Of all the memorials in and about Woodhaven, of all of the monuments and tributes to those who sacrificed their lives for our country, I think the most touching is the Memorial Trees in Forest Park.
Woodhaven was a small but growing community and World War I took a tremendous toll on its population. Week after week, names of young Woodhaven men who were killed in battle appeared under the somber headline Taps on the front page of the very newspaper you are reading right now.
By the time the war had ended, over 60 bright young lights had been extinguished, their lives ‘sacrificed on the altar of liberty,’ as the Leader-Observer described it in 1918.
After the war had ended the families of the fallen, supported by the residents of Woodhaven, came up with a plan to create a unique memorial that would live on for years to come.
One tree was planted in the name of each fallen soldier along the road through Forest Park. On Sunday, May 11th 1919, residents from Woodhaven gathered in Forest Park, across from the golf clubhouse, and took part in a somber ceremony honoring their lives.
That year, and each year after, the families of the fallen would decorate their loved ones’ tree for Memorial Day. For the families, it was more than just a memorial. For them, it was a place to grieve their losses.
The names of the fallen soldiers would be etched in bronze and affixed to a large marble monument. If you want to see those names, that monument now sits in the front yard of American Legion Post 118 on 91st Street and 89th Avenue.
But it’s the memorial in Forest Park, the long row of 103-year old trees, which really touched me as each of those trees each had a very personal connection to the families of the dead.
As time marched on, the tradition began to fade and was all but lost by the time yet another World War came to pass. Pretty soon, even the memories of this lovely tradition were gone.
But this tradition was revived in 2015 when the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society rediscovered the purpose of the trees. And ever since, residents of Woodhaven have decorated the trees and paid honor to these young men from Woodhaven.
But on top of paying tribute to the soldiers, I think the purpose of the tree decorations is to honor the families and the pain and loss that they all suffered.
On Memorial Day, we all pause and pay tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives in service to our country. And then, we go back to our lives.
But for the families of the dead, their pain goes on and on. And every day, when the sun rises and the sun sets, their pain is still there. To me, that’s what the Memorial Trees symbolize; that although the young men the trees were planted for have been gone for over a century, the pain their families endured continued long after.
And so, it is very fitting that the residents of this community carry on this tradition in the names of the families who lived with this pain for so many years. And I think that if those families knew that their neighbors were carrying on that very personal tradition a century later, it would help ease their pain, even just a little bit.
A small group gathered this Monday in Forest Park and one by one, decorated the trees. At the back end of the trees, where the road is now closed to vehicular traffic, we paused for a moment of silence and played Taps.
We have no guarantees this tradition will continue deep into the future. We hope it will. We hope that future generations will learn of this and continue to honor the fallen and their families for many years to come.
But in the here and now, the best we can do is to remember and to pray; to pray that these families found some measure of comfort in their lives.
And together we pray that someday there will be no need for any new memorials. That would be the most fitting tribute of all, and it can be summed up in one word – Peace.