Category Archives: Remembrances

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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“Freedom! Freedom! I Am Free!”

Although he was only a little boy, Henry B. Delany, the Delany Sisters’ beloved Papa, would never forget the day in 1865 that Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union at Appomattox Court House. Henry Delany and his family were slaves in St. Mary’s, Georgia.

“He remembered being in the kitchen and wearing a little apron, which little slave boys wore in those days,” the Delany Sisters recalled in the book we created together, Having Our Say. “It had one button at the top, at the back of the neck, and the ends were loose. And when the newsof the Surrender came, he said he ran about the house with that apron fluttering behind him, yelling, ‘Freedom! Freedom! I am free! I am free!’ “

The little boy grew to be a remarkable man who went to college and became Vice-Principal of St. Augustine’s School (now College) in Raleigh, N.C. Later in life, he became the first Black elected Bishop in the Episcopal Church USA.

His two eldest daughters, Sadie and Bessie, who became famous in the 1990s as the centenarian Delany Sisters, adored their father. Decades after his death in 1928, the sisters celebrated his birthday as if he were about to walk into the room. They cooked all of his favorite foods, including a dessert called ambrosia. I was there for several of those remarkable celebrations.

Bishop Delany’s birthday is on my mind because he was born 159 years ago tomorrow – February 5, 1858. I think I’ll honor him by making ambrosia, just as the sisters did, year after year.

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My Word of the Year for 2017

A friend just posted that her personal word for the new year is “confidence.”

I’m not sure if she’s feeling confident or hoping that she will. Either way, that would not be my word for 2017.

Mine is “resolute.”

Resolute is a great word. It means purposeful, determined, and unwavering.

The image that comes to mind when I think of “resolute” is the way my dad used to describe being a young soldier in World War Two. All you really want to do is go home but in the meantime, you have to make a conscious effort to be strong. Determined. Unwavering. Resolute.

My dad died last fall, and I had several other losses last year as well. I’m grieving for my father, and for all of the problems of the world, some of which seem quite hopeless at times.

I’m determined to keep moving forward, however. As Dad used to say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”

May you find peace, love, and happiness in 2017. (Or, at the least, may you be resolute!)

Best wishes to you,

Amy

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Filed under People, Remembrances, The Writing Life

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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Five Topics Which Used to be ‘Off-Limits’

     Social media seems to bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. We’ve all noticed that some people use Facebook, for example, in a positive way while others become weirdly competitive, snarky, or even abusive.
     Not long ago there was an unspoken rule that certain topics were, quite simply, off-limits. My parents, members of the “Greatest Generation,” certainly conducted themselves in that way. When I was a little girl, I considered my parents’ dinner parties to be so boring that it wasn’t even worth trying to eavesdrop. Nothing juicy was ever said outright. Euphemisms were employed with such delicacy and skill that I was left completely in the dark. I know this sounds very “Downton Abbey” but it was generally-accepted behavior throughout America until a generation or so ago.

     Here are the 5 no-no’s as I remember them:

Money. You never talked about your salary, or how much money you had in the bank, or how much you spent on that new car sitting in the driveway. And, it was considered the height of rudeness to ask.

Physical intimacy. In other words, the word that starts with “s” and ends with “x”. That included anything related to childbearing. Pregnant women were said to be “expecting.” (I remember as a kid thinking, expecting WHAT?)

Death. People passed away. Sometimes they were said to “go to Glory.” They didn’t “die” and deceased persons were not said to be “dead.” I often had the impression that people vanished, flew up into the sky like a bird, or simply left the room. No details were forthcoming.

Religion. You didn’t bring it up, period. The most you might say is that your church had a new minister and he seemed like a swell guy. But that was about it. The last thing you wanted to do was offend someone, so if you were Protestant and one of your guests was Catholic or Jewish, you would never put him or her on the spot by asking for an explanation of religious beliefs. In “polite company,” you were aiming to make your guests feel comfortable, not awkward.

Politics. Oh my, never! Off-limits! Radioactive! You didn’t ask who someone was voting for, and you didn’t tell, either. Why? Because it was considered divisive. And divisive was not a good thing!

The goal was to find common ground. Once you knew a person well, you might have a one-on-one conversation about something in the “off-limits” category. But you did not – ever – put someone on the spot in front of others.

Of course, one might wonder, what on earth did they talk about? Acceptable topics included travel, weather, novels, films, music, home improvement projects, gardening, cooking, children (in general terms; bragging was in poor taste), vacations, new technology (e.g., power windows in cars, the Space Race), sports, hobbies, and taxes (because everyone hates taxes).

I don’t think we should go back to the old ways, even if we could. I’m all for freedom of speech, speaking out for what you stand for, sticking up for yourself, and so on. But sometimes it seems a slippery slope, and all we end up with is people shouting at each other. While we can laugh at the old ways, maybe there is a time and a place to be more reserved, after all.

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