Category Archives: family life

On Memorial Day, a World War Two Dad’s Legacy: Never Take a Day for Granted

My dad always had a strange reaction to Memorial Day Weekend, or so it seemed to me as a little girl. Yes, it was the beginning of summer and we celebrated (if that is the right word) with hamburgers on the grill and root beer floats.

But I realized from an early age that the so-called “holiday” was a time when my dad, a World War Two Army veteran and normally a very upbeat person, was also quietly grieving.

He didn’t say much. I believe he wanted to protect us, his children, from the horrors of the world. When he did talk about the war, it was nearly always about the goofy things that had happened, the hijinks and practical jokes because, after all, he and his Army buddies were so young they were little more than boys. My dad didn’t even shave yet.

Over the years, he began to talk about how lucky he’d been, how he could have been in much worse places, how his near-misses had been exactly that – near-misses.

He would talk (if I asked him) about the friends from high school, his Boy Scout troop, church, even his high school swim team who “didn’t make it home.”

Then, of course, there were his fellow soldiers. The one from Mississippi, for example, who, like Dad, was an only child. How this particular guy had died not from war wounds but from malaria. How Dad wrote to that soldier’s mother every Christmas until she died, decades after the war ended.

Very late in his life, Dad shared a memory from basic training. “We were doing a training exercise where we had to crawl on our bellies with live ammunition being shot over our heads,” he told me. “There was this guy. Same age as me. He lifted his head just a little too high and he was killed instantly. That was the first time I saw things I wish I hadn’t. And I wasn’t even overseas yet.”

To the world, his generation was known as the greatest. To Dad, his was a damaged generation of people who happened to be born at the wrong time. The survivors would be haunted by the questions of what might have been.

Men like my dad lived their entire lives with the scars of their war experiences. When he was about 80 years old, Dad had a major operation. When he awoke, he thought he was on the back of an Army truck on the Burma Road. The war was long over, but it had shaped and largely defined my father’s life. It never left him.

But Dad lived his long life- he died last fall at 92 – with an ever-present sense of gratitude. He never took a day for granted. He never lost his deep appreciation of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many others. I believe he endeavored to live a happy, worthy life in part because he felt he was living for those who didn’t get the chance.

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Saying Goodbye to a Dearly-Loved Father through Storytelling and Song

My beloved father died earlier this month at the age of 92. Thank you to all of you who prayed for Dad and sent condolences on his passing. My mother, who turns 91 in a few days, is doing as well as can be expected. She is very settled in their apartment and has lots of attention from her extended family as well as devoted aides who love her and loved Dad, too. Dad’s life is proof that people who are happy and kind spread happiness and kindness in all directions throughout their lives. I am hearing from people I’ve never met who remember that he always went out of his way to be encouraging and caring. We honored him with music, old-time Methodist hymns, and storytelling. I believe Dad’s playfulness with words and his nonstop, ironic sense of humor comes from his Scottish side of the family, and so it is fitting that he is buried beside his parents and grandparents in the family plot started by his Scottish great-grandfather in a leafy section of Queens, NYC. The plot is on a hill and beneath one of the oldest red oak trees in NYC. The tree is several hundred years old and seven stories high. As I am mourning his presence on this earth, I take great comfort in the fact that he was here for 92 years, that he made the most of that time, and that he was the best father a daughter could ever ask for.

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What an Epic Storm Means to a Writer

I hope everyone has recovered from the blizzard that covered half of the country last weekend.

When nature wreaks havoc, we adults tend to focus on the stress and inconvenience, while children see an opportunity for a break from school and a chance to frolic in the snow.

From an author’s point of view, an epic storm (unless you are caught out in it) can create a delightful bubble of quiet, reflective time that is perfect for deep reading and writing. Even more than that, we story-tellers know that a big, gorgeous, messy storm can spark our creativity. In fiction writing as in real life, epic storms divert people from their normal routine. People go missing – or pretend to. Strangers meet. Conversations happen that wouldn’t, otherwise. A big storm creates lovely chaos. It is real life on steroids.

In the nonfiction realm, epic storms are an oral historian’s dream. That’s because they often yield great family stories. Both of my parents recall the Great North American Blizzard of 1947, and every time there is a new blizzard, they talk about it again.

Dad had the misfortune of being on a road trip, trying to get home from college for Christmas, when the storm hit. His is a wild tale of a bunch of college boys pushing a beat-up, second-hand Model-T through one snow drift after another for more than two hundred miles. None of their parents knew where they were; even the telegram wires were down. It’s a story of the foolishness, determination, and resilience of youth.

