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NO ONE HAS documented precisely how Memorial Day truly began, but tradition gives the credit to a few southern women who, toward the close of the Civil War, decorated the graves of soldiers -- from both the Union and Confederate armies -- at the end of May.

It was a gentle, spring-like gesture of reverence and honor and memory that, even in those days of bitter and bloody war, embraced those Americans on both sides who had paid the ultimate price.

Northern observances began in Waterloo, N.Y., in 1866. Gradually this tradition has grown to honor the more than 1,160,000 men and women who served their country and died in the performance of their duties from the American revolution until now.

And today, from Western New York and around the country to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Americans will decorate the graves of these lost comrades and honor their sacrifice in an act of collective memory.

A collective memory, yes, but also one that carries within it individualized portraits of thousands of those who most recently died -- individualized portraits etched in the hearts and minds of fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, children and others who survive them.

So Memorial Day is, appropriately, a day of caring and tending to the memories not of some faceless dead but, throughout history, of specific men and women who because of time and circumstance and belief fought and died -- as single individuals -- in the defense of this nation and its values.

The redemption of those deaths, collectively and individually, is that this nation and its freedoms are indeed worth the ultimate sacrifice.

Without such sacrifices, and the willingness to make them in the past, in the present and, almost inevitably, in the future, those freedoms would have been and surely will be weakened or even lost.

To endure and thrive, freedom requires men and women of courage and conviction.

In a Memorial Day statement, H.F. Gierke, national commander of the American Legion, noted that the Legion's task "is to ensure that Americans everywhere remember these men and women -- and honor their service and sacrifice. We, the veterans of America, will never forget our friends in uniform who paid so much so others would be free."

Today we remember with gratitude the men and women who did not forget the price of freedom. Men and women who died so that we could remember -- so that we would not forget.

We do not and must not.

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