For several years during my childhood, Memorial Day meant dressing in my Girl Scout uniform and marching in the town parade. My parents always came to see me, as I struggled to keep the flag aloft and to stay in step.
The parade ended near the library, before a small, shiny monument on which strangers' names were etched deeply in marble. A town official would speak about those people who bravely gave their lives in war. I didn't pay much attention because I wanted to be out of uniform, riding my bicycle.
Besides, my father had fought in World War II and there were few discussions about it, let alone speeches. I'd seen the evidence of his participation: his Navy whites in the attic; the stripes and metal bars, formerly on his uniform, in a dresser drawer; a cast-iron replica of the USS Boxer as a catchall for paper clips, rubber bands, and stamps.
It was years before I learned that the Boxer was a warship, and not a synonym for ''container.'' And more years passed before I discovered that Memorial Day had far more significance for my father than watching me in a parade.
I found a newspaper clipping - an article he had written in 1943 for the Raleigh News and Observer. He was 25, on duty in the South Pacific then. His kid brother, Bob, had been fighting in North Africa.
''As long as he was fighting, eating, and going from day to day,'' my father had written, ''I didn't think too much about it. His part as a private in the Army was, I thought, being done in a way normally expected by Americans.''
Then on Aug. 11, when Bob was 22, he was killed. ''The long day that brought me the news brought back the two lives that were lived so far apart after 1941, '' continued the article. ''I could see so very clearly the days we played war in open cornfields, the nights I had spun long yarns of exotic lands that he and I would someday visit together.
''I think I once told him a story about a wounded knight who was left behind while his comrades pressed on. A knight who died quietly, like the unselfish life he had lived, and who was buried by the angels on a hillside overlooking a city he had helped to conquer. And every night the stars came out to shine brightly through the clear air near the blue sea, for these were symbols of other knights who had given their lives for some principle, like freedom, justice, honesty. Even though the knight was in peace and living among these other stars, still there were several who remembered - perhaps just a couple of his buddies - and were braver and kinder because he had lived on the earth.
''Some night again I'll see the stars over Constantine; and I'll climb up into the very hills, just to gaze into the dust over an earthly reminder that he is still with me, as surely as the stars.''
My earthly reminder still stands on the library lawn. I drive past it almost every day and whether I look at it or not, I know in my heart it is there.