Because We Are All One

For many of us born between 1946 and 1964, World War II was relegated to the history books; not because veterans didn’t live among us, but because too many who had served had experienced a private hell on earth.  They had seen too much, and could not speak of the horrors without reliving the moments; so they spoke seldom and far too little. War widows, like my youngest aunt, moved forward, raising her young son with help from family until she remarried; and my cousin once again had a father.

Apart from personal stories like this, much of World War Two’s history came to some of us baby boomers from the printed pages of encyclopedias and historical textbooks.  I emphasize some of us.  I didn’t know my grandparents because they had passed away years before I was born.  But my friend Elaine Karen – whose Hebrew name was Elka – never knew her grandparents because they had died in the Holocaust.

Thank God Eisenhower requested that Congressional members and Allied leaders visit the death camps.  As Commander of the Allied Forces, he desired no more than all of humanity be reminded: such atrocities were real and had occurred from the hands of men.  One quotation featured in the Hall of Remembrance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is from the man who was known affectionately as Ike:

 

 

The things I saw beggar description…The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were…overpowering…I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’

Written by General Eisenhower after his visit to the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp, it is one of many quotations featured in the museum.  This year, from April 7th thru 14th, marks the 75th official Day of Remembrance, also signified by the motto, NEVER AGAIN.  Take a few minutes, in between checking emails and other daily routines, to peruse the United States National Holocaust Museum’s website .  

 

Because we are all one; and today we are all Jews…

 

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

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!

That Blackest of Fridays

Seems like the American media never miss an opportunity to take a tragedy and embellish upon it for later publication. Obligatory markers are a priority, and sadly, JFK’s Assassination is no exception. 

This is the fiftieth anniversary; the media’s obsession and fascination with unanswered questions, conspiracy theories and the renewed cold war climate has again spun its web around our hearts, luring us into a personal time capsule to endure another painful return voyage. 

My journey always begins on the entrance steps of one junior high school in the Bay Area; we were seventh grade “scrubs”, so enjoying the sunny, mid-day lunchtime break was just another Friday with my friends at our usual spot. I remember no faces, just a mass of chatter spilling out of the cafeteria, spreading the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

The president would want us to go on…

How did my gym teacher know what JFK would want?  None of us sitting there in our gym clothes were able to fully comprehend, let alone focus, on the class requirements before us. The few minutes between the principal’s announcement in the cafeteria and the beginning of fourth period was certainly not long enough for any of this horror to sink in; we were still in disbelief and few details were known. Our president assassinated? In our own country? In Vice President Johnson’s Texas? How were we supposed to run laps and play a game as though nothing had happened?

Until that noon hour, we students were an innocent but idealistic bunch, having been inoculated two years before with the Ask Not serum: 

Ask not what your country can do for you;

Ask what you can do for your country.

 

JFK’s quote hung in our school’s front showcase. Many of us were planning to join the Peace Corps when we were eligible; or, at the very least, become teachers and serve the needs of children on our own soil.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was 43, the youngest man and the first Catholic to take the oath of office; handsome and somewhat boyish charm aside, he was also a WWII Navy Veteran.  Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade?  It was within our grasp because this was America, where anything was possible if one believed and envisioned it so.  JFK’s youthful exuberance represented all that was historic and bold and fresh about the American Dream. 

Mom had the television on when I came home from school. The black and white screen repeated the same footage all evening:

There was the young President and First Lady walking along the airstrip fencing, shaking hands and greeting loving well wishers; the handsome couple smiling and waving in a motorcade; and then the distortion of confusion ina shaking, hand-held camera, capturing the indefinable moment. 

News reels would always follow with photos of people crying in the street, discarded roses lying on the floor of an abandoned limousine, and eventually, Walter Cronkite’s tearing up and wiping his glasses on camera as he completed the official pronouncement that President Kennedy had died.

In between the broadcasts, we reminisced: Mom remarked how JFK had “pardoned” the traditional White House Thanksgiving turkeys just a couple of days earlier; what had been a light-hearted presidential photo op now, in hindsight, seemed eerily foreboding; our president had received no such pardon.  

Grasping for some comfort, Mom and we girls took turns leafing through the magazines stacked on the fireplace wall shelves; midst the keepsake newsprint inserts from the weddings of Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, and Margaret Truman were some Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, and other periodicals with Jackie on the cover; color photos of a loving mother with her two darling little ones were rampant, as was the genteel coverage about her maternal fragility. Jackie had been plagued by difficult pregnancies; she had recently lost their third child.  Any woman’s magazine worth its salt had taken a turn extolling the virtues of this young, refined and well-educated thirty-something who had become our youngest First Lady.

Like many families, we had accepted all the hype and the story lines, including the media’s making of a pill box styled Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.  This was the era when Washington as well as Hollywood deleted any scandals from the story lines that might implicate repetitive or rampant undignified behavior by our government leaders; the Kennedy Administration was no different. 

I remember the initial telecast of asides from grief-stricken public figures.  Ladybird Johnson mistakenly remarked that the most terrible travesty was that the assassination had occurred in her beloved Texas.  She later apologized for this faux pas, clarifying that the most terrible travesty was the loss of our beloved president.

The swearing in of Lyndon Johnson by necessity took place on Air Force One.  The new widow insisted on attending, so the ceremony was delayed until Jackie’s arrival. The historic snapshot conveyed a grief-stricken assembly of figures; the viewers’ eyes eventually focused on the blood-stained skirt in the foreground. Some reports suggested that aides had encouraged Jackie to change her clothes for the historic ceremony, but Jackie had refused.  She reportedly responded, “I want them to see what they did to Jack”. 

