Every year as Memorial Day approaches we’re all reminded through various media that we should remember what Memorial Day is really about. That we have this long weekend, not to kick off summer, but to honor those who gave all fighting for our country — and for those of us who haven’t served, on our behalf.
Very few Americans intentionally ignore that aspect of Memorial Day, the memorializing part. It’s likely more to do with the fact that the number of Americans who have lost someone they knew personally during wartime, particularly in the last generation, is a blessedly small number. But whether we knew them or not, this day is the one day a year we set aside to pay our respects to the men and women who died serving their country.
It is truly a blessing we live in a time when the true purpose of the holiday hasn’t touched home for so many of us. For those it has, one day of decoration and remembrance no doubt seems insufficient. Regardless, it is up to us to remember the countless Americans who died in battle, not to pick up more hot dog buns on the next beer run.
Every Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I go with my mother and her first cousin, Sharon, and usually a handful of other relatives, to lay wreaths and flags at the headstones of family members who served in the military, all during wartime. Not to diminish their service, these men thankfully all made it home and raised families and lived their lives for several decades after returning from war.
I’ve walked through the rows at Woodlawn Cemetery in Ferndale, Washington for as long as I can remember. My sisters and I only ever knew our great grandparents in pictures and as the names on a headstone with “JOHNSON” taking up the entire upper half. Over the years, Edna and Melvin’s children have all been buried nearby. A luxury Edna’s own grandparents knew they’d never have with their son, Henry.
Henry Christen was my last relative on either side of my family to die whilst serving in the military.
While both sides of my family have traceable roots in America to pre-Revolutionary War days, Henry was the son of German immigrants — not necessarily a desirable thing. His father, Carl, was forced to sign a “Declaration of Intent” in May of 1918, rejecting any allegiance or fidelity to “William II, German Emperor,” despite the fact that he’d immigrated 47 years prior.
Working with his family in the logging industry, Henry left the mountains to enlist in the Army in Bellingham, Washington, a month to the day after turning 28 in 1918. By August he was on the frontlines in France. I have yet to research all the details of where the 364th Infantry was fighting in October, but somewhere along the way, Henry was wounded. On October 21, he succumbed to his wounds and was buried 5,000 miles from home in the St. Mihiel American Cemetery in Thiaucourt, France.
In 1929, his mother, Johanna, was asked by the Mother’s Pilgrimage if she would like to make the trip to her son’s grave. Apparently, at 74, my 4x great grandmother had decided one trip across the Atlantic in her lifetime was enough, as she declined.
These are the men and women we remember and honor today. While it’s human to ignore the things we’re removed from and propensity to relax and celebrate on holidays, that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook for appreciating the real reason we get to do so and those no longer here to relax with us.
There are men and women, like Henry, throughout American history and it’s only right to seek them out, learn their names, and honor them on Memorial Day.