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

A Family Affair

I remember walking around the corner shoe store repair, heading back up the street on the way home with Mommy that day…she was really excited! Mommy had her carryall filled to the brim with lots of good things.  An aunt and uncle who lived very far away would be coming to visit us in the next few days.  I asked who they were.  My mother told me that I had been too young to remember when they last visited.

You know your little pink rocker, Annette?

Ohhhh…the light bulb was beginning to turn on…  They were the ones who had sent me the small rocking chair with its rattan seat; something especially for me from very far away.  So, I knew of them by the little rocker that was mine.

One thing about listening to my mother – you got a textbook history in any and all topics – and their story was no exception.

Originally from Georgia, my uncle had been stationed in California many years before. This Georgian absolutely loved kids and noticed a little guy in the neighborhood playing all alone.  Apparently, my future uncle asked the little guy’s mother for permission to play ball with him; that’s how my uncle met my aunt, who was my father’s baby sister, a young WWII widow.  Eventually, the two adults fell in love and married.  Years later, my cousin would follow in his new father’s footsteps and also choose a Navy career.

Mommy continued on…Uncle was now a Lieutenant Commander.  Mommy stressed how very important his new position was.  Actually, my mother stressed about almost everything!  Aloud, she hoped she had picked up enough French bread and that the meal she was planning for the night at our home was different than what another sister-in-law would be serving, and that she hoped we had enough cheese and salami on hand…Mommy’s excitement was absolutely infectious!

There were a few times that I “connected” well beyond my four years of age, with the particular significance surrounding our household events.  Hence, I was starting to pick up just how very important their visit would be, so I asked Mommy:

Will we have to salute him?

Naturally, that made the rounds pretty quickly once their visit had begun.

By the time I was growing up, Armistice Day had been renamed Veterans Day; my mother made sure that I knew the historic background of our country’s holiday at a very early age.  I had a cousin who was born on Armistice Day when it was Armistice Day.  I was born on Christmas Eve; thus far, no one had renamed it.

This would be the first of many visits from Uncle Bake and Auntie that I would actually remember.  So, I listened quite intently as Mom explained that because Uncle was still in the Navy, they couldn’t visit us very often – like around the holidays – when most families gathered.

Because their visits with us were always limited, the days took on a holiday feeling when these two returned to the West Coast.  Each visit might be short, but that wouldn’t stop any of the siblings from filling it as full of family good times as the suitcase full of comfort foods returning with Auntie.

One of the things that Auntie missed most was the sourdough French bread; no matter where in or out of the country they had been stationed, she still claimed nothing ever came close to the bread from California.  Over the years, the older siblings would chip in and help fill up one suitcase going back with Auntie and Uncle to their next post; it would be filled to the brim with Larraburu French Bread and enough salami to feed a company!

Each May Americans remember Memorial Day with a quiet moment of reverie for the family members who have passed on; the same ones we used to hug and kiss goodbye, then send off with a suitcase full of Home.  Today, there remain several opportunities for those of us who want to support our living Veterans and current military men and women; they, too, would appreciate receiving “a bit of Home” now and then.   None of us need wait until May or November to remember our military.  Their calendars have twelve months, just like ours do!

So, when a few extra dollars can be found, at any time of year, send them on…the internet makes it easy to find a favorite charity, adopt a soldier, gift a military family, or send a donation to your local VFW or USO.  Then pack that picnic lunch and give thanks for another holiday in this precious land…

Melding Traditions at Thanksgiving

Our parents had a common heritage and instilled in us the importance of family and tradition. Among her staunch convictions was that Mom sincerely believed that older people were interesting to listen to, and that without them, the world would be very boring. In Daddy’s mind, family was his siblings; we kids were a close second, and accepted our place in the pecking order, especially on holidays.

Some of the more wonderful memories I have as a small child on Thanksgiving were making the rounds with Daddy.  We visited his older sister first thing; might not yet have been 10:30 in the morning, but they were up and ready for us, our aunt greeting us like long lost prodigals, and our uncle hugging us in a vice-like grip that, once over, convinced us we could still breathe on our own; our ribs hadn’t cracked.

Daddy would join the adults in a holiday drink and we girls had Shirley Temples.  It was okay on Thanksgiving to eat dessert in the morning.   Cookies on the side table were waiting.  One type in particular was an old family favorite that only my oldest aunt baked – a ravioli-looking cookie with apricot or prune filling, dusted with confectioners’ sugar.  The “Tourtons” brought back memories of “down the house” and was one of Daddy’s favorites; they soon were mine, too!

