Today was Veterans Day – one of those days, scattered throughout the calendar, when we’re given a break from our normal routine. We (at least those of us who live in the lands of plentiful federal employment) have absorbed such days as a matter of course. The federal holidays aren’t so much the secular versions of that word’s root (holy day), but rather “holidays” in that more British sense – what we call “vacation”.
Sure, in this, the Age of Facebook, lots of us post online remembrances of our favorite veterans and change our profile pictures accordingly. But I’d venture to say that for the vast majority of Americans, November 11 is no different from the days immediately before and after it. Except, of course, that federal employees and other lucky ducks don’t have to set their alarm clocks. The same goes for Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Day, and Columbus Day. Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day are special insofar as they involve barbecues, and maybe fireworks or parades.
I’ve always been a little unsettled by this tendency to take something that’s supposed to be special and treat it like it’s not. After all, if we’re not focusing on Veterans on Veterans Day or Martin Luther King on his day or Columbus’ “discovery” of the new world on that day, then what’s the point? Why give out a handful of vacation days and pretend they’re special?
When my husband and I started our family, I figured it was time for me to change things. I was going to make my mark – at least on my husband and myself and however many little people we ushered into this world. I wanted to do more than vaguely “remember” the reasons for those days. I wanted to mark them in ways that would teach my children about sacrifice, about civic responsibility, about making a difference – the secular values that (I imagine) are supposed to be imparted by the observance of the federal holidays. (Note: I also wanted to teach my children about religious holidays and the values their observance is supposed to impart. I aspired to live out both the federal and liturgical calendars.)
So far, I’ve mostly failed.
So far, I’ve mostly contented myself with “remembering” the reason for a holiday and tossing a few prayers heavenward. I’ve gotten too comfortable in the “I love plenty of veterans!” mentality. After all, my husband is a veteran. His father and stepfather were. My father is and my grandfather was. Brennan and I both have uncles and cousins who are veterans, or who still serve. Our nephew is a veteran. I grew up in an Army town and spent much of my young adulthood in a Navy one. So I’m covered, right? I can claim to “understand,” to “honor,” to “remember,” simply because I love. Right?
That thought, of course, feels about as empty as it is. I don’t deserve a pass on this one. Very few of us do. If I value that which is supposedly honored by a holiday, then I should act like it.
On our first Veterans Day after becoming parents, Brennan and I took our then five-month-old to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the graves of our son’s namesakes. Our boy is named for my Great-Uncle Breck, who served in World War II and went on to make his entire career in the U.S. Navy. My great-uncle, in turn, was named for his Uncle Breck, who served in the Army in World War I and was killed on a battlefield in France, less than a week before the Armistice was signed. (Heartbreaking, isn’t it?) We plopped our baby down on the grass in front of those two men’s graves. We took pictures. We talked about how we’d continue to go to Arlington as our son grew, about how we’d teach him about his namesakes’ sacrifices. Veterans Day became more personal to us.
We named our second son in honor of a veteran too – this time my husband’s father, who served in the Army. We took a picture of him sitting at his grandfather’s grave in a military cemetery in Minnesota.
But we haven’t done much since. We’ve made one more Veterans Day trip to Arlington, but we’ve treated the others pretty much like normal days. We haven’t marked Memorial Days, Labor Days, Martin Luther King Days, or any of those other federal holidays (or Catholic Holy Days, for that matter).
We’ve done just a little teaching. Today I had a five-minute conversation in the car with my boys, trying to explain Veterans Day to them. For now, they’re young and they don’t understand much. To explain veterans, I first had to explain the military, and then war. I had to hope that they understood the concept of “country.”
Soon enough, though, my boys will be older and better able to understand such things. And I’ll need to be ready. If I want them to honor veterans, I’ll have to show them how. If I want them to memorialize those who died for our country, I’ll have to do it first. If I want them to value the contributions of workers and explorers and those who fought for civil rights, then I’ll have to make sure my boys understand just how valuable those contributions were.
So next year, I need to do more than remember. I need to save those freebie days for the observations they deserve. I need to head back to Arlington. I need to pull out photos and have more involved conversations. I need to find real, tangible, and teachable ways in which to honor.