Mom, on the other hand, remembers it as the storm that led to her decision to buy snow skis and take lessons, which doesn’t sound hugely life-changing until you realize that if she hadn’t, she and my Dad might never have married. By the time they met, Mom was a proficient skier. When she and Dad met at a young adult fellowship meeting at church, she offered to teach him how to ski. He made a good impression during those lessons. She says he was a good sport who didn’t mind looking foolish (falling a lot) in front of her.

And so one thing leads to another. A new plotline. A new direction. Character development. All because of a storm.

This is not to make light of the serious, sometimes awful events that occur during storms. It’s simply to point out that a big storm, to a writer or anyone with a large imagination, is like a small rock skipped across a pond, with ripples sent in a thousand, sometimes-unseen directions.

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A Family Story of Hope and Perseverance

I have a story about my grandma (my dad’s mother) that I would like to share with you. It is a story of hope, perseverance, and love. Grandma told me this story one day over breakfast thirty years ago. I knew that she had been a miracle baby – she weighed less than 3 pounds when she was born in 1896 – but she had never provided any details. Over toast and jam, she told me the rest of the story: Her mother fell down the cellar stairs on Christmas morning and went into labor prematurely. The baby (Grandma) wasn’t due until March or April but she was born January 7. There had been a terrible snowstorm (this was in Wisconsin) and the doctor was unable to come for days. When he arrived, he told my great-grandma that she “shouldn’t get attached to the baby.” He said Grandma was the smallest baby he’d ever seen and “too small to live.” Well, he was wrong. Grandma not only survived but she lived a long and happy life. When she told me this story she was already close to 90. She passed away in 1997 at age 101.

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Mom’s Special Christmas, Circa 1931

My mom, who is 90, was reminiscing recently about Christmas during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

There wasn’t much in the way of gifts. Matter of fact, there wasn’t much in the way of food.

Daily life was usually a struggle. Grandpa became a scavenger, coming home with fruit that had been discarded by stores, or fallen off a truck onto the streets of New York City. As long as it was not rotten, they’d eat it. To this day, my mother will eat fruit that neither you nor I would probably touch.

“It’s only bruised,” she will say. “There’s nothing really wrong with it.”

There was only one Christmas during those years that Mom remembers getting a store-bought gift. While she and her sister were singing in the children’s choir at church on Christmas Eve, either Grandpa or Grandma slipped out, dashed back to the little apartment where they lived, and put two wrapped presents – one for my mom and the other for Mom’s older sister – under the tree.

Later, when they all returned from church together, Grandpa and Grandma pretended to be surprised to see gifts under the tree.

Mom doesn’t remember what her sister’s gift was. But her eyes still open wide when she recalls the thrill of opening hers: A Shirley Temple doll.

My mother’s experience during the Depression is a reminder of the excess of material things we have today, and that we don’t need much – or anything at all – to celebrate Christmas.

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Dogs Can Teach Us How to Live

Miss Dot, half-awake on Amy's lap.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love dogs. My current dog, pictured here half-awake in my lap, is a very small Boston Terrier named Miss Dot, who serves as my writing companion when she isn’t busy telling me what to do.To me, a house does not feel like a home without a dog. When I was born I was brought home from the hospital to a household already inhabited by three older siblings – two brothers and a sister – as well as a dog named Heidi.

Heidi, a Standard Schnauzer, pre-dated all of the children. My dad had given her to my mom as a Christmas present the first year they were married.

By the time I came along, Heidi was edging toward senior citizen status. When I was three or four, I would throw my arms around her and hug her with all my might. Poor Heidi would groan loudly, get up, and move away from me, and my mom would call to me from the kitchen: “Amy, are you loving Heidi too hard?”

And so I learned the importance of being gentle and kind.

The notorious Gretchen a.k.a. Grinch, beloved dog of Amy Hill Hearth (with blond hair at right).

After Heidi, we got another Standard Schnauzer, but she wasn’t at all like sweet old Heidi. Her name was Gretchen and she had the heart of a mountain lion. (In this photo of Gretchen, I’m at right.) She got into all sorts of trouble of the skunk, dead-fish, and porcupine variety, but of course we loved her anyway. As it turned out, Gretchen (we mostly called her Grinch) was the perfect dog when we moved to Columbia, South Carolina when I was six. I was a tomboy, always outdoors, which was where Gretchen a.k.a. Grinch preferred to spend her time, too. Wherever I went, she was nearby, although she was nearly impossible to catch if she didn’t feel like being caught. From Grinch, I learned that some beings are simply untamable. No matter how much you love them, and even if they love you back, they are meant to be free.After Grinch, there was a long (sad) canine-free hiatus in my life. I wanted my own dog when I was in college and starting my career, but I didn’t have the time, space, or money. Even after I got married, it was a while before we had a house with a yard, and money to spare for a veterinarian and the other expenses which come with owning a dog.