Back at home, our Thanksgiving table was set to include the aunts and uncles who had no children.  They were brave enough to join us two of the three main holidays each year.  Only Bro and his family always joined us as well.  This was a fun time for us younger aunties to spend with our two little nieces.

Mom’s concerted efforts to replicate the familiar repast, again from “down the house”, kept everyone happy; our table was always bountiful. Sadly, the meals caused our mother considerable stress and strain to maintain the expected standards each year.  She was a nervous wreck on every holiday.  Once she had served the dinner, however, she could finally relax in the knowledge that it had met with everyone’s expectations and approval.  Talk about peer pressure!

Sometimes I honestly wish that I could relive just one of those Thanksgivings. I loved hearing the stories around the table, especially from my uncle who had served in WW I.  My aunt’s harmony and the siblings’ ability to break into song during dessert can never be replicated.  This was a once in a lifetime experience; even our nieces barely recall some of the original players.

The older ones are all gone now.  We second generation are left to communicate and continue the traditional family fare. Our challenge is to communicate the caring and the sharing, not the stress and strain! I long ago made choices; neither time nor finances would ever afford me the opportunity to completely recreate our childhood dinner table. Since then, I have chosen to include some things and delete others; often, I alternate certain specialties from time to time.

Fast forward; I managed to pass along some of our family standards to My Only.  New traditions had to be melded to accommodate the latter day necessity of job commitments and the longer distances traveled between family branches.    My Only doesn’t remember the uncle who squeezed me to death until I thought my ribs would crack!  Traditions had changed as had the personalities involved.

When her turn came, My Only learned all the nuances for her uncles. For example, she learned how to properly greet her Uncle J.  We fashioned a particular protocol, specially honed for the one uncle who didn’t like little kids hugging or hanging on him with sticky hands and runny noses…

I kept the instructions simple:

Honey, just walk in, say “Hello, Uncle J” and keep on walking toward Auntie Dee…

Talk about passing with flying colors; my daughter became a master at this routine.  She’d be through the front door and nearly midway toward the kitchen by the time he could respond, “Hi, Kid”.

It worked. We always had a great visit, and Uncle J thought she was rather well behaved; for a kid.

(My Only with her two big cousins; circa 1980)

STANDING UP

I was reminded of Mom, who continued to stand for older people on the bus or in the doctor’s office; she was over seventy years old herself, and we would remind her that she no longer had to give up her seat; in fact, she’d earned it and could safely enjoy staying seated.  She didn’t really acquiesce until her ankles began to weaken and she became unsteady.

Such was the déjà vu moment that spoke to me as I watched the group of older men come forward, each in turn, as their names were called.  This was a moment for decorum…

I watched as the once young soldiers resumed their youthful, military stance; one could almost imagine each reporting for duty as they were called in alphabetical order.   Despite their fragile gaits, each had once again straightened up just enough to return to uniformed days when they had been warmly greeted by their loved ones.

This was a simple but touching ceremony.  Those who walked without a cane or walker stepped forward and stood at attention while the caring woman pinned the red carnation on their lapels and thanked them for their service.  Slightly exuberant but still possessing the shyness of their youth’s generation, each ambled to a nearby seat so as to allow the next Vet his very own moment of recognition.

A couple of them were strong enough to raise themselves up from the wheel chair seats that brought them to their place in line outside the room’s entrance, where they managed to stand ever so briefly but long enough to receive their carnations eye to eye.  They fell carefully back into their wheeled seats and worked their way back to the end of the line so that the next Vet could move forward.

I tried to imagine the individual yesterdays these men had known; some of us who watched the brief proceedings during our lunch were younger by at least thirty to forty years… from my brief encounter with WWII and Korean War history, I could only surmise the reels of memories still rolling inside each of these old soldiers.  I had had older cousins who had served at the same time as these gentlemen. But as in most families, ages tended to stay within ages, and reunions were more difficult to get to these days; I had to admit: I knew very little of my own cousins’ stories.

My membership in a service club had brought me to this senior living residence dining room this week, wherein tradition extolled these precious individuals at least one day each year.  Some of these men had once celebrated Armistice Day; and like my older cousins, they were at least a generation younger than my mother would have been, had she been sitting here at lunch with me.

Like Mom, they understood the simple courtesy of giving up a desired seat so that another older member could take in the brief but respectful place accorded him by the rest of his senior living comrades in arms

Hansel and Gretel; the Retirement Years

Like every child in junior high, all my mother had to do was walk in a room and I experienced “embarrassment”; it didn’t matter…whatever came out of her mouth, no matter how entertaining or engaging for the other adults, would easily direct me under the nearest available  table.

