Monday, May 31, 2010
A Salute to My Father’s Memory
(The cemetery photographs in this post were taken at our cemetery here in Leelanau Township, not in the Illinois cemetery where my father is buried.)
When I was a little girl, my father and I were the best of friends. He carried me horsey-back. (We both loved horses, so there was no talk of “piggy-back” between us.) He read a chapter to me every night from Peter Pan: The Adventures of Peter and Wendy, a book the two of us practically learned by heart; he also made up bedtime stories, for me and my sisters, about the adventures of an imaginary squirrel family. On Sundays after church we daughters in turn got to go with him to “Daddy’s office” (he was a civil engineer for a small regional railroad) and sit up at the big, high drafting tables, shading in contour maps with colored pencils and enjoying cold chocolate milk from machines in the basement. And as a little girl I especially loved the way he looked in his uniform, all dressed up for parades, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. He had been in Holland and the South Pacific during World War II, then in Paris and the south of France, still in the military, after the end of the war in Europe.
Having heard French phrases from him all my life, it was natural that I would want to study the language in high school and long to see Paris for myself, but if French consolidated a bond with my father, my adolescent years also brought painful changes to our relationship. As I began to have my own opinions on various aspects of life, we disagreed often, the disagreements seldom easy for either of us and stubbornly persistent through the following years.
On my parents’ last visit together to northern Michigan, therefore, my strategy was for the three of us to take long drives past orchards in bloom and also by as many horses as I could work into the itinerary. Love of horses, of Paris and a deep appreciation for the French language: these formed an oasis of peaceful common ground in my adult relationship with my father.
Since the military in general and World War II in particular constituted the high points of his life, my father is buried in the military section of a pleasant, tree-shaded old cemetery, and the last time I went to visit his grave with my mother and my husband, my eye was caught by a tiny scrap of worn, faded fabric on the ground, a small shred from one of those little American flags people stick in the ground near graves on holidays. I couldn’t leave it there.
You see, when I was young, both at home and at school I was taught respect for the flag, one of the rules being that it was never to touch the ground. Thus this little scrap, like a partial page from a holy book, called up in me all my parents’ and teachers’ old lessons, and finding it near my father’s grave made it seem even more important, so I picked it up and put it in my pocket, something to store away with a miscellany of small items too important to discard, though no one looking at the collection would see value in any of it. I got it out yesterday to photograph it.
“The old colonel,” as he liked to call himself in later life, enjoyed saluting his fellow officers and being saluted in turn. Actually, he enjoyed having his daughters salute him, too, which wore somewhat thin for us as we got older. It wasn’t always easy being the daughter of a retired military man. But as I was thinking about all this the other day, I realized gratefully that while he undoubtedly would have liked to have had a son, he never once gave us the message that he was disappointed in our being girls.
Dad, I salute your memory today, in gratitude for your contribution to our freedom. Thanks to you and your comrades-in-arms over the generations, my sisters and I are free to vote and free to disagree with each other, our fellow Americans and even our government. Though none of us will ever do it (unless someone opts out of the pact we made), we’re even free to run for public office. Thank you all.