THIS SOLDIER HAD A NAME; a Memorial Day Tribute

Dear Readers,

The month of May brings attention to our fallen; and additional families each year endure the Memorial Day Weekend in a new and solemn light, when a loved one has only recently joined the ranks of those honored at the end of this month.

It is because of the never-ending toll that strips away our country’s youth that I humbly submit this tribute.  While I wrote this piece for a specific young man, I hope that sharing it now will – in some small way – bring a sense of comfort to the many military families forever blanketed in sorrow each year on Memorial Day.

May God continue to Bless and Keep our Military Families in His care,

Annette Brochier Johnson

 

 

 

 

THIS SOLDIER HAD A NAME

“Another soldier fell this Friday” and the broadcast continued on;

This time the news became surreal, for the war had touched us, too.

This soldier had a name.

For those of us without a son, the past had met the present

Releasing a stream of déjà vu.

His son would be well cared for, as would his little girl.

Friends and family would come forward

To reassure each other as a generation had before.

“I’ll share my room with my

Cousin, Mommy. I’ll share my daddy, too.”

This soldier had a family.

Ever resilient, the ever constant family values

Were embedded on the hearts of all who shared this surname;

A covenant simply scribed in red, white, and blue.

Camping trips are a summer tradition;

This year will be no different, as summer will not hide.

The campfire will burn and crackle

When branches again entwine,

Sharing growing pains with Siblings,

Watching Cousins meet anew,

Recalling Grampa’s keyboard melodies,

And laughing at what campground antics bring!

This soldier had a voice.

Let each heart in its own tempo listen closely,

So that occasional off-keys and tears may soon transform

To joyous song and comfort all in reverie…

Save a chuckle for that chorus when you congregate and sing!

Peace within will bring forth smiles,

Finding solace now in small hands clasped

Tightly ‘round the photos of One of America’s Finest.

He is forever their very own soldier.

Remind them that there are others, too, who thank God for soldiers like their daddy

Whose service and sacrifices keep us safe in a world of war-torn strife.

This soldier had a mission.

And in serving, he shared The Word with whom he shared a common fellowship and duty.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.   John 3:16 KJV

My First Passion

Some of my earliest memories of a garden are with my neighbor in her backyard.

Hers was the one with lovely flowers that bloomed on the east side of the house.  Not accessible from the street, one had to be neighbors to reach the snapdragons, fuchsias, camellias and all flowering bushes that gave birth each year to a panorama of color.

This was especially important to me around May Day, when we made baskets at school from woven pieces of construction paper, then went home to fill them for our mothers.  We only had calla lilies and geraniums; not my favorites, especially compared to the camellias and the choices next door.  So, I always made a beeline to my Italian neighbor‘s house where I could choose something pretty to fill my basket.  She was my second mother, so was agreeable and made sure I had the prettiest blossoms for Mom’s basket.

I was outside often with her, as she went back and forth to the laundry room that was then adjacent to the garage.  In between, she was tending her yard, pulling unwanted weeds and shoots from around the rocks of the fish pond or along the back fence.  These were city lots, so sometimes it was very hard to tell where a plant began and where it soon claimed jurisdiction in one’s yard.  Her back fence was a small, narrow area; not more than four foot wide before it relied on the garage to continue as the permanent marker of the back property line.

But where the dirt lay beneath the fence boards also lay the roots of a passion vine.  This was a very miraculous flower, made more so by the legend that my neighbor shared with me in her Italian-accented English.

I was immediately enamored of this vine.  The flower petals were a tinged blue on white, in some places suggesting a violet to deeper purple shade.  The center was deeper still and when she explained it represented the crown of thorns that lay on Jesus’ brow, I was very taken by such a plant that spoke of an historical event!  This was the tip of the mysteries that I would grow to accept as a young Catholic child, but it was one of my favorites.  I looked deeply into the blossoms, as though the more I stared, the more I’d experience the passion that emanated from its story.

The vine would reappear each spring, somewhat leggy at first, and then eventually spill its beauty across the fence boards.  The location was one that I had to seek out; it was not easily visible and, as I grew older I could easily forget to walk around the Mechanic’s garage; somehow, like God, I just knew He and It existed, whether I visited or not with Him or His Vine.

