I grew up an overly earnest child in the 80s and in my small town we said the pledge of allegiance every morning in the public school. And while I could clown around and question authority at other times during the day, in the morning I made sure my spine was straight, my hand firmly on my heart. My words were clear, as some of my classmates would mumble. My body turned, my eyes fastened on the flag. There were certain things you could mess with in life, but not the pledge. I was always astounded at the children- and yes, sometimes adults- who didn’t stand quickly, who didn’t pledge sincerely. For me it was a part of being American. I didn’t understand yet what that might mean, but I knew that the pledge was solemn and meant something so profound that I wouldn’t dare risk the wrath of whatever higher power was watching my action and judging my intent.
Soon enough, I was donning my brown Girl Scout jumper every week to meet after school at a local church. So many silly memories of the time come rushing back- of crafts and songs and camping and navigating the social landmines of being a girl- but what I remember most is the flag at the front of the room and ending each meeting grasping the small sweaty hand of the girl next to you while singing Taps.
Day is done, gone the sun, From the lake, from the hills, from the sky; All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
And I knew in my young heart that God was nigh. He was close and He cared and He was watching and He knew that I believed in Him.
And that uniform, dotted with badges sewn on by my mother, would be put back on with incredible care so that I could march in the parades that would wind through our main street and end at Rose Hill Cemetery. At the gravestones, small flags and plastic flowers would be carefully placed and we would end the ceremony among them with a lone trumpet playing Taps. The sound of that in my memory still brings me to tears. Day is done, gone the sun….
In a few simple years, I would live next to that cemetery in an old house and I could look out the tiny triangle window in my closet and see the cemetery at night. It became my sacred playground, where I would ride my bike and gaze at the gravestones. The ones of babies who never got a chance at life. The ancient stones with dates whose etchings were beginning to become indistinct. Countless hours spent on a bench next to the memorial with a small fish pond. I would wonder about the lives that came before these stones. And I came to recognize the surnames engraved so carefully. They were relatives of my classmates, my neighbors.
And soon, they bore the names of those that I loved dearly.
First, it was my grandfather, “Poppy”. A man who spent his life working at General Electric and when I stayed with my grandparents he would bring White Castles when he came home from second shift. He would also fill old tin coffee tins with his spare change and those became the funds that would eventually send me to college. My grandparents moved closer to us and I was able to walk to their new suburban tract house when we all lived “behind Van Luenens,” which remains a geographical designation, despite the long absence of that particular store. This was the home where my grandfather would grow tomatoes and zucchini and roses. The place we would celebrate holidays. And then it was the place where my grandfather recovered from his stroke and learned to function with the use of just one hand. It was the place I would go so that I could trim my grandpa’s nails, since he couldn’t anymore. And with his good hand, he would still put up Christmas lights, still pull out the one dollar bills that he would use to pay me for each “A” on my report card. He would gather my grandmother, myself and my baby brother and drive his small red, modified car to Norma’s Restaurant, where he would proudly show off his grandkids to the other old timers while my grandmother ordered peanut butter pie.
But the memory that is most vivid to me today is that of my grandfather using his good hand to turn the pages of the scrapbook that held the images of his time of service in WWII. The brittle pages held pictures of a handsome young man posing by seductive female forms drawn on the noses of airplanes. Of that same man brandishing a machete, and later mocking the image of Adolph Hitler. And then we would come to the page with the folded white silk of the Japanese flag that was spotted with blood. A souvenir of something so intangible that I still refuse to put words together to try to describe it. We never talked of the war outside of the times that we looked at the scrapbook. And before I could blink, his name was carved on a stone in Rose Hill, a small American Flag placed in his honor on Veteran’s Day.
And then it was my grandmother. My “Mom-mom.” A woman whose love was so profound in my life that I still have a hard time controlling my tears even twenty years after her death. It still pains me that she left this world when I was still too immature to really know her. In my lifetime, she was frail and small. She battled lung cancer and uncomfortable wigs my whole life. She was the giver of treats and unconditional love. The maker of zucchini bread and memories. I have countless writings dedicated to her memory and her role in my life. But most outstanding is the picture I have of her in her youth, looking glamorous and standing on a building in New York City, when she served as Sergeant in the Women’s Army Corps. We never spoke of it and I wish we did. I don’t know what her life was like, what she did, what she saw. I have that picture- and the etchings on her gravestone- to remind me that there was much more to her story.
My other grandfather fought in the Korean War. He was emotional, cantankerous- especially as we debated politics- and I think, at times, befuddled how someone like me could have popped up in his family tree. I don’t know of all of the ways that war affected him and his story went to rest with him. But I do know- quite clearly- that he took great pride in the idea that his family continued to grow and that with each new birth, his story continues. I have incredible gratitude that before he passed I was able to introduce him to my newborn son
Today, on this Veteran’s Day, I think of the many lives that I have only glimpsed in on. Of the volunteer who proudly showed me the photos of her newly enlisted son. Later, she shared his wedding photos and then that of his pregnant wife. And then, right after I had moved hundreds of miles away, his obituary. His memorial. A picture of the child he did not get to see born. There are other stories still too new and too sore to tell, some that I do not own but that have clenched my heart all the same.
At times I have lost faith in the human race. My belief in fairness and compassion have been tested and shaken. I no longer have the blind, unquestioning zeal of childhood to neglect the bumps of reality that crop up when considering the world. I can hardly stomach politics. But my patriotism is soaked in sincere love and woven into my fiber of my story. And again I thank those who protect and those who make it worth protecting.