Great Grandpa

This pandemic may be called many things—scary, inconvenient, ill-timed, unprecedented. As a mom to two graduating daughters and two soccer-playing sons, the main word is aggravating. “Why now?” they ask. “Why did this stupid virus have to interrupt my final year of high school/senior prom/graduation party/mission trip/soccer season/out-of-town tournament/church camp?”

 

They’re pretty good kids, so after spending some time lamenting the loss of these events and milestones, they sit a little taller with a newly developed perspective. They’ve come to realize trips and parties, while fun, aren’t vital to our survival as a species. It’s an invaluable lesson about how the planets don’t revolve around them and their whims. And it’s a lesson we’re all learning every day as we strive to find better ways to appreciate our blessings and look out for each other like it’s our full time job.

 

I had one of those epiphanies last week when we attended the funeral of my husband’s 94-year old grandfather. We traveled a couple of hours to a funeral home where we knew the attendance would be low. The visitation was family-only, so 15 of us sat in the chapel and visited with mask-muffled voices, as Grandpa lay in his casket at the front of the room.

 

Eventually it was time for the graveside service, so we drove down the road to the cemetery where Grandma is also buried. On the drive, I told my husband how sad it was that more people weren’t there to pay their respects to this amazing World War 2 veteran. A radio operator on transport ships in the Pacific, he was so proud of the fact that he was on the ship next to the USS Missouri when the Japanese foreign minister signed the peace treaty to end the war. After the war and until his death, he lived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee where he worked at the National Lab. (Grandma also worked there as a Guardette tasked with, among other things, making sure everyone had left the building in case of an evacuation. Her time there and her exposure to uranium led to her battle with breast cancer.)

 

Grandpa traveled with bombs and parts of bombs. He was a genius at fixing things—weed-eaters, chain saws, telephones, watches. He was the one they called in to pull wire through buildings and set the locks on giant safes. These were my thoughts as we parked at the cemetery and saw car after car lined up beside us. People were standing around, mostly strangers to us who had gone to church with Grandpa, waiting for us to take our place under the canopy and sit in the folding chairs reserved for family.

 

Then we saw the two naval officers in their dress whites, standing at attention by Grandpa’s flag-draped casket. They were facing each other, as still as statues. As one of the men crisply spun around and stepped away from the group, I noticed he was holding a bugle. At a safe distance from the crowd, he removed his face mask and began to play Taps. Those sad and lonesome notes drifted above us as we looked forward in silence, tears trickling down the sides of my face before being absorbed by my mask. When the bugler returned to the canopy, he removed the flag and worked with the other officer to meticulously fold it into a perfect triangle. Then the other officer held the folded flag in front of my father-in-law and said, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” Once the offered flag was taken, he snapped back and saluted with perfect solemnity and respect.

 

I had started the day with an unshakeable feeling of sadness that this aggravating virus would prevent a dear man from receiving the deference and appreciation that was due him, but, in the end, I was wrong. Like so much of these last few months, the essential was revealed and lessons were learned. Each of these days which fall under the heading of PANDEMIC CONTINUES will not end in the way I would choose, (because…why should life start being perfect now, anyway?) but when things do turn around and the clouds part and we get a little sunshine where we expected thunderstorms, it’s always worth mentioning.

I Pledge

One of the first lengthy English paragraphs that our African-born son (sort of) memorized was the Pledge of Allegiance. All last schoolyear, his preschool teacher (me) recited it with the class each time we met.

 

Ezra’s rendition gets a little garbled in places. “And to the public, witches stand…” You get the idea. If you listen to the literal telling of it, a room full of 4-year olds may unintentionally pledge their allegiances to any number of things so don’t hold them to it.

 

Saying the Pledge is one of those activities that’s easy to do without a lot of meaning behind it. I can guarantee that Ezra couldn’t define many of the 31 words but he somehow understands the gravity of them. Before he and his brother and his dad start a basement soccer game, Ezra pauses and—in lieu of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—he puts his hand on his heart and says, “I peg legions to the flag…” before they start the soccer match.

 

This week Ezra took his Pledge skills to the next level. He was asked to lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the school board meeting. Since Ezra became an official U.S. citizen this summer, this was an especially poignant moment for us. As the day progressed, he grew more nervous about his role in the evening meeting. I told him that if he would just get it started by saying, “I pledge…” then everyone there would join in and he could say just about anything for the remaining 29 words.

 

Ezra completed his assigned task, and we drove home to dive into an authentically American supper of Sloppy Joe sandwiches.

 

Our participation in the event brought up a lot of questions for Ezra: What’s a school board? (Um, they make decisions for our schools.) Why are their meetings on TV? (So people can watch it at home and see what they decide.) Why did you draw a star on my hand? (So you would remember which was your right hand when it was time to cover your heart.) And so on.

 

I’m guessing that when it comes to educating the kids in our city, there’s often more questions than answers: How do we improve the scores? How do we afford these programs? What’s best for these kids?

 

I am so grateful there are people willing to meet on a Tuesday night to make plans for our schools. I’m also grateful that Ezra receives this education freely offered to him. He has loving teachers and administrators who make school a wonderful place to be. Most of all, with this education he has opportunities and endless possibilities. Education helps society live up to the promise of liberty and justice for all.

Proud to be an American

This is the first Independence Day our African-born son will be in the U.S. He doesn’t know anything about George Washington or the Declaration of Independence, but I can already tell he’s beginning to appreciate his new country. Because in order to truly appreciate anything, you have to know what life is like without it.

Our son likes us to tell him the story of how he came to live with us in America. With his limited English, the story is short and to the point. It goes something like this: (You’ll have to imagine the charades-like actions that go along with it.)

“Mama and Papa got on a plane and flew to Congo. The next day, Ezra came to us at the hotel. Then, after a few days, Mama and Papa and Ezra went to the airport. We rode on three planes (This is his favorite part). On the first plane, Ezra slept like a baby. On the second plane, Ezra was crazy! He would not sleep. He did not want to sit down with his seatbelt fastened. On the last plane, Ezra slept again but just for a little bit. Then Papa carried sleepy Ezra off the plane and his whole family was waiting for him!”

Anytime we’ve been in the car for an extended amount of time, there’s a bit of confusion involved. He needs to be told and retold who is coming and where exactly we’re going and how long we’ll be there. When we first arrived in Lynchburg, Tennessee for half a week of church camp at the beginning of the summer, Ezra sat in the rec hall and asked me, “Mama, America?” He wasn’t so sure where that church bus had taken him.

America isn’t perfect. There are things about our country that are frustrating. Groups of people still don’t receive equal treatment. Those with wealth have greater opportunities for education and healthcare and general happiness than those without.

Even considering these possible disadvantages, an American is far better off than so many in this world. We may complain about our leaders (Don’t even get me started about this upcoming presidential election) but at least we get the people we vote for. If they’re horrible, then it’s our fault and a new election process will come in a few years and we can start again. So many citizens of other nations aren’t truly allowed to vote, even for a bad leader. They have no recourse for corrupt government practices. Their situation seems hopeless.

I’m grateful for the nation of my birth. I’m proud to be a citizen of the United States. I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else. Seeing this privilege from the vantage of our son who will soon become as a U.S. citizen, I can understand a little better the beauty of this gift.