So, it was several years before I realized that the vine was completely gone, and the garden spot wherein I had first encountered the meaning of passion was no more; most likely removed by a new property owner who didn’t comprehend the sorrowful beauty in the blossoms’ tale.

How wonderful that God would grace us with such a beautiful, living memorial for such a horrid, painful death.  In my childlike heart, I believed God wanted us to remember His Son’s pain, but spared us the true horror by minimizing the truth in the beauty of that blossom. I had no idea that it was early explorers and missionaries who had given the blossom its legend, specifically to explain the death of Christ in their efforts to convert native peoples.

A caring, accented voice had certainly shared the vine’s story with this teachable child…So be it.

The Green Easter Egg

The year was 1979.  Thank God for my dear aunt by marriage; she invited me to make sugar eggs with her.  My childlike delight escaped from my normal responsible confines imposed upon myself; I agreed to join her in that Easter’s endeavor.

We were elbow deep in sugar and decorator frosting for several weeks, commandeering the dining room table, her cookie sheets and oven, and the back sun room for most of the Lenten season.  It was messy but absolutely wonderful!  She was as delighted to show me the hidden magic “tricks” as I was delighted to discover the mysteries of these small egg panoramas!

I’d be taking some of my sugar art down to the Bay Area for the family, so I began thinking of one for my mother. For Mom, I would have to keep it strictly traditional in its splendor.  That was easy enough, as we both appreciated the beauty of tradition and Easter in all its spring freshness.   I mentally ticked off all the eggs I would need to make for my loved ones.

Like Rome’s architects, my aunt and I began with good intentions.  Of course, my aunt’s hand was seasoned enough that she had little “wasted” frosting.  The eggs and the frosting tips I soon managed well enough. However, after weeks of working with the colored sugar molds and frosting tubes, we began to tire of this project; the newness was starting to wear off; we were fast becoming “Eastered-out”.  Our former disciplines gave way to creative, off the cuff, non-traditional panoramic works of sugar art.

We decided to personalize each person’s egg where at all possible. My aunt’s two little grandsons were playmates of My Only’s; we would use the three little plastic skunks and make a special trio of eggs for our “little stinkers”!!!  The possibilities were endless and we soon succumbed to fits of giggles as we playfully continued to craft each egg.  The more we tired during each day’s session, the more my Easter egg masterpieces evolved into original, silly subject centers, with only the leaves and flowers on the outside reminiscent of a traditional Easter palette.

It was time to create an egg for Daddy.  I had one miniature ceramic horse figurine set aside just for him.  With the addition of some small straw flowers, I placed a horseshoe shape of little red blossoms around the neck in a true winner’s circle fashion.  A bit of frosting glue and VOILA!  A Winner’s Circle Quarter Horse for all seasons!  I could hardly wait for the car trip down for Easter dinner.

We arrived home for Easter weekend and discovered my father had been placed into the French Hospital in San Francisco for observation.  I don’t even remember the actual medical concern. I was too upset to reasonably deal with the moment, and I sat in the kitchen on the Cosco Stool, crying and explaining to Mom that Easter just wasn’t going to seem like Easter without Daddy at the table.  True to form, Mom was the strong one.  She believed deeply that Daddy was receiving the best of care and that he would return home soon.  She reminded me that we could go visit him at any time.  As a young married mother of a three year old, I attempted to shape up somewhat so as not to alarm My Only.  We soon left for the hospital with magazines and his green Easter egg carefully wrapped in hand.

To my relief, Daddy looked good, was in high spirits, and content with his treatment thus far.  The French Hospital still had a good reputation at that time for keeping the older Frenchmen “happy”.  Times were changing, but the dietician still allowed a small glass of red wine as part of a dinner tray if the patient’s health permitted it.

I presented my sugar green egg to Daddy.  He donned his eyeglasses and peered inside…the little racehorse was obviously a pleasant surprise!

Boy, do you have my number!  Think you’re pretty smart, huh Annette?

