theme of this holiday. I wish more communities would bring back the parades so we could line the sidewalks with our family and friends.