I had much admired Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy as First Lady, but her words struck me to the core.   I absorbed them completely. I waited for some type of explanation or retraction, but I never heard the First Lady apologize for that which in my sensitivity was a deeply punitive remark.  

We prepared ourselves for the weekend’s continual coverage; maybe new reports would offer some of the missing details.  We were glued to the screen the entire morning when we witnessed in real time Jack Ruby walking up to Lee Harvey Oswald and shooting him at close range. 

Dear God! What must we endure next?

We were all in a daze; even the solemnity of a four day weekend of national mourning didn’t close the door on the restlessness or fear inspired by these two indescribable acts. 

Images…the boots facing backward in the stirrups, the black bunting across the White House windows, the little guy saluting his father’s caisson… I had expected historic precedence to console… now, one man’s visions had been diminished to an eternal flame, extinguishing a fountain of youthful promise.

There was little consolation from the Warren Report.  I quickly caught the cynical virus from the adults.  I couldn’t then and still can’t break away from my initial skepticism that the historical summation by the Warren Commission was a political assessment rather than conclusive of either guilt or trajectory findings. The report at best rubbed salt in our intellectual wounds; few Americans accepted its findings as convincing; and the government’s decision to seal the documents for fifty years fed our doubts and fueled every conspiracy theory that later arose.

Some years I managed to set the painful memories of November on the back burner. But American journalism’s insistence on commemorating a Camelot that never really existed made forgetting the story’s tragic ending impossible.  They stirred the pot enough so to keep us somber and close to a  seems like just yesterday awareness.

Not that we needed any reminders. Poignant images presented themselves with or without the help of the media; they were permanently embedded in our common psyche. Each November 22nd , we who were old enough to remember that day recalled where we were… and when we heard… and how we as a country mourned. 

I do not exaggerate when I state that a part of my own emotional maturity was frozen in place on that blackest of Fridays; but I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that JFK’s death was only partially to blame; my brother’s nervous breakdown in September had already altered some of the family dynamics.

Neither my brother’s vulnerability nor JFK’s death would fade away very quickly.  From my eleven year old eyes, I wasn’t sure of anything that autumn of ’63 except that my immediate future held more sorrowful weeks ahead.  I sought escape where I could, and burrowed even deeper into my school studies, managing to accomplish a fair amount of distance during waking hours before going to bed and shutting myself away from my family’s personal heartache.

Historic events come and go; unfortunately, the more dramatic ones languish much longer than we wish, lurking in the shadows like smears of glue that have yet to dry clear, leaving unwanted traces marring an otherwise precious entry in our life’s scrapbook…

 

A June Smile

My fourth birthday photo is a black and white snapshot of my half standing/half bending over my birthday cake; sitting beside me is a lovely lady with an all-embracing smile.  That is one photo I always love to look at; one of many black and white moments that I can cherish as often as I wish.

I don’t actually recall this particular birthday; certainly, I didn’t have many parties as a Christmas Eve birthday can easily pass by unnoticed during such a busy time of year.  But this was definitely my day to shine; and as the years later proved, this lady’s love for life and family meant there was always room for one more celebration and another child close by.

I was ten years old and still trying to figure out just how exactly we were related…she wasn’t a sister to either my father or my mother. Yet her warm welcoming smiles and hugs were there for us all…she definitely had room for an extra “niece” or two.

In our extended families, we cousins had lots of mentors whom we respected and looked forward to seeing each occasion; extended reunions were the norm, and intertwined branches of family and long-time friends appeared and just belonged there; indeed, their absence would have been noted by many of us younger ones who relied on the hugs and kisses to make the day’s reunion complete.

While my mother loved flowers, this lady actually wore them, in beautifully bright, bold and dazzling colors and prints.  They accentuated her olive skin and deep brunette hair, shining bright above the lovely patterns; hers was a stark contrast to my mother’s more classic stripes and small prints.

I was fourteen and attending my first “wake”.  Mom had stated that I was now old enough to attend memorials like this; so, she instructed me to dress up as I would for church.    The big deal for me was wearing my mantilla…a small consolation, but somehow it was very flattering and so, at least, I could look the part and appear more mature than I felt.  I sat quietly there, feeling very uncomfortable and nervous.

 Yes, I was sitting next to Mom, but all I perceived was my mother who was extremely  comfortable in this solemn situation; she had no idea just how very strange it seemed for me, or just how worried I was, were I to accidentally commit a faux pas midst all the adults looking on.

I decided to chance it and look around the room.  I turned around and just a few pews behind me I caught sight of a June smile; the one that was familiar, loving and unconditionally accepting, all at the same time.  She even waved and nudged her hubby to make sure he acknowledged me…just a simple nod and smile.  Sounds hokey, but this very backward teen immediately felt okay and “grown up enough” to sit through this rite of passage.

Such are the memories of a June smile from a lady who crossed my path and influenced me through most of my young adulthood; a mentor who treated friends and family equally; there were none who didn’t get a huge dose of love and hot meals when needed – blood lines or not.

The childlike part of me still craves a smile or a hug to console me; some days, I don’t even know why or what is troubling me, but God seems to provide a certain someone to cross my path.  I may not remember that fourth birthday, but I will always remember that smile.

When one has been lucky enough to have had a June smile come your way, one knows the value that it brings to a child’s heart.  It is incumbent upon one to pass it on…

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…

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…