Sunday, March 19, 2006
In Ghosts of My Fathers, I wrote about the box in my closet. A box containing the memorabilia of my father, a man I never knew but have tried to meet by collecting pieces of the one tangible thing I know about him: that he was a decorated WWII veteran.
The box contains an incomplete collection of his medals, replaced by the U.S. government on the basis of my blood connection to him; a strange event in and of itself considering the same government does not permit me access to my original birth certificate or adoption files.
Alongside the medals is his complete service record, a cruise album from the aircraft carrier he served upon, an aerial movie of his ship entering the invasion of Iwo Jima and several long, hand-penned letters from men who served with him. These sweet men, all closing in on 90 years old, wrote to me, sharing their photos and stories, on the basis of my blood connection to a soldier they served with. They call themselves his “brothers” (although none of them literally remember my father) and call me his “daughter.” They feel it is their duty to answer my questions because of this brotherhood. They feel I am part of a legitimate connection to them, one of their own.
It is a strange experience for me to be embraced by these men and their families. I would love to say “they welcome me with open arms and I feel at home,” but that would be a half-truth. They do genuinely welcome me, but I feel like a fraud. I am his daughter, but not. I don’t feel deserving of acceptance into this brotherhood. I don’t feel legitimate because I am not. It is conflicting, complicated and bittersweet to know so much about a short period in the life of a man I should know everything about.
And so the box containing my father’s memorabilia sits in the closet, incomplete. I treasure everything in it, yet neither complete the collection nor display it. And, for the most part, I have ceased my quest to add to its contents. Everything about my father and his belongings is conflicted for me. It is never simple. It is never natural or normal.
And, the more I fill the box, the less full it feels.
My son returned home from his first semester at military school last Thursday. How he got there is a story in and of itself. To make that story short, I dropped off a kid at military school three months ago – a kid with no confidence in himself; who walked with slumped shoulders, staring at the ground; a kid who has struggled with learning disabilities his whole life and, despite my fierce advocating from preschool forward, entered high school not believing in himself or his ability to accomplish anything of significance.
I expected to pick him up and be immediately met with old behaviors and routines. I figured within moments of getting in the car, he’d be on the phone making plans with friends. Once home, I imagined he’d be playing videogames, cranking his stereo and turning his room into a disaster area in three seconds flat.
We were barely out of the parking lot of his school when he said, “Mom, when we get home, can we get the box down?”
“The box?” I asked, not thinking he was talking about the box. My box. My father’s box.
“My grandfather’s box,” he said. He has never referred to my birthfather as his grandfather. He has never shown any real interest in my birthfamily or my adoption, other than express bewilderment about how such things come about in the first place.
“Sure we can,” I said, “What do you want to see?”
And with total conviction he said, “I want to read his citations and see his medals. And, tomorrow, I want to go the military supply store, buy the missing medals and put them in a case. And I’d like to bring them back to school with me.”
I had a moment of thinking I couldn’t part with them, couldn’t risk losing them. And then I looked at my son, bedecked in his uniform, looking me square in the eye, sitting there with his shoulders back and his chin up. A young man full of confidence. “Okay,” I said, “We’ll go first thing tomorrow.”
We coordinated the trip with a good friend. Sam did two tours in Vietnam and is a decorated former prisoner of war. He wanted to see my son’s transformation and to help us figure what we needed to complete my father’s collection.
My son was up pacing the floors, ready to go before bugle call hour. And he was wearing his uniform.
We pulled into the military supply store lot. Sam got out of his car. My son got out of our car and they walked towards each other in the parking lot, stopped and saluted one another.
It took about an hour to piece together the collection and place it in its order in a display case. We left a spot to add my father’s photo in the center. My son carried it on his lap on our drive home, all abuzz about where he was going to display it in his room at school and whom he would show it to.
I asked him why it was suddenly important to him. “Because he’s my grandfather. Because my teachers and commanding officers will see it and tell me I came from a good man who served his country well. And because I’m proud he did.”
I cried again. And then, I started to explain why it isn’t that simple, how I never really knew him. He quickly interrupted. “Mom, it is that simple to me. I’m his grandson. He’s my blood. I’m just like every other kid who didn’t have the chance to know his grandpa. I don’t have to think about all that stuff you do. It just is.”
He was right, of course. It is that simple. He can connect with his history, and with his grandfather, without the conflict I experience.
They can simply be family.
There is no longer a box in my closet. I’ve passed its contents down to the next generation, sooner than expected, with a little bit of sadness over seeing it go.
And a whole lot of pride for the grandson of a veteran.