Heroes of the Heart

In 1942, no one instantly became a hero simply by enlisting. Everybody signed up, if they could. Heroes were people who did something selfless and extraordinary under extreme circumstances. Often they died and were declared heroes posthumously. Sometimes they survived to collect their medals, and became heroes quietly. Like my Dad.

96th Infantry Division (“Deadeye Division”), 382nd Infantry Regiment. Battles of Leyte and Okinawa. Wounded twice. Survived, came home in 1945, lost two front teeth in a bar fight with a Marine in San Diego, fresh off the transport. Went to college on the GI bill, then law school, and worked his way across the Atlantic on ships each summer, to drink wine, eat bread and dream in French, back when the French actually liked Americans. Graduated 1952, married Mom in 1954 and provided for her, my brothers and me. Died in 2003, age 78.

Dad carried the trauma of war with him for 58 years – dampened, but not obliterated, by as much scotch as he could absorb each evening before shuffling off to bed. But he had already been traumatized before the war. His mother committed suicide when he was 12; after the war, his eldest brother also took his own life. A few decades later, his younger brother died at just 50. How much can one man take?

A lot, it seems. Endurance is a type of heroism. “Soldiering on.”

I’m stumped that I can’t find that picture of Dad in his army uniform, at 17, in 1942. I loved that picture. I don’t know if he lied about his age, but he joined up and set off for war, and they let him.

Here’s another picture of him from around then, jamming on the drums, before he went for training (which included Army Ranger training, when he was required to jump off a pier in San Diego, about 40 feet above the ocean):

Dad drumming

Mom was a hero in her way, too. She quit her job at the peak of her nursing career to raise my brothers and me, in the 1950s style, staying home while Dad went to the office. I know she felt thwarted in some way. She found outlets in volunteer work. Dad wasn’t easy to live with at times, and we kids weren’t appreciative enough of Mom. She was hypercritical of me, I thought. But in this, my “third quarter” of life, I find that I understand her better. I get it, now, Mom.

Mom's Nurse Photo B&W scanned as color

I hadn’t cried in a while, about my parents or about my late husband Mike. But yesterday morning, listening to some random playlist while paying bills or keeping ledgers or whatever I was doing, I heard Eva Cassidy’s version of Sting’s “Fields of Gold.”

Mike liked Sting, and he and Angelic Daughter kept a CD with that song on it among their collection in the car, to listen to as they drove around, running errands. Something about Cassidy’s version went straight to the hurt and the loss and the missing him, to the regrets and the inadequate, unfinished apologies, the time wasted in anger and blame, and the shock at the magnitude of the loss, even when I knew it was coming.

I went to find that picture of Dad (not there) and picked up one of Mike instead. I noticed tears dropping off, around me, when I blinked, instead of running down my cheeks. Mike faced his illness bravely, trying to stay with us, and calmly accepted hospice when the time came. Another kind of heroism.

I haven’t posted a picture of Mike here – some idea of privacy, or just grief, not being ready to share this picture that I love so much. But yesterday I realized it’s time. I’ve written so much about him, it’s only fair you should see what a beautiful, vital man he was (cola and poetry on my parent’s back deck):

Favorite photo of Mike

I’m grateful for this private Memorial Day 2020. No parades, no loud barbecues, no toy soldiers flapping flags while swilling beer, to “honor” those who actually serve, or those who, like my Dad, personally experienced the horrors of war. In the midst of massive and incomprehensible loss, numb shock, ongoing uncertainty, isolation and loneliness (front page, NYT today – 100,000 dead from the pandemic in the US alone, and counting) I cope by retreating to my personal, familiar grief, letting the tears come, remembering Dad, Mom, and Mike.

Both Dad and Mike made pancakes on occasionally on weekends. They were much better at making them than me. I wanted to make pancakes for Angelic Daughter today, but discovered we’re out of syrup.

She didn’t really want them, anyway. When I asked her what she wanted to do today, she listed several options, and then chose, “talk to Mom.”

Remembering those now walking in Elysian fields of gold, I remain, your grieving, grateful,

Ridiculouswoman

Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay

The Attitude of Gratitude – Thankful Thursday 2

This week’s easy: I’m grateful for old friends, and a hometown that guarantees that I will run into them every decade or so, if not more often, and we can pick right up where we left off.