Extremely pleased with his response, I sat it on the side table with the get well cards for him to enjoy.  While Daddy was filling Mom in on the details of his stay thus far, including his having “gone to confession” compliments of the resident French-speaking priest, the same priest appeared through the door, introducing himself to all of us, then began speaking to my mother who greeted him en francais.  Mom was enjoying the opportunity to converse in her native French (Mom’s command of the language was that of the old country, despite her having been born in Livermore) so she didn’t notice my father beckoning me to the side table, nor did she hear his frantic directions in Pig Latin:  Ix-nay the egg-ay! Ix-nay the egg-ay!

It took me a minute to understand…the egg was too fragile to nix per se, so I quickly turned the green egg around to face the wall.  Only the frosted leaves and iced trim of its backside were still in clear view.  The visit was no more than a few minutes at the most before the priest excused himself to continue making his rounds.  Once the priest left, Daddy explained what this was all about.  During confession, he’d told the priest

You can throw the book at me, Father

Daddy had taken communion for the first time in many years.  He wasn’t so sure if his thrown book confession completely covered all his human flaws, especially his love for horseracing and gambling.  The last thing he needed was for the priest to see that Easter egg.  Obediently, I wrapped it back up and carried it back to Rubberneck Avenue for safe keeping.  Daddy was going to be just fine…

Rejoicing on Rubberneck Avenue

Fifty years ago, in my small little world of Rubberneck Avenue, I understood that families with German heritage “were Lutheran only” and the remaining European descent around the block were customarily of the Roman Catholic faith.  Obviously, I’d lost something in the finer details about the Reformation.

Not to worry…on our block, one of our families had Native American blood; this was particularly significant to a few of us! Wow…imagine having bloodlines to the Old West!  At that time, a term like indigenous didn’t describe people, only landscapes.  This particular favorite family hailed from the Midwest and were of the Protestant faith; Presbyterian actually.  They shared their church and fellowship with me at an early age.  I was frightened a bit on my first visit; hearing one give a testimony regarding his born-again experience during a church service was almost foreign in concept from my familiar milieu, the Mass; no one spoke out in Mass unless the priest spoke first!  But I was intrigued, none the less.

I have old Kodak photos in my childhood album from earlier Easter times.  Big Sis would dress me up in my Easter finery, complete with bonnet and lace-trimmed little white socks to accessorize the requisite party dress for a toddler.  We would then walk up the street to the local elementary school for the annual Easter Egg Hunt.  Memories of well-meaning adults pointing toward the evergreen hedges and whispering,

What do I see there???

helped toddlers like me and my “big” friend on the block, Marion, find enough eggs to return home smiling from our cloud nine experiences!  There are photos of Marion and me, proudly standing together on Rubberneck, still clutching our baskets and comparing our precious findings.  Marion was a beautiful little girl, with thick bangs and perfectly formed curls.  She too was dressed in her Easter finest; only her braced leg is a reminder of the very real polio epidemic that persisted still among children of our generation.

Another favorite photo of mine is of a later Easter with my cousins. The boys are in suits and the girls all with bonnets and bows, standing near the fishpond in my neighbor’s backyard, smiling for the camera.  I am at my happiest, standing among my most beloved cousins.  (The Brat was obviously too little so is not included in this shot; yes, my smile is wide…no sad feelings about my little sister missing from the moment)

As Winnie and I grew older, we would plan our own Easter egg hunts for our first little nieces and nephews.  John and Big Sis would come by early that Sunday morning so we could run our hunt, then they’d leave to enjoy Easter at their own dinner table.  When the kids were too old for egg hunts, they sometimes joined us in the evening for an Easter visit and dessert.

I think back on the many Easter tables filled with wonderful food and drink.  Traditional dishes graced our table; there was barbequed leg of lamb and a ham, with the requisite side dishes that Mom insisted must be included to complete a proper, holiday dinner.  One or two might not eat lamb, but they’d work around it.  Hospitality in our Rubberneck home was plentiful though not very flexible; food allergies aside, any recently announced vegetarians could really throw Mom’s balance off …

Are you sure that the potatoes, cheeses and the green salad are going to be enough for you?

