Growing up in Serbia, we did not celebrate Memorial Day. The closest thing was Victory Day on May 9th, marking the anniversary of Germany’s surrender in WWII. The first time I woke at dawn to the drums and trumpets of the local high school band, I was utterly confused. I peeked down to the street from my bedroom window and saw my Midwestern town energized with hundreds of hands waving flags and children squealing as they were showered by candy from the passing cars.
I knew it was a holiday as I was off work that Monday, but nothing prepared me for it. Sure, my co-workers mentioned a parade, but I expected something somber to memorialize fallen compatriots. I was meeting some friends in a park later that day for grilling and wondered what other customs might ambush me. My fears were quieted as soon as we lit the fire and the first steak hit the grill. This was familiar territory and I welcomed the smells and the sounds that enveloped me.
For years, I would wake on Memorial Day at the first hint of dawn, excited to take part in the tradition, pulling the shiny Radio Flyer wagon with one, two, and eventually three squirming children out to the curb to await the first car of the parade. We waved flags and caught candy. We waved to pretty high school girls perching daintily on the seats of convertibles and sent air kisses to fewer and fewer old men in uniform who once protected us while we slept, marching slower year by year.
A plastic cooler on wheels replaced the red wagon, and in went our carefully prepared fare destined for brightly-colored plastic plates. Once we chose the perfect place in the park, close to the playground and with ample shade, Husband would build the fire while I plopped the girls on the blanket and set the wooden table for the feast. Even though we picnicked in an American park on an American holiday, I chose some Serbian dishes, mostly because they were a bit healthier than their USA counterparts: potato salad with diced red onions, dressed in a vinaigrette; roasted peppers with minced garlic; grilled corn served with salt and no butter; piles of grilled colorful vegetables barely kissed with olive oil; salad of the first summer tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers with crumbled feta on top. The entree, however, remained patriotically American, a gift from me to my American husband who rewarded me with a silly grin while a thick steak or a juicy hamburger sizzled on the grill.
The girls are no longer willing to sacrifice sleep for a handful of candy, and we prefer to stay home and grill rather then join the crowds in the park. When I hear the distant thumping of the high school band, I feel a bit nostalgic, but the smell of charcoal always lifts me up from my reverie with the promise of an excellent, flavorful, and definitely good for you Memorial Day meal.