Guest column: Is Memorial Day a day for the living or the dead?

Harriet Freiberger
Guest column
Jim Stanko, adjutant for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4264 and American Legion Post 44, returns the United States flag to full mast after a Memorial Day ceremony at Steamboat Springs Cemetery in 2022.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The question rises as shadows of the past cloud the shining brightness of those Americans who stood against our country’s enemies.

Since the Revolutionary War ended, more than a 1.1 million American troops have given their lives in battle. What would those who died say to us today? And what would we say to them about our current population’s estrangement one from another?

Certainly this nation has struggled with division since its beginning, achieving a delicate balance between freedom and inter-dependence. Citizenship exists within the limits of the uniquely defined agreement that is the Constitution of the United States. For the last 247 years its words have defined the responsibilities accompanying its guarantee of freedom. History has validated the potential of its founders’ hopes and dreams.

The past speaks for itself. Now, the present demands attention from those of us who are building the new past. Just as we have watched and been part of this past winter’s deep whiteness covering our valley, so are we feeling something larger in the ongoing disturbance of our foundational values.

The incoming President, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, observed back in 1953 on the occasion of his inauguration, “How far have we come in man’s long pilgrimage from darkness toward light? Are we nearing the light — a day of freedom and of peace for all mankind? Or are the shadows of another night closing in upon us?”

Our home on the Western Slope of the age-old Rocky Mountains, clearly visible, measured in metes and bounds, represents more than a link to the past. Living here on this day in history’s 21st century offers a stratum where life and death connect what has been with what exists in this moment. That place exists in cities and towns built by generations of men and women, Americans all.

Now welcome greenness is spreading across our valley. Perhaps we the living can brighten our outlook and mirror the freshness of trees and grasses returning to our Western Slope home. Would that our country’s winter of discontent could end with a springtime like that which reveals the water our valley’s record snow has left for the summer that lies ahead. Perhaps, daring to touch a solid memory of togetherness, those who live today can build the necessary strength to erect the next citadel of connection.

Memorial Day pulls the generations together into a place not often frequented. More than a cemetery where those who have died have been laid to rest, the ground where we gather on this day of remembrance pulls a community’s people into a togetherness of understanding. We touch the memory of Pearl Harbor and the power of 49 nations united against the would-be conqueror, connection offering a path through a changing world to its future,

This last Monday in May brings together a community with a common purpose. Sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters offer respect and honor those who have served to defend the country that most represents freedom to the millions who live outside its borders. 

Memories sustain and preserve the untouchable presence of departed loved ones. Sharing those memories keeps them vibrant for the young whose predecessors have come from afar to set foot on land that holds the promise of freedom. Treasured remembrance of what has been adds a radiance to this day and opens pathways toward the future.

Words speak of the past, but the light they evoke clarifies a focus upon hope for what lies ahead. We who live today are the connectors, drawn to this  place where memories sustain and preserve the gift of today in the United States of America.

Harriet Freiberger has been a resident of North Routt since 1982.

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