This town, my hometown, has its issues, just like anyplace, but I brought Mike and our child back here for a simple reason: I knew that there are some things in this town that will never change, and that for the rest of our child’s life, there will be people here that have known and cared about our child since elementary school.  Any visit to a regular destination like a local grocery or pharmacy is a pretty sure bet that we will run into someone we know, and every Fourth of July dozens of peer-aged people will return here, and our child will have a happy reunion or two, if only for a few minutes. It’s worth it for that.

This is the kind of place where people you have known since kindergarten, people you grew up with, who share history and memories, will be around, even if you don’t see them often. When you do see them, you’ll take right back up again, wherever you left off, and it just feels good knowing that can happen, at random, any given day.

I’m grateful for the reconnections I made in the summer at my high school reunion (the decade marked to remain unspoken here!) and that I’ve managed to sustain. As my classmates and I cross into new decades, aging into numbers I’m still in denial about, losing parents and spouses, watching kids grow up and leave, or adult children with disabilities take on new challenges, gnawing our nails with nerves but enduring, because we have to, because it is our job as parents, I’m grateful to know I’m not alone in this – that we remember what it used to be like, whose house that was, what the kids looked like when they were small, what the parents looked like when they were young, how they partied, how we did, and how we survived. How we keep going.

And how many of you are thriving. I’ve seen old girlfriends recently who never looked better – who have endured loss, grief and estrangement but who have rallied, reinvented, not just endured but gotten better and stronger. I’m so proud of you, and so grateful that you call me friend. I admire you and hope to be more like you if I can.

So here’s to you, old friends – see you ’round town, soon. Keep up the good work, the strong living, the moving forward. I’ll try to keep up!

The Attitude of Gratitude – Thankful Thursday 1

It’s the chair my Mother sat in every day, watching television, when she could still make it from the bedroom out to the family room to sit, on the days when she could just tolerate the frustration of the walker and the tether of the oxygen line.

It has been in my house since Mom died, nearly four years ago. For three years it sat in our little “library” room (a room probably more appropriately called a “den”) and I never sat in it.

Predictably, that cat commandeered it, claiming it as yet another spot she owned in this small house.

It still had the blue seat cushion that Mom used, and I could see her there, scowling, angry, frustrated, fed up, tired, defiant.IMG_20180103_220530955.jpg

On the day I was ready to finally get rid of Mike’s chair, the beat-up glider he had used in that den, I noticed that the cat’s occupancy of Mom’s chair had destroyed that blue seat cushion. It was past salvaging. So after I dragged Mike’s old brown glider, the one that managed to absorb crumbs and dust on its rails in a way that made it impossible to clean and thus also unsalvageable, out to the street as our one allowed “bulk item” for our weekly trash pick-up, I took the blue seat cushion off Mom’s chair, and threw it in the trash as well.

I moved the chair from one corner of the room to another, in a position across from my Dad’s chair (that’s for another post, another day) and slightly more toward the window.

And I sat down in it, for the first time in more than thirty years.

Immediately I noticed how well the chair fit me, as if it were molded for me, or on me. The meat of my palms at the base of my thumbs was cupped exactly by the rounded ends of the chairs’ arms.

The chair hit me in just the right place in my back. My feet rested perfectly on the floor, with my knees at a comfortable right angle, instead of dangling as they usually do from most all the other chairs in the world that seem to be made from some universal measure for people six inches taller than I.

The seat accommodated my, let’s say, “ample” behind like it had been waiting just for me.

I suddenly felt gently immersed in a kinship with generations of women in my family who had used that chair before me – not just Mom, but Grammie, and Grammie’s Mom, and her mother before her, if I remember the history of the object correctly.

That chair has a sort of genetic memory, and sitting in it gave me a moment of that memory.

These were tough, no-nonsense, New England women. Mom, a nurse. Grammie, a schoolteacher who like me, was widowed early. Grammie’s Mom, both a farm wife and shopkeeper’s wife, in early twentieth century Maine.

My relationships with Mom and Grammie couldn’t really be described as “warm.” Loving, yes. But filled with the kind of petty struggles that seem never-ending between Mothers and daughters, generation to generation. Stand up straight, comb your hair, set the table, hem that skirt, sew on the button, shuck the corn, can’t you do something about that hair! Call the men to dinner, dry the dishes, get your nose out of that book and go outside!

But when I sat down in that chair, I felt a depth of kinship, a physical kinship, with these women that was never so apparent to me before.

We were the same physical size. We walked through the world with nearly identical hands. Their hips were broad, like mine, and they liked to sit up straight, as I learned to do after all those little struggles.

