It has taken far too long for the leaders of this nation to do the honorable thing but finally, a U.S. President has realized the error and is seeking to correct it. President Obama has issued a proclamation declaring today — this Sunday — Gold Star Family Day. Here’s part of what the proclamation says:
As a grateful Nation honors our fallen service members, so do we honor the families who keep their memory burning bright. They are parents who face the loss of a child, spouses who carry an emptiness that cannot be filled, children who know sorrow that defies comprehension. The grief they hold in their hearts is a grief most cannot fully know. But as fellow Americans, we must lend our strength to those families who have given so much for our country. Their burdens are ones that no one should have to bear alone, and it is up to all of us to live our lives in a way worthy of their sacrifice.
On this day of remembrance, let us rededicate ourselves to upholding the sacred trust we share with our Gold Star families and the heroes we have laid to rest. Let us always remember that the blessings we enjoy as free people in a free society came at a dear cost. Let us hold the memories of our fallen close to our hearts, and let us mark each day by heeding the example they set…
After the Flag has Been Folded (Formerly Hero Mama), the book I wrote about our Gold Star family, is a revealing look at how the reading public typically responds to war stories about military families, or those left behind. Although the book was featured on Good Morning America, in the New York Times, and on National Public Radio, among dozens of other reputable places, and although it earned endorsements from the likes of Pat Conroy, Jeanette Walls, Joe Galloway, and dozens of others who consider it a worthy work, in the six years it’s been in print, After the Flag (formerly Hero Mama) has sold roughly 5,000 copies. Booksellers who tried to urge audiences to read it, finally gave up. The number one book the year After the Flag was released? How to Make Love Like a Porn Star.
On behalf of my own Gold Star Mother, who seven weeks ago was diagnosed with lung and brain cancer, I offer you this excerpt from After the Flag has been Folded. If you read it and it spoke to you, please go to Amazon and write a review, or like the page. Tweet it. Or Facebook it in honor a Gold Star Family on this Gold Star Family Day:
I suspected a thawing on Mama’s behalf when she asked me to go with her to the movies one night to see Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. Mama didn’t go to very many picture shows. Sometimes she’d go to the drive-in where she could sit in her car and smoke and watch Billy Jack, but The Great Gatsby is the only movie I recall watching with Mama at the theater. The show itself was magical, but being there together, like I was one of her friends and not just her tag-along daughter, made the evening all the more mystical to me. To this day, I count that night as about the best one Mama and I have had since Daddy died.
There is only one other day that I cherish more – May 31, 1974 – the day I graduated from Columbus High School. Frank flew home for the event, and the week before he arrived, Mama had us carry all the living and dining room furniture out onto the front lawn. She said it was time for spring cleaning. Then she grabbed the Kirby and sucked up all the dust balls, while Linda and I took Lemon Pledge to every stick of furniture in the house and on the lawn. After we put everything back in its rightful place, Mama started in on the yard. You would’ve thought Jimmy Carter was coming to visit, the way Mama was carrying on. I don’t remember Frank walking through the front door and exclaiming, “Wow! Girls! This place is spic and span,” but it was.
Frank was the nicest he had been in years to both Linda and me. He didn’t boss us around even once and he didn’t mention the abortion or how disappointed he was in me. He took me out for a Coke and ran around with me getting stuff ready for graduation.
The ceremony was at 4:30 P.M. at the downtown coliseum. I was up early because we had a practice session before noon. Mama was in the kitchen dumping coffee granules into the top of the coffeepot. I loved the coffee’s pungent smell, and I liked to watch it percolate, blurp-blurp, into the glass crown atop the pot. But I didn’t care for its bitter taste. I opened the refrigerator and poured myself a glass of iced tea.
“Good morning,” Mama said. “Ready for the big day?”
“I reckon so, ma’am,” I said.
“It’s going to be hot as blazes this afternoon,” she noted.
I stood at the kitchen sink and looked at the sky. A cloud of steam lay trapped between the tops of the pine trees and the aquamarine sky beyond. It was if God had tucked a sheet of Saran Wrap over our section of the earth. There was a milky white film everywhere I looked.
“Some of the boys said they’re going to wear shorts underneath their gowns,” I said.
“Don’t you even think about it.”
“I wouldn’t, Mama.”
The doorbell rang. “I’ll get it,” I said. I walked out of the kitchen and through the dining room. I didn’t really need to rush. Frank and Linda were still sleeping. They weren’t about to race me to the door.
It was the neighbors from across the street dropping off a gift-wrapped box and wishing me well on my graduation day. For weeks now people from all over town had been leaving presents on my doorstep or sending money in the mail. This graduation business was more lucrative than any Christmas or birthday that I could remember. Certainly much better than my last birthday. Boxes were piled three and four deep around my bed. Embroidered pillowcases, four pair of panties, size six; a silver-plated hairbrush and matching mirror; a couple of gold-plated pen sets from V. V. Vick Jewelers; charms for my fourteen-karat gold bracelet, including the tiniest Volkswagen Bug you ever saw from Beth McCombs; photo frames of every sort; half-a-dozen plump towels; and four sets of sheets – pink, white, blue gingham, and one with tiny yellow daisies.
I think every elderly person at Rose Hill Baptist must’ve mailed me a check. I had nearly three hundred dollars in the bank from all the folks who’d sent me ten and twenty dollars in the mail. I was beginning to see how those television evangelists could rake in the dough. If a hundred people sent in five dollars, a fellow could make five hundred dollars pretty swiftly. I reminded myself to do those calculations for Granny Leona. She’d send in $5 or $10 to the television preachers every time she cashed her Social Security check. Then by the end of the month she didn’t have enough money left to buy a dozen of those Little Debbie oatmeal cakes she loved so much.
I took a quick shower, towel-dried my hair and rushed off to practice. There were about four hundred of us graduating, and it took an hour to line us up, two by two. I had a deeper appreciation for Noah after watching our class advisors herd us around.
When I got back home, Mama was sitting on the front stoop drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette. I eased Old Blue up next to the curb, walked across the lawn, and plopped down next to her. I noticed the milky film from the morning had burnt off. Parched pinesap scented the air. Mama was dressed in shorts and a white, sleeveless top. Her arms and legs were lightly bronzed, like the skin of a rightly roasted marshmallow. “How was practice?” she asked.
“Boring,” I said. I sat down next to her on the brick steps.
“Mary Sue will be here in a bit,” Mama said.
“Is she bringing the kids?”
“I think she got a sitter for them.”
Mary Sue had finally tired of Uncle Joe. She left him shortly after Baby Joe was born. I kept Melissa and Joe quite a bit while Mary Sue studied to be a licensed practical nurse, like Mama had years before. She had lived in the projects at Peabody while she finished up her schooling. But once she got done, she bought a ranch-style house out past Edgewood Elementary. Melissa and Joe were attending the same elementary school where I’d started my education, back before we went to Hawaii, back before anybody we knew had heard of Vietnam.
I was trying hard not to think of Daddy right now. I had missed him something fierce during the sixth-grade graduation ceremony at Tillinghurst Elementary. Mama didn’t really care for school activities after Daddy died. I think she felt out-of-place among all those other mothers who had their husbands still. But she’d picked a folded chair right down front in the school cafeteria so I could see her from the stage while we sang the songs we’d memorized. And she smiled real big when I got a reading award. I knew in my heart then that Mama was missing Daddy, too. Just like now.
I picked up a handful of pine straw and started building a house between my feet, like the ones my girlfriends and I used to construct during our elementary recesses. Mama watched. Then she stood up, brushed off her butt and said, “Wait right here, I’ve got something for you.”
I kept my head down. I didn’t want Mama to see the puddle of tears in my eyes. I’d learned that the best way to stop myself from crying was to stop thinking about whatever was making me sad. But it’s hard not to think of your dead daddy on special days like birthdays, Christmas, Easter, and Fathers Day. On those really big occasions like high school or college graduations, weddings or when your own babies are born, then it’s best just to pull out the towel. There’s no possible way to get through those days without a big old crying jag.
Mama sat back down and handed me a tiny box. It was wrapped in gold paper and sealed with a big gold bow. “Your graduation gift,” she said, smiling. Mama loves to give presents better than anything in the world. Well, almost. She may like getting them even more.
I unwrapped it, taking care not to rip the paper or the bow. I lifted the lid off the white box, and resting there on a bed of cotton was a watch, an exquisite timepiece crafted from diamonds and gold.
“Oh, Mama!” I exclaimed. “It’s so beautiful!” I put my arms around her neck and gave her a big smooch on the cheek.
“I’m glad you like it,” she said, patting my arm, which still firmly planted around her neck. “I wanted to get you something special.”
“Here, help me put it on,” I said, sticking out my wrist. Mama unclasped the watch and slipped it over my left hand, taking care to cinch the clasp up tight. The early-afternoon sun bounced off the diamonds and made tiny rainbows of light. I sat still, mesmerized by my new treasure.
Mama studied me for a minute or two, then, she lit another cigarette and took a deep drag.
“Karen, there’s a couple of things I want to tell you.”
I went back to building my pine-straw house. Mama doesn’t like to make eye contact when she’s talking all serious like.
“Yes, ma’am?” I said.
“Your daddy, he’d be so proud of you today. He was always so proud of you. I don’t know if you remember or not, but when you were really little, he’d have me dress you up so he could take you out to the base to show all his buddies his little girl. Your daddy loved your blond hair. I could never get it to do anything. It was always sticking out every which way. But he thought you were such a pretty thing with that white blond hair.”
Tears, salty and hot, streamed down my cheeks. I didn’t dare look at her or say anything. I didn’t know what had caused Mama to lift the veil of silence that had shrouded her since the day Daddy died, but I didn’t want to give her any reason to stop talking now. I had waited umpteen thousand days to hear Mama speak Daddy’s name again. She could’ve told me a zillion stories of “Dave this” and “Dave that,” and I would never have tired of them.
Trouble was, Mama had quit saying Daddy’s name once he died. It simply pained her too much to tell us kids the stories we longed to hear. And because we all loved Mama so, we couldn’t bear to ask about the things that would surely stir her to sadness. So I’d never asked Mama how she and Daddy met, or when he proposed, or why he wanted to be a soldier or was there something else he longed to do, if only he’d lived. I didn’t know where his favorite fishing hole was or what kind of cake he liked best. I wasn’t sure if he read books or if he had an author he liked most. Or if he took Mama to the picture show. And I didn’t know if my soldier daddy was afraid he’d never live to see any of his children graduate from high school – something he never got the chance to do himself. I really wanted to ask Mama, do you think Daddy was afraid to die?
But I didn’t ask her any of the million questions running through my head. I just listened respectfully, the way I might if Pastor Smitty was trying to instruct me, as Mama told me about the ways Daddy loved me.
She recalled the night I fell off the bed and busted my chin open. “Dave put you in the car and drove you to the hospital by himself,” she said.
“I remember I was hollering for you all the way to Martin Army.”
“I bet you did,” Mama said. A grin crept across her face. She took a sip from her coffee cup. “When your daddy died, I was lost, Karen. It was like somebody had thrown me out in the middle of an ocean without a life jacket or anything. I was grabbing onto anything that came my way.”
Yep, I thought. A lot of bad shit floats around in the sea of despair.
Mama took another drag on her cigarette and continued. “I know I made a lot of mistakes. I did a lot of foolish things. I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry for the way I hurt you. I wish I’d been a better mother for you kids.”
I was wiping away the tears as fast as I could, but quick thaws are never easily managed. My emotions were rushing forward, carrying me along. “You’re a good mama,” I muttered. But she had tuned me out. She had set a course for herself with this mother-daughter talk, and nothing was going to distract her until she spit out whatever it was she had to say.
“Don’t you see, that’s why I have got to get out of here? I need a fresh start, someplace new. Someplace where I can make new friends. The only friends I have here are the girls I used to barhop with. I’m tired of that. But if I don’t get out of here, I will never get away from it.”
I didn’t have to ask what Mama was talking about. I knew good and well where the conversation was headed now. We’d fought about it all year long.
“Karen, I want you to go ahead and go on to Berry College with Lynn this fall, the way you’ve planned, but, honey, I can’t stay here. I’m taking your sister and moving to Oregon.”
What could I say? I’d asked Mama to let me graduate from the high school where I’d started, and she’d done that. I knew she wanted to get situated in Oregon before Linda started high school in the fall. I would be turning eighteen in November. There was nothing holding Mama to Columbus anymore.
She’d brought us back to this area because it connected us to Daddy in a way that only a military town could. Moving to Columbus was one sure way to keep in touch with the past, one we shared with Daddy. Now Mama needed a place to build a future for herself.
“You do what you have to do, Mama. I’ll be okay.”
I was lying about being okay. After Daddy died, losing Mama was always the thing I’d feared most.