Aunts and uncles arrived each year, early and with wines and sometimes a dream cake for dessert!  Only Bro and his family would also be there for dinner, (normally running late but Daddy had learned to expect the phone call from Only Bro telling us that his all girl family were still getting ready) so our two littlest nieces were the next generation to experience a homemade egg hunt!  They walked in the front door dressed like little dolls, much credit to their mother who not only sewed beautifully, but also baked the absolutely best homemade pies for dessert!  Being a reasonable man, Daddy eyed the pies and immediately forgave the late arrival; no penance was necessary!  Only Bro often brought a bottle of his favorite white, Wente Brothers Grey Riesling, chilled and ready to enjoy during the first course.

Ours was a home to drop by; Might be slightly nerve-wracking, but the loving intentions easily obscured the initial shock waves from the daily Punch and Judy reruns, compliments of my parents.  Cousins originally in bonnets, bows and suits were now old enough to drive; they’d stop by to wish Auntie and Uncle a Happy Easter; this was not a have-to visit despite the family dictates…being around my folks was a want-to, if only for the cheap entertainment!

We shared our casa croute (translated loosely as the house bread) with whoever honored us with a visit on Easter Sunday. Daddy would set up the bar in the kitchen and stay out of Mom’s cooking territory.  Neighbors walked in and out, enjoying a cocktail before having to drive over the hill to be with their daughter’s family, or walk back across the street to prepare for guests of their own.

We passed along traditions, not hatred, on Rubberneck.  We were several different families, celebrating our common heritage in our homes, unencumbered by protocols, politically correct admonishments, or charlatan’s accusations…our credo was simply: Live and let live.

The static photos in my album are black and white; but the shared good times and humble simplicity of expectations still play vividly in full Technicolor brilliance in this writer’s reverie…

He is Risen!

Rocky Road and Silly Rabbit Trails

I don’t imagine that old John made too many of these treats, since he worked alone so much of the time; but he annually took orders each spring for his special creations.

The Brat and I could always count on one of his beautiful, hand-decorated Easter eggs, thanks to our Italian neighbor.  She would gift us with the rocky road eggs laced in yellow icing ribbons with bows atop.  Slicing into our eggs and enjoying the old-time freshness of the marshmallow and walnuts woven into the milk chocolate was a repeated, absolutely delightful adventure!  Daddy always seemed to appear at just the right moment; we would share a piece of our precious Easter egg, but rather regrettably, as we knew he would never be happy with just one slice!

Easter was still one of the year’s major holidays and planned for with as much care to detail as Thanksgiving and Christmas. At that time, candles and paper plates with Easter designs flew off the shelves; Easter Dinner demanded lots of décor and effort to make it memorable.  Like my mother, I enjoyed shopping for the petite dessert napkins with the lovely spring colors!  I can remember Mom’s joy at picking out some new candles for her table setting.  Mom’s good set of dishes managed to miraculously change along with the seasons, its small multi-colored flowers seemingly a breath of fresh spring when placed among the pastel pinks and soft greens of the paper goods.

A few years into my Hallmark retail experience, I was watching the spring inventory just sit there.  These candles needed dusting! Even mark downs didn’t urge sale-seekers to purchase. The plates, napkins and cups sat from year to year with red sale stickers on the plastic wrapping.

So, it was true.  Moms like me had entered the workplace and many of us now lived miles away from immediate family and favorite cousins.  If we were going to recreate any of the former Easter tradition, we’d need to work smart – cheat if you will – to accomplish the semblance of tradition.  Stove Top replaced the home made stuffing; and instant mash potatoes were another kitchen miracle in a box!  The Easter table would continue, but my version was a buffet without the candles; even our Easter outfits were more casual than in years before.  But some traditions would remain and with a bit of creativity, new ones would be added.

Thank heaven for the small, family-owned, local candy shop!  It was now this mom’s pleasure to choose a specially decorated egg each year to delight my little girl.   By the time My Only was old enough to remember Easter mornings, she would awaken and run to the front door.  She has memories of finding on the front step a beautifully decorated egg with her name in script among the goodies in her basket; and always, sitting beside the basket was a big box of Trix.