I am grateful for that. The chair brought me close to those ancestresses in a different and deeper way than I had felt or considered before; as a teenager I had simply taken it for granted that my Grandmother’s dresses fit me and I never really thought about what that meant until I sat in my grandmothers’ (plural, at least three generations of them) chair.

Here is some deep connection, I thought. Their hands rested here, just as mine do, on short armrests of just the right length for them, and now, for me. The back of this chair supported their lower backs after long, long days of housekeeping, farming, nursing, just as it supports mine now.

The top of the back of the chair, covered in the picture with the cashmere blanket Dad gave Mom when she was expecting my oldest brother, her first child, is quite ornate. It is not comfortable for resting your head on – HA! No matter how exhausted these women were, they still sat up straight, heads high.

And now that my hands are starting to resemble my Mother’s hands, with hints of the same kind of arthritis, and my joints creak a little more, the way hers did, I feel a deeper kinship with these women, and I sense a message from them – they didn’t expect me to understand this while they were living, but they left a message, in that chair, for me, for after they were gone.

You are not so different from us. You have us within you. You’ll be ok. You can make it, no matter what life throws at you. Rest and rock a bit, but keep your head up.

I hope that means I have at least some of their toughness, their strength and grit, their endurance, their resilience, their clarity and longevity, their practical, no nonsense get-on-with-it-ness that got them past 85, to 89, to 90.

We weren’t demonstrative enough with each other – not enough hugs or endearments. But they did everything they could to transmit practical wisdom to me. 

Mom whispered when she sewed, drawing me in as she showed me the careful stitches to shorten the hems of every new skirt or dress, stitches that would be necessary for every new garment before “free alterations” or the new era of “petite” sizes. 

And I am grateful for that. And for the chair that reminds me of that.

Grammie was fierce with the rolling pin, brisk with the homemade doughnut dough (which she got up at 5 am to make for us on our summer visits to Maine), and I remembered that when rolling out the cookie dough this holiday season, using Mom’s wooden rolling pin, which she wielded with similar ferocity against any pie crust that dared defy her.

And I’m grateful I got to watch and learn from them, skills that seem old fashioned and forgotten, but that give me some small pride and pleasure still.  I’m grateful for the sense of shock I felt when an acquaintance casually confessed that she was walking on the cuffs if her trousers because she did not know how to shorten them.

Well, as a descendent of those hardy New England women, I’m grateful that I know how to thread a needle, measure and shorten a hem, sew on a button, roll out a pie crust or follow the rules of ICE (ice, compression, elevation) after a sprain. There is so much more they knew that I didn’t pay enough attention to – but I’m grateful for that chair that reminds me of those strong women who came before me, small as me in stature but richer by far in practical skill. Somehow when I sit there, in that chair that fits me perfectly, I feel a bit of their wisdom and experience coming through – remember – remember what we could do. What you still can do, if you put your mind to it.

So on this first post for my “thankful Thursdays,” I’m sticking to the basics like that chair.

I’m grateful too for the den in this little house where that chair resides, in the spot where Mike’s glider used to be, where memories of evenings listening to music with him remain vivid.

And for the little house itself, in these frigid January days, that has light and heat  and food and blankets within it. And pipes that haven’t frozen through years of winter as harsh as this.

I’m grateful that so far, the chickens have survived the subzero cold, while ceasing to lay eggs, as expected.

I’m grateful that the car starts, that the plumber came on Christmas Eve (time and a half, but hey, he came) and that I found the right part for the dishwasher, even though I’ll have to pay to have it installed.

I’m grateful to live in a place that values open, natural spaces, or as natural as they can be remade to be, to walk and breathe in, and to see the late afternoon winter sun paint the grasses and the ponds a glowing rose-gold while hawks soar and circle above.

I’m grateful and humbled to be the mother of the most amazing human being I’ve ever met, whose kindness, compassion, and cheerful perseverance in the face of a loud and confusing world is an example I continually hope someday to match.

I’m grateful for that silly cat, who gets nose to nose with me each morning, insisting I get up, get going, hop to it, rise and shine, there’s work to do here, feed me first of course and then you can deal with child and chickens. 

And I’m grateful for two more nights with the loveliest, freshest (and cheapest – free! delivered!) Christmas tree we’ve ever had in this house, which has shed not a needle since I won this year’s Battle of the Tree, and glows there in this den, giving me a little more time to be grateful for the peace and hope of this season and an excuse to linger and rock a bit longer, gently, in my Mothers chair.