My mother was a genial sort who never failed to entertain my mentors with her laughing, smiling, and congenial personality.  Truth is she never stopped talking, especially when she was nervous.  Hence, her stories and jokes were nothing short of revealing to this twelve year old, especially when she shared a chuckle with my eighth grade art teacher.  Like the day she shared her favorite joke:

Eat every carrot and pea in your dish.

Giggle, giggle, smile, and the eyes twinkled.  My teacher thought it was cute; but then, her parents were of the same generation, so I am sure she had learned to cope much better after she’d passed thirty years of age.  I would not recover from this happenstance for another twenty years…

While Mom thought peas and carrots were funny subjects to joke about, she found little other vegetation amusing, especially that from my father’s backyard garden.  She couldn’t believe the amount of water that Daddy used each month to water and care for the plants; the water bill was easily the sorest subject for her every year.  There were other sore subjects as well; like the mud he always tracked in.

Daddy would come home after working all day, pour himself a glass of red wine, slice a piece of bread, grab a couple of slices of salami or cheese, then stroll down the hallway to the backdoor exit; he was on a mission: time to check his garden.

One could follow my father’s steps by the wine drops and French bread crumbs.  The kitchen door was a more convenient exit, but for some reason, he preferred to walk down the sixteen foot long hall, leaving his markings (I never had any problem believing Hansel and Gretel had marked their way back home; I’d witnessed this a hundred times as a child; bread crumbs are easily seen under any lighting, even on shag carpeting!)

Once he’d completely planted the backyard bed and lined up all the paste buckets for that growing season, Daddy moved forward, focusing on the planting space that remained along the sunnier side of our home.  Tomatoes and pepper plants lined the western side of our house, adjacent to our narrow cemented driveway.  Because of the hours of good hot exposure, some of the best fruits of his labor were produced along this narrow planting strip.

Mom maintained that it would have been cheaper to just run to the Japanese produce stand down on the boulevard.  But Daddy had decided that he would always have his garden.  Sometimes, the tension was very strained during those retirement years.  Each time Mom tried to explain that the cost of growing his own garden was not worth all the trouble, my father was more determined than ever to grow his own vegetables.

This particular day, Mom had had it.  The mud that Daddy tracked in with his prize crop (some of the tomatoes were no bigger than marbles) finally was too much for her to take.  She was tired of all the extra dirt and loudly said so. When she flatly refused to wash any of his garden harvest and told him to take it back outside and wash all the dirt off FIRST, Daddy said “to hell with it” and announced he would cook it himself.

I stopped by after work that afternoon, as sometimes I had a few minutes and, having returned to the area, I could enjoy a short visit a couple times a week before heading on home.  I walked in and Mom informed me that Daddy was outside with “his” vegetables.

I stepped out in back and discovered that Daddy had fired up the charcoal grill.  He was cutting up his prize vegetables and throwing them in a pot of water sitting over the coals; he was making soup.

I’m not helpless…I’ll show her…your mother isn’t the ONLY one that can cook…

Obviously, this was a very serious stance in my father’s eyes. I walked back in the house and noticed Mom was peeking out the back window, watching his every move.  She’d giggle a bit, and then return to her kitchen. Soon after, our neighbor arrived home, closed his garage, and saw Daddy over the wall, standing by the grill.  He walked over and heard the entire story while Daddy proudly showed him his “soup” and reiterated,

The woman thinks I’m helpless, you know…

Our neighbor just chuckled and shook his head, finally taking leave and going home for dinner.

Don’t ask me what Daddy’s soup tasted like.  By this time in my life, I was old enough to understand this particular standoff was far from over; good time for me to split…

The Census Takers

Contrary to today’s penchant for overdoing all things, Halloween was pretty much a one day dress-up event years ago.  Beyond the costumes, trick or treating and the two-dimensional pumpkins and black cats hanging in the windows, the holiday itself was no big deal.

We didn’t jump in vans, didn’t hop from one area of the city to another, didn’t Trick or Treat until we were high school age; nope, Halloween Trick or Treating was for kids only.  We loved running from porch to porch, up the stairs where the lights were on to welcome us, quickly spitting out an audible thank you before running back down to the next walkway.  Our Trick or Treat bags were small, often plastic pumpkins or small paper bags we’d decorated, but they were adequate size for the amount of candy collected.

