"MEMORIAL OF WHAT?" the children ask. The experienced parent, having been nicked with the question before, knows the answer. It was originally the recollection of the men who died, long ago, in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and bitter struggle over national unity. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of middle age, particularly if he grew up in a [WORD ILLEGIBLE], remembers the annual event as a parade of [WORD ILLEGIBLE]. First the Boy Scouts, pink cheeks and [WORD ILLEGIBLE]. Then the World War I contingent in their [WORD ILLEGIBLE], stomach sucked in carefully, in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the strain on the buttons. Then two or three [WORD ILLEGIBLE] fragile figures, probably riding in cars, who [WORD ILLEGIBLE] served in the Civil War. It was a march to [WORD ILLEGIBLE] , usually, or to a statue.

[WORD ILLEGIBLE] World War I veterans sold poppies on that occasion, to benefit the disabled. But the government takes better care of the disabled these days, most of the people who felt strongly about selling poppies as an act of commemoration are under [WORD ILLEGIBLE] There was a man selling popies on 15th street tne other morning, but he was the only one [WORD ILLEGIBLE] this year.

[WORD ILLEGIBLE] change, like most other things, and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] fade. The day has now become, for most people a celebration of the automobile. It's a great [WORD ILLEGIBLE] car, representing s kind of freedom of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] that Americans cherish. Memorial Day is the official opening of the summer driving season, which will run for three months to Labor Day. It's [WORD ILLEGIBLE] that the meaning of Labor Day has changed, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] having less to do with the labor than with [WORD ILLEGIBLE] for Memorial Day, the central public event [WORD ILLEGIBLE] was the auto race at the Indianapolis [WORD ILLEGIBLE] - replicated, in its noise and fumes, but at the lower speeds, on all interstate highways leading to beaches, lakes and stadiums. There will be the usual jams at some of the tunnels and bridges. Fortunately most cars now have air conditioning, rendering the wait less uncomfortable.

Memorial Day is no longer fixed on a traditional date, but floats to whatever day might most conveniently offer a three-day weekend. That innovation was conceived and lobbied into law several years ago by a coalition of oil companies and tourist industries. It was a thoroughly pragmatic and American adaptation. Since the holiday seemed to be losing its original purpose, why not find it a new one - less noble, possibly, but useful in increasing sales and economic growth?

The damage that the Vietnam War did to this country can bemeasured in the transformation of Memorial Day. It was, traditionally, an attempt by the community to speak in gratitude to the enduring private griefs and sense of loss that wars inflict on the survivors. It tried to address that desolation by speaking of the purpose of sacrifice in preserving things of value visible in those parades: civility, continutiy, a solemn sense of the obligations that the past lays upon us.

Drive carefully. The evening news will recite the accident statistics, and you don't want to be one of them. Be patient, and leave the racing to Indianapolis. Doubtless some people will again decorate graves today. But it's getting harder to organize parades. Too many people are out of town. If you have a moment, you might think about the last line of the proclamation that established the first Memorial Day, in 1868: "Let . . . no ravages of time testify to the present or coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic."