Spring does not come easily to New Hampshire. By January, after the holidays, the routine of dealing with the snow, the cold, the gray skies and long nights can weigh down the soul.
But by the last of March, you notice the farmers have put out their sap buckets and it’s still daylight when you get home from work. The morning walk with the dog is not such a chore because the sun is up and there’s a mildness in the air. That’s when you know the back of Old Man Winter is broken. Soon you will be firing up the grill and serving thick, medium-rare steaks and cold martinis to friends on Memorial Day. The lilacs are blooming, the kids are playing ball in the yard, you’ve been to the parade and, well, how could life get any better?
Memorial Day began after the Civil War as “Decoration Day,” annually honoring May 30th as sacred “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion …”
In modern times, this sober holiday has morphed into Memorial Day Weekend, a jolly three-day national vacation, signaling the unofficial beginning of summer. “Here, here …”
As a nation at war, however, Memorial Day is beginning to tug at the nation’s heart once again in that deeper, old-fashioned way. Even without the war, it was bound to happen, with a thousand veterans from the World War II era dying every day. That’s a lot of funerals, a lot of grandparents, dads and moms, other loved ones who won’t be here next year.
If you drive five miles north on Route 3 from Exit 17 off I-93, you will come to the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery. The granite, upright headstones are aligned row upon row with
military precision and the effect of this alone is moving. The grass is carefully tended, the monuments speak of the best this country has offered up to a dangerous, uncertain world. A closer look will tell you another thing. This is a very busy place. You see fresh graves. Dozens of them, many with temporary markers, awaiting permanent stones.
More than 400 a year are interred here and that number is rising, says Cemetery Director Roger Desjardins. Some Fridays, there will be six or seven funerals. There are more than 10,000 pre-approved applications on file, and more than 2,000 have been interred since the cemetery opened in 1997. Occupying 104 acres of a former state forest, the area has space for an estimated 70,000 graves.
A walk along the rows fills you with a sense of reverence. Among those born in the ’20s and ’30s and earlier lie a surprising number born in the ’40s and ’50s, soldiers from the Vietnam era. Then you shake your head because you also know that some who rest here, we ourselves have sent to war. These are the ones who have died on our watch, and you can’t help but think perhaps there will be more.
Because of that last part — the idea that “We the People” are ultimately the ones who have sent the best of the next generation off into harm’s way — means, I suspect for most of us, Memorial Day has changed, never to be quite the same again. There’s no getting away from it, no matter how much we grill our steaks and sip our martinis and watch the children play. NH
Dean Dexter served six years in the New Hampshire Army National Guard and is a former contributing editor of this magazine.