My daughter knew the Easter Bunny wouldn’t forget that the house rule of no sugary breakfast cereals was temporarily deferred; even a silly rabbit understood he was no match for My Only on Easter morning…

 

 

 

WashMO Blues

FrogHaven, 2018

It’s been two Christmases since I sent out cards; but I can assure you that your greetings hung on our shutters as in years before, helping chase the winter blues away. While there are changes both subtle and laughable and my natural look takes longer with each birthday, there are still traces of wine, women and song; kinda.  For example, Jim bakes fruit and flaxseed bread each week and I w(h)ine about having to eat it every morning… thus, a satirical refrain of a Neil Diamond hit best describes the coming Spring here at FrogHaven:

WASHMO BLUES

Verse One:

WashMO Blues – Earth Boxes are too heavy…

WashMO Blues – doc visits are aplenty…

Him or Me, we just can’t see until all cataracts gone….

Now we purchase Kleenex by the carton…because the pollen’s that strong,

Because the weather’s all wrong…. (Thank you, Puxatawney)

Verse Two:

WashMO Blues – lets pull out that dead willow

WashMO Blues – each night we hit the pillow

One:  Funny thing, we hear bells ring and can’t distinguish whose phone… (Oh not again)

I can sing it in the shower daily – yes, I still have a voice! YES, I still have a voice!

(Repeat Verse Two, and then jump to Finale)

Finale:  Funny thing, ya see another Spring…and we’re renewed once again!

It’s Easter! He is risen! Keep believin’! We’ve simply got no choice! (Music fades)

Love, hugs and kisses xoxox from Annette and Jim

Lenten Observations

On occasion, I see a bumper sticker or recall something that triggers the stories, adventures, and experiences I encountered as a public school kid in a Bay Area parish serving over two thousand families.

For instance, during every Lent, I gave up chocolate chip cookies.  After a few years, I stopped.  The odds of Big Sis baking her out-of-this-world chocolate chip cookies during Lent to my mother’s serving her perfectly edible, liver and onions with the piquant gravy over mashed potatoes were 7 to 1!  Statistics aside, I got tired of the Brat giving up the liver, her angelic countenance supporting the sham that she alone could pull off in front of Mom.  And my parents were surprised when this daughter excelled as a Thespian in her senior year?

In all fairness and upon examination, most any child who was fortunate to survive parochial instruction was indeed well-educated and well-rounded.  Penmanship, Latin lessons, and some fantastic art graced the walls in the church school halls.  Parochial childhood friends even received sex education; it was similar to the well-accepted course content for fifth and sixth grade level students we received in our public elementary school.

Of course, we neighborhood girls compared notes, and I realized my instruction was lacking some of the specifics she’d learned; for example, the dangers of wearing patent leather shoes with skirts.  Obviously, my sister and I were at a slight disadvantage, only attending Saturday Catechism or Friday afternoon instructions. Some practices were never fully discussed or explained.  For example,

  • Why Catholics didn’t believe in Evolution.  The Brat made the mistake of asking this during one Friday afternoon session; Mrs. G, the lay teacher, was not pleased, and my sister realized too late she would not be excused on time; not a good note for the coming weekend.
  • There was the time that Brat and Peebody found a wounded animal in the church property drive.  When asked by the church staff what they were doing, Brat explained they were administering the Last Rites. Again, she found out that it didn’t pay to be candid.
  • Typical Sunday morning conversation with Daddy:

Can we go to the dumps with you today?
Go to church with your mother. It’s good for you.
Will you drive us?
You can walk; it’s good for you.
Yes, Daddy.  But the next Sunday you go to the dumps, can we ride in the truck with you?

No response; Daddy knew better. The decision would be dependent on Mom’s affirmative response the next time a Sunday dumps run came around.

Where does the Church find ashes for Ash Wednesday?  Why must the statues be covered each Lenten season? Would church ceilings really collapse if wayward parishioners attended Easter Mass? Didn’t anyone else find the closed confinement of a confessional scary?  An inquiring mind wanted to know.

I was serious enough; often, too much so.   Finding a creative slant or imagining the manmade link to an otherwise, very solemn religious subject remains an impetuous flaw of mine.  It is both delightful and therapeutic to have been blessed with the gift to think quickly; to find the irony and humor in child-like assumptions of innocent, misguided thoughts.   This gift calms my soul and lightens my normally serious heart.

So, I confess to taking full advantage of any opportunity to reap a giggle or two…and I’ll play to audiences from one to one hundred (those are individuals, not ages).

It is for good reason that I gave up confession long ago…