While today was originally designed to help us remember the sacrifices of brave heroes who fought for our freedoms, Memorial Day has evolved into an event built around backyard parties with family and friends.

As the official start of the summer grilling season, millions of people head outdoors to dust off the patio furniture, light up the barbecue, chill the sodas and beer, and welcome the sun-filled, fun-filled days of summer.

And my family was no different. I grew up in a household where a three-day weekend was cherished as if it were a winning lottery ticket. That glorious extra day off told us there was a holiday to be acknowledged, and that meant gathering people together to share a meal. Like rolling out the red carpet for royalty, my mother and father—who were true foodies before the title was a household word—eagerly anticipated dinner parties, backyard barbecues, and long, sunburned days on the lake with ice chests full of picnic food.

But as much as they encouraged us to partake of the festivities of the long weekend, the real symbolism of Memorial Day wasn’t lost on them. In fact, my mother and father were both veterans.

The military, though, wasn't my mother's true calling in life. Not by a long shot. As a young woman in 1944, my mother was encouraged to enlist as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in the U.S. Navy by a cousin who told her it would be great for them both. Mom, toiling through marital woes at the time, agreed, and off they went through separate doors at the recruiting office. By the time the day was over, mom was an “apprentice seaman”—and her cousin had chickened out. As the story goes, it seems this cousin was more interested in Mom's estranged husband than she was in navigating a military career. Getting Mom out of the way was her strategically planned course of action.

But, life has a way of working itself out again. When she met and married my father, Mom entered into a union more suitable to her interests (no offense to the Navy). Dad was a lover of good food and she was a darn good cook. And over the years, they instilled in me and my sister the wonderful connection between food and people—whether it's a holiday or not—and how keeping that tradition alive will help nurture our relationships, with each other, with friends, and with our growing families.

And so that’s what I think about every year, come Memorial Day. No matter how you feel, live, or vote, there's no denying the sacrifices many have made so the rest of us can happily lose ourselves in a three-day weekend with loved ones. But Memorial Day isn't only about thanking our veterans and missing the ones who are gone. It is about all remembrances, the sweet and the painful, and connecting with the families and friends who bring us joy.

Maybe even more so than the big four-day holiday that rolls around in November, Memorial Day is an occasion to give thanks and show appreciation for the people who have woven themselves into our lives.

On Friday evening, as I sat in the bleachers in the rain waiting for a high school graduation ceremony to begin, I contemplated the menu for our family's upcoming Memorial Day barbecue. I gave a silent thanks to my mother, gone five years now, for leaving me her joy of cooking and baking for others, so that I could continue her mission to bring everyone together for every holiday possible for as long as we possibly can.

And I looked upward with a knowing smile, as suddenly the clouds parted as if on cue, allowing the sun to break through just as the graduates came marching out to take their seats.

Thanks, Mom, for that and so much more.

Photo courtesy of Seth J.