Today is Monday, May 29th. Memorial Day.
It is a day laden with multiple layers of connotation: most importantly, remembrance of those who died while protecting our freedoms, but also, the unofficial first day of summer, a long weekend off from work, the ushering in of nice weather, and for me, this year, the second anniversary of marriage to my husband.
I grew up in a military family. My dad served in the Navy until his retirement. His father and my mom’s father served as well. My husband’s family is very similar. My maternal grandfather is buried among the uniform white rows of headstones that make my throat constrict in sadness no matter how many times I see them. There is nothing quite like a military cemetery, except maybe a military funeral.
But I was lucky. Unlike so many others, I did not lose my dad or my grandfathers to war, and I’m thankful for that every day. I do remember growing up military, though. It wasn’t always easy having my dad gone for months at a time, but as a kid, going to visit him on the ship was magical. Each trip was an adventure, particularly with my vivid imagination.
When I went to grad school, one of the first poems I wrote was about the experience, written through the eyes of my six-year-old self:
Family Day, 1983
Mom takes us
to Daddy’s playground:
the USS McClusky.
He says it’s hard work,
but Becky and I know better.
We know when nobody’s looking
they play Pacman on deck
and hide-n-seek in the maze.
The ship is like an undiscovered island.
Doorways are tunnels,
ladders are cliffs,
and big guns are volcanoes.
The coiled ropes are hammocks
in the making,
and radar screens
are like our favorite war games
on the Atari at home.
Becky and I scramble around
in our matching sailor girl outfits,
salute comrades, and hide from the enemy.
We don’t see the lingering shadow
of the hole ripped into the hull
by a Japanese torpedo,
or the smoky soot that swirls
from the firing guns.
This floating island
takes Daddy to exotic places:
Hawaii, Seychelles, Malaysia, and Oman.
We get postcards and maps, pins
to mark the places he’s been,
but even good sailor girls
don’t get to go with him.
Things have changed since those days. I never got to go on the Tiger Cruise, instead watching somewhat jealously as my dad took his youngest brother on the cruise from Hawaii to San Diego. But there are women fighting bravely with the men now.
My dad made up for it in other ways, coaching our t-ball, softball, and soccer teams when he was on shore duty, taking us fishing, teaching us to ride bikes, and reading to us every night. In a family with three girls, my sisters and I were Daddy’s Little Tomboys.
Which brings me to the other aspect of Memorial Day – the unofficial start of summer. Being a military family, my summer was punctuated by patriotism. Thanks to my mother, the red, white, and blue decorations went up mid-May and stayed through Memorial Day, Flag Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day.
Days were spent at the beach or park, camping or riding my bike with the other kids in the neighborhood, or enjoying activities on the base. Life was good when the worst thing I had to worry about was boys and being home by the time the streetlights came on. This is how I see myself, when I think about summer and growing up in San Diego:
A pig-tailed tomboy
on a banana-seat bicycle
always wears blue.
The all-girl neighborhood
biker gang cruises streets,
someone’s on look-out for boys.
Ribbons stream from handlebars,
hair streams from rubber bands.
We race to our secret hideout –
A dirt road between two houses
blocked with barbed-wire fence…
Gang wars in summer:
girls and boys
drive-by on bicycles
with plastic water pistols.
you might get
Life is different for a lot of kids these days. I hope this Memorial Day that they understand the sacrifices others have made for them, that we might become a more peaceful world so that they will be lucky like me and not lose their fathers or mothers to war, and that they get outside to enjoy and appreciate the simpler things in life without other responsibilities while they still can.