People knew people and neighbors didn’t move very often; generations watched second generations often grow up on the same block.  Cookies wrapped in wax paper or foil, home-made candies…one didn’t need to go through the bag to sort “safe” from “unsafe” treats.  Kids normally didn’t roam very far beyond the initial home front (about a three block area); if we even thought about going up another street or extending our route, believe me it had to be done with more than one parent’s blessings.  Neighborhood parents were just as watchful as your own.  It was a good time to be a kid as someone was always looking after your safety and holiday fun.

On occasion, Mom would let us help pick out the candy to give away.  Some years we’d have to remind Mom that raisins, no matter how cute they were in the small little boxes, were not really what we kids wanted in our bags.  She tended to go after the familiar:  Tootsie Pops, hard candies, peppermint sticks, bubble gum, things that were familiar to her when she was a kid.  We had a shallow wooden bowl that Mom used for the candy every Halloween.  She’d place it on the desk with a small notebook and pen; she liked to keep count of how many kids came to the door each year.  So did our next door neighbor.

It didn’t help that Daddy had already checked out the next door’s bowl of goodies; he’d return home, reporting how great the candy assortment was next door; none of his remarks improved either our home atmosphere or our bowl assortment.  Mom could be oblivious when she chose to be; just what was wrong with our candy selection?

At the end of the evening, when the porch lights had been turned off, Mom and the neighbor conversed via their respective kitchen windows (across the driveway) and compared their totals.  The variance was the same most of the time: for some peculiar reason, our neighbor always logged a higher number of Trick or Treaters.

These census counts became somewhat of a contest for the women, though none of us understood what the big deal was.  Certainly, the men were not interested in any of this nor were we kids.

Mom, always the one with the investigator mind, couldn’t figure out how any kids would have stopped next door to ring the bell without then following up our porch steps; both houses were in the middle of the block.  Likely, their methods differed; one ticked off numbers, the other counted the small number of candy bars left in her bowl.

Also very likely, Daddy had eaten more than one candy bar on his earlier visit…

 

 

Everything is Relative

Mom’s maternal instincts were just that; instinctive. Her own mother had died while Mom was still a toddler; her father died several years later.  At five years of age, she was standing on a box to reach the ironing board and taking care of her dad and a brother one year younger than she.  She adored her father and, from all reports, he was one of the kinder hearted men of his generation.

The nuns in “Sister School” (Mom always used this term) were the closest to maternal role models for Mom.  Mom obeyed more easily than her brother, who spent lots of time on the wrong side of the ruler.  Mom needed consoling when her brother was punished; she inevitably cried for him and ended up on the nun’s lap, hearing the nun explain that the punishment was for his own good; no doubt, some highlights of Hell were tossed in for good measure.

Mom understood she couldn’t save her brother from the nun’s wrath, so she reasoned that by being really good, she might at least save his soul; after all, she herself was especially disciplined; God might allow some of her good graces to be credited on her brother’s behalf, saving him from Eternal Doom.

Mom could occasionally fall under bad influences, as did any little girl who was easily influenced by an older family member.  She thought her older cousin knew everything, so she followed his orders, painstakingly smearing Limburger cheese on the neighborhood’s door knobs one Halloween.  While never caught, she both shuddered and giggled when she retold this story; her embarrassment at having done such a deed was still fresh each time she repeated it.

Basically, Mom was a good student who could be as creative and as successful and as trusting as the next little girl in her age group.  Mom entertained us when she admitted to not being very bright, and laughingly shared how – as a little girl – she sincerely believed that the mailman wrote all the letters!   My first reaction was one of embarrassment myself.  How could my mother have been so dumb???

Childlike naiveté and trust permeated well into maturity.  She committed herself to her husband and family with all her heart.  Throughout her adulthood, her never-ending faith belied the role she played in loved ones’ well-being.  Saving souls and protecting children from themselves seemed to be a strong, overriding motivator that compelled her to never give up on any child or loved one in spite of the reality or prevailing circumstances. Mom was consistent, if not always successful.

For us babies in the family, Mom was a particularly overly-protective, older mother.  Her style might have been rather suffocating if it hadn’t already been restrictive.  When we did get out of line, there was never a “Wait until your father gets home.”  Mom was perfectly capable of retaining order and she did so with enough conviction in both her tone and her hand to communicate any message quite clearly.

I remember chatting in the library before the Christmas holiday; we were comparing family traditions and tales, when one of my friends happened to bring up her mother, a delightful lady with a very playful personality.  Evidently, her mother had grown up near the town’s train tracks.  As the cars passed by, she yearly observed that in the first group of cars were sheep; in the next group of cars were the season’s harvest of cantaloupes.  Ergo, her mother reasoned that sheep lay cantaloupes.

Everything is relative. I was much relieved upon hearing that story.