Taking Time To Remember On Memorial Day

06/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In theory, Memorial Day is to honor the memories of those who sacrificed their lives in military service for our country. In practice, some visit cemeteries to plant flowers at graves of family, but typically we celebrate this long weekend, marking it by opening swimming pools and beginning the bar-b-q season. Or it's a marker of fashion change. Reform Rabbi Steven Heneson Moskowitz learned this from his religious school students:

"One girl told the rabbi '... after Memorial Day one can wear white.' I had no idea what she was talking about. With complete unawareness of my social inadequacies, I asked, 'What do you mean you can wear white?' The girls became excited and animated. Here was a chance to teach their rabbi about fashion etiquette. 'After Memorial Day, you can wear white pants and carry a white pocketbook,' one girl explained. 'You can always wear a white shirt, but only after Memorial Day can you really wear white.' I was dumbfounded. I looked to the [women] ... teachers for help. 'Yes,' they nodded to me. 'It is true. After Memorial Day, you can wear white. But only until Labor Day.' 'Why?' I asked. One girl attempted to answer me. 'You just don't.' They all looked at each other and nodded. I was still perplexed. They were still certain. --Hadassah Magazine Extra

As a society, we value or are seduced away from our values by speed, by instant communication around the globe and ever-increasing computer bandwidths. We're so busy doing -- persuaded that what we do will give us meaning. If we stop long enough to take a breath, which is the opportunity of a holi-day (holy day) we realize that what we really yearn for is intimacy, the real connections that tether us to earth and to each other.

Our deepest connections and fondest memories may be bound up with those who are no longer living. Intimate connections are not limited to life.

In a workshop I recently led, I asked participants to write a legacy letter to someone to make an amend or express a regret. After the workshop, a rather troubled-looking young woman approached me to say that she thought she'd done it "wrong." I assured her that every legacy letter is unique and there is no way to write it wrong, Did she want to share what she'd written? She explained that she'd written her letter to apologize to her father. I felt confused -- what was wrong? She continued, clarifying that her father was dead. I said, "No problem; now you know that death doesn't end relationships." She looked relieved...and then before she left, she reflected that she felt really good about what she'd written, and she believed she couldn't have told her father while he was alive.

This experience reinforced my understanding that relationships don't end with death. That healing and transformation can happen when we simply stop, recall, reflect about, and reclaim our memories, honoring those no longer here in the flesh.

One more thing before we get practical with some ideas for legacy writing to transform your weekend into a holi-day.

Many years ago, when I was a practicing therapist, my former husband and I went to a professional dinner; we were seated with a couple we didn't know. As soon as we introduced ourselves, the men started to talk business, and I guess we did too. We began a conversation about our children. I no longer remember how it came up, but she mentioned that she'd lost a child in his first few weeks of life. I murmured some appropriate words of condolence, and then I asked her what his name was. She began to cry, hesitated, and through her tears she said his name was Alexander. She went on, still crying, to explain that she'd not said his name aloud since he'd been buried fifteen years earlier. She thanked me for asking, and giving her the opportunity to speak aloud the name of this beloved and lost baby, who was rarely spoken of, and never named.

The very first legacy we receive at birth is our name. I quote here from chapter one "What's in a Name?" in my own book, Women's Lives, Women's Legacies:

Most of us take our name for granted, never fully exploring this essential part of our identity.

Your name connects you to your family and ethnic group, to your heritage. It marks the place in the world where you belong. . . .your name connects you to the past. It speaks of memory, legacy, and immortality, of a special relationship with the person for whom you were named.

From a legacy perspective, Memorial Day on the calendar provides us an opportunity to make the secular sacred, to name, remember, communicate with, and preserve memories of family members now gone.

Some suggestions/action steps:

1. With your favorite pen and paper available, choose someone who's died who you want to remember today. He or she may be a veteran of a war (Iraq, Gulf, Viet Nam, Korea, WWII or earlier) or your parent or grandparent, a partner, a child. Choose someone whose memory you want to honor, someone who you cared about or loved, someone who was special in your life, someone who left legacies especially for you, perhaps someone for whom you were named.

2. Write the person's name and today's date at the top of your paper.

3. Take a few minutes to focus your thoughts on the person: reflect, remember, recall and jot notes as you do.

4. Next take no more than fifteen minutes to write a letter to the person or your memories about the person to capture and preserve your memories.

5. Consider sharing what you write with family or others who knew this person, perhaps making it part of the weekend's barbeque. Or consider inviting anyone at the pool party to share memories of or a legacy from a family member who has died. It may be the beginning of a family legacy book to preserve memories that can be read again and again, and added to each year. Take time to make this day a Memorial Day.

May your Memorial Day be filled with the riches of memory as you remember your loved ones.