By the mid-1990s, my husband and I finally had our act together and began researching what type of dog we wanted to get. We settled on a Boston Terrier, and at Christmas 1996, my husband gave me the most wonderful present: a Bostie puppy we named Wilma. She was an absolute delight – hilarious, as that breed tends to be, sweet-natured, playful, and very affectionate. She approached every day and every person with delight. From Wilma, I learned a lesson about unfettered joy.

Amy with her puppy, Wilma, Christmas 1996.

After we lost Wilma, we decided, in her memory, that we would adopt a Boston Terrier that needed a home. We found Dot, a seven-pound (very tiny) Bostie who had medical issues that would require devoted parenting. Dot (or Miss Dot, as we often call her) was a year and a half old when we brought her home from A Forever Home Rescue Foundation in Chantilly, Virginia. She has blossomed from a shy critter who hid her food to a foot-stomping mini-canine nicknamed Miss Bossypants, due to her desire to run our lives and household.

Miss Dot with her pink ball.

From Miss Dot, I received a lesson in the value of second chances.

This, I believe, is why we love dogs. They aren’t just a part of our lives. They teach us to be better humans.

(Photos copyright Amy Hill Hearth)


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The Upside (and Downside) of a Protected Childhood

Leave It To Beaver, TV show We came home from church and were still in our Sunday best. My two older brothers raced upstairs to change. Mom headed for the kitchen. My sister and I were in the living room with Dad when he turned on the TV to check the news – not a habit in our family, but then again, the previous few days had been unlike any others.

As we stared at the black and white screen, what looked like a fistfight broke out between a group of men, with lots of shouting and a sound like “pop!”

Without saying a word, Dad strolled quickly to the TV set and switched it off. We had just seen Lee Harvey Oswald – the man believed to have killed President Kennedy – himself shot and killed on live television.

My sister and I were not even sure what we had just seen. When we asked Dad, he said, “Just a couple of men fighting. Nothing you need to see.”

And that was that.

We accepted Dad’s vague explanation, although we suspected there was more to it than that. The message was this: Something had happened in the world of adults. It was too scary to be put on our young shoulders.

It had been a singularly horrible week. You might not think the assassination of the President would have an impact on a five-year-old, but I remember every minute of that day. My kindergarten teacher was called into the hallway by the principal, and returned weeping uncontrollably. We were told to collect our things and were sent home early. Most jarring of all was the sight of our normally-grumpy school bus driver silently driving us home, tears spilling down his cheeks.

The well-defined line between reality and “what children should know” had been breached.

Where is that line now? I often wonder.

My life was completely protected. Mine was perhaps the last generation of American kids who lived in a bubble.

I know that my parents wanted us “to be children as long as possible,” which was the generally-accepted parenting methodology of the time. This was the hope and dream of their generation, which experienced childhood during the Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by the most destructive war which had ever occurred, and led directly into the Atomic Age. I can’t say I blame the “Greatest Generation” for wanting to protect their children from the realities of life, as long as possible.

My dad served overseas in the Army during World War Two, but the only stories that ever reached my ears were the goofy stunts and mishaps, and the friendships and camaraderie, that sound right out of a Bing Crosby-Bob Hope road trip movie. When I was old enough to actually read a book about that war, I was shocked.

The whole culture participated in the charade that the world was a better, simpler place than we wanted to admit. Shows like “Leave It To Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” assisted in our cheerful worldview.

The downside? I suspect it made my teenage years more difficult. I was unprepared for the real world. And I am still shocked – shocked! – at the cruelty of human beings. No one told me!

On the other hand, I did have a lovely childhood. I knew who was in charge – my parents. I had structure but also kindness. I really was living in a “Leave It to Beaver” kind of world.

I could write volumes about how that has changed. Children today know more about the world at seven than I did at seventeen. I suppose that being exposed to some of the realities of life has made them stronger, and more prepared to adapt as they grow up.

And yet, I cringe at the level of violence to which children are increasingly, and thoughtlessly, exposed. The coarsening of our culture – the decline of civility, and the acceptance of vulgarity – makes me wonder if we are raising increasingly desensitized children.

What is your opinion? How were you raised compared to the way children are brought up today?

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