Memorial Day.

It was a day of peonies, flags (iris), lilacs, roses and glass mason jars. But most important, it was a day of reverence and of paying tribute to those servicemen and women who gave their lives to keep our nation safe and protect our freedom. For a kid growing up in Utah, Memorial Day was a solemn day, before the picnics and time for fun family gatherings. Paying tribute to our soldiers and families came first. That's just the way it was.

We used to call it Decoration Day because we decorated with flowers the graves of all loved ones who had died, whether or not they had died in war. But one thing was for sure: A trip to the cemetery was mandatory to pay respects to the dead.

The day before Memorial Day we ran around the house looking for the prized glass quart mason jars and old newspapers (a luxury in those days) used to carry flowers to the cemetery. Early next morning my mother would go out in our garden and cut flowers to take to the cemetery to place on the graves of our families and friends. Sometimes we drove and sometimes we walked to the Mt. Calvary Cemetery. As we traveled there, we would see people on the street corners selling a wide assortment of flowers, peonies being the prize. They were kept fresh in galvanized tin buckets and tubs filled with water.

As kids, we didn't quite grasp what the big deal was about going to the cemetery. All we knew was it was something we had to do. Now I realize it is a sense of duty one has as a member of a society. Some national holidays, such as Memorial Day, are created so we can remember and reaffirm our commitment to the values we hold dear. Values are the common threads that hold a society together. Times may change, but values should not.

Memorial Day is one of those days that reminds us of the importance of life, duty and that freedom is not free and requires sacrifice. When our country was in peril we felt a sense of duty and believed that we were part of something beyond just ourselves.

Up until recent wars, we all worked together, and the dangers and cost of war were felt by all of us. Today, it appears we have become more self-absorbed. We worry about the increasing price of gas, when in those days, we worried about gas stamps to conserve fuel for the war.

Today, it seems we are losing the original purpose and meaning of those national days and reduced them to a holiday — a day off where we are consumed with personal indulgences and have forgotten those common values so important to keep us together as a society.

A nation that doesn't revere and maintain those symbols and customs that honor those who sacrificed their lives and what they stood for — "duty, sacrifice for the greater good, perseverance and personal responsibility" — is one losing the values that once made it a beacon of hope.

Maybe today we can take time to reflect upon what Memorial Day represents and recommit ourselves to those values — the soul of our nation and of our humanity. After all, the future of our society rests with each of us. Maybe it starts with finding mason jars, flowers and a visit to the cemetery for a moment of reflection.

Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, has served as a juvenile probation officer, served on several national corrections boards and was appointed to the President's Commission on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. E-mail: [email protected]