Today is November 11th, 2009.
Yesterday, on the 10th, I went to my Mother’s grave…..for the first time. She died in 1969. It took me forty years and 11 days before I could finally go. She is buried in the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma, California in honor of her three years, eight months, and seventeen days of service in the Navy during WW II.
Each year on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, I try to remember and acknowledge all those in my family, in my tribe who have served, or who lost someone, but I didn’t really think about honoring my own Mom until last year.
Here is some of what I wrote after my first visit to her grave:
“I realized this morning that part of why this veteran’s Day is so emotional for me is that, much to my embarrassment, I just remembered that my own mother proudly served in the U.S. Navy. This year I have really felt inspired to include her in my gratitude. Maybe it was the recent suggestion by some long estranged relatives that her remains be transferred from the military cemetery in San Diego, to a Mormon family plot in Salt Lake City.
The irony of this was completely lost on my relatives. Throughout my mother’s adult life, these same relatives are the people who shunned my mother for not abiding by the teachings she did not believe in from their church….and now they want her back??
My Mom died before I ever got to find out what her experience in the Navy really meant to her. What a bold and brazen step it must have been for her to take…maybe not that much different than any woman of that time but, along with whatever patriotism fueled her, for her it carried the additional weight of knowing her decision would probably cut the last of her ragged ties to her family. Mormon women in the 1940’s simply did not leave their families and their church to join the military.
I will never forget something she said to me in the Sixties when I was idealistically fussing about some of the guys I loved, “brothers” really, for not fighting their draft notices. She said “You can’t possibly know what all goes into a person’s decision to join the Armed Services. So stop judging”. I’m sure her statement was laden with personal information too.
I am so sad that I will never truly know, but I am also grateful to her for her service, her parenting and for her planting the seeds for what has turned out to be my mission in life….to develop a theory about Dual Realities, to study Absolutism VS Pluralism, and to find compassion for all sides of any conflict.
It was her comment that helped me see that I could be a full blown Flower Child/Hippie/Peacenik at the very same time I was loving and supporting Vets returning from Vietnam, as well as mourning those who didn’t. I protested the War, but also protested the protesters who were so cruel to returning Vets.”
A few years back I sent out a Thank You letter to all the Vets in my life. It captures the attitude I have tried to embrace because of my mother’s teachings and her brave examples.
“Well, it is Veteran’s Day again, and we are still at war.
You all know I am not particularly political, but on this day I get pretty emotional.
On Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day I always try to visit the cemetery close to my house. I don’t know anyone there really, but somehow, the way they honor Vets and those killed while in the service really touches me. The entrance is lined with hundreds of huge American Flags and there are tiny flags and crosses all over the graves, placed intermittently so I assume they are in honor of those who have died for our country.
Though I consider myself a committed pacifist, even in the sixties when I marched and demonstrated for PEACE, I could not, would not tolerate any degrading of those who served by going to Vietnam. Granted, many went thinking they had no choice, in their call to duty or in the draft, but I always supported the military folks in our midst. (I knew too many of you over there!)
When the traveling Vietnam Wall came here, I visited it several times. When I went to see the original in D.C. I had 17 names to look up; all friends and “brothers” of mine from grade school through high school.
Anyway, the reason I am writing to all of you is to, again, THANK YOU for your service, your sacrifice and your contribution to our country. I deeply admire and respect you for it.
I still feel some kind of universal regret for the way we, in my generation, treated our Veterans coming home from Vietnam.
Earlier this year, during the Super Bowl, a public service spot was aired for the first time. It still haunts and inspires me to this day. It went something like this.
Picture an airport terminal, the waiting area, many people, probably holiday delays. They look really settled in. The camera pans over kids playing, people napping, stuff strewn about…..and then it zooms in on the face of an older woman who obviously has caught sight of something that stirs her. We see her, with some effort, stand up…and she begins to clap. The camera shows one person, then 2, then several following her line of vision….and they each in turn also stand up and begin to clap. Soon, there is a full-on standing ovation, and the camera turns to reveal the focus of their applause. It is a group of returning Armed Service folks, with their military gear, coming though the arrival gate door, looking pained and beleaguered…..until we see it slowly dawn on each of their very young, but well worn faces (Black, white, Hispanic, female) that they are being recognized, honored, and welcomed home. The way each of their expressions changes, some embarrassed, awkward, surprised, some grateful, some relieved, and a couple of hulking, macho-types even moved to tears….well, I ache with chagrin that we didn’t know to do this after Vietnam, for our returning Vets.
Sitting at the end of the long drive into the cemetery, listening to the rows of hundreds of huge flags making that unmistakable flapping sound in the wind, I felt deep gratitude for each of you and said a prayer for all those you must have lost, for the ones we all have lost, and for the ones the other side loses every time we fight a war.
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Anyway, yesterday at my Mom’s grave, I had a mixture of emotions. It is a beautiful site really, surrounded by my favorite San Diego tree, the Star Pine, with the most stunning view of the ocean.
Mostly, I felt the seemingly life-long pain of missing my Mom, who I lost long before I became a chronological adult. I felt a deep sadness that wanted to come out of me in a wail that would shake the branches right off those Star Pines.
I will make my traditional visit to a local cemetery later today. There will be flags flying everywhere.
I will close my eyes and listen to that amazing American Flag flapping sound, so familiar in my cells, stirring in my bones. I will transport myself back in time to Point Loma. I will stand at my Mom’s grave and remember the sun on my face, the ocean down below and I will hear countless flags flapping all around me….the ones that are there today to honor my mother and all those thousands of her compatriots.
If I can, I will go back even further in my mind’s eye, back to 1968, and I will stand before my Mom, before she took her own life. I will look right into her beautiful, haunted blue eyes, and I will tell her how, by example, she taught me how to stand up for my deepest held beliefs, to fight for what I think is right and to dig deep into myself to understand the viewpoint from the other side of the fight, any fight. I will tell her how grateful I am to have known so many courageous and dedicated Veterans even though I do not believe or condone war in any form. I would thank her for encouraging me to be patriotic in my own way.
And I will say “Thank You, Mom, for your stunningly brave, and multi-leveled service to our country.”
My father was such a quiet and unassuming man, I forget that he was also in the Armed Services, the National Guard Mounted Cavalry, in the early part of the 20th century. He never told me much about that experience except this one time when he described in vague but emotional terms, what it was like to be trained in how to kill a man with a bayonet.
There is one thing Tom Bessey’s children would never have known about during his lifetime because he was way too modest. But after he died, we found something in the small box of his most treasured possessions (pictures of us girls, letters from his father, and a picture of him with our mother).
There was also a letter from his commanding officer recommending him to West Point.
I used to send my yearly “Veteran’s Thank You letter” to him along with everyone else and he never said a word….knowing him, just too difficult to talk about.
This year, all I can say is Thank You once again to each of you for your service and thank you to your families who are “veterans” also.
I feel honored to know you, grateful for your contributions to my freedom and mostly, for your presence in my life.
PS My favorite quote from my Dad….I remember him using it about my protesting the Vietnam War………..
“Well, that’s one way to look at it.”
Now you see where my current day favorite quote comes from….
Ah…..the magic of a chosen perspective……