Some people who take in interest in genealogy discover that they are Irish when they thought they were Scottish. Others find a long-lost cousin. When I began looking at my family history I found out that my great-great grandmother murdered my great-great grandfather with an axe on a snowy winter's night in Detroit, Michigan in 1910.
Nellie Kniffen's violent rampage and her husband Frank's grisly demise was front page news in Detroit for several weeks, but she and her crime were soon forgotten, both by the public and by her family. Those who remembered it tried hard to forget it and those who came after knew nothing about it at all.
Through research of public records, personal interviews and a review of the sensationalistic newspaper stories written before Frank Kniffen's body grew cold, I unearthed a chapter which had been torn out of my family's history. And I began to better understand the ghosts and demons which have haunted my family for over a century.
UPDATE: I had an e-book about all of this but I eventually put the whole thing up for free here!
In the past several years many have made a point -- a good point -- to gently remind people that Memorial Day is not the same thing as Veterans Day. To remind us that this day is not set aside to thank living military members or veterans for their service and it's certainly not a day for patriotic platitudes or displays to eclipse our commemoration of those who died in service to our country.
But while the "it's Memorial Day, not Veterans Day" correctives are worth acknowledging, I think there is something similar to how we tend to approach both holidays that is equally worth acknowledging.
Memorial Day is a holiday commemorating those who died in war. Indeed, it is rooted in literal visits to the graves of the fallen. Veterans Day, originally anyway, was a holiday intended to celebrate the ending of a war. While the former has informally morphed into something else and the latter was officially changed to encompass a different purpose, the fact remains that our nation, for whatever reason, has moved away from the notion that war is bad, that its byproducts are tragic and that its ending should be celebrated. It has, instead, filled those spaces with patriotism and, in some cases nationalism and militarism.
It says a lot about where we are as a country right now that we have pushed the bad parts of war out of our national consciousness and have wholly disposed with celebrating the endings of wars. Maybe it's because, these days, our wars do not end.
Whatever the case, I do not think that focusing and reflecting upon the tragedy of war and celebrating the ending of wars are bad things nor do they do a disservice to those who have fought and who have died. To the contrary, I can think of nothing that would honor and aid those men and women more.