Category Archives: Family

What The Covid World Needs Now. . .

What I missed most, this Easter during Covid-19 isolation, was singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” among my fellow worshipers at my home church. I missed looking around during the joyful song, exchanging smiles with friends who have become family over the past twenty years. I missed seeing our modest, pleasant sanctuary nearly full for a change. (As in most mid-sized churches in our area, attendance declines yearly.) Charles Wesley’s majestic hymn, the words written in 1739, remains the quintessential anthem of Easter triumph. Our talented organist knows how to do it justice. I can hear the music resounding beyond the church walls. I can imagine that those walking by outside wonder, momentarily at least, if they’re missing something worthwhile. My favorite verses are the second and third:

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!

Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!

Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!

Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!

Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!

Once he died, our souls to save, Alleluia!

Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!

This Easter Sunday, during Covid-19 isolation, our family didn’t go to church, of course. Instead, church came to us. My husband, our daughter, my mother and I gathered in front of the TV for our local church’s online worship service. After that, we joined former neighbors remotely for the service from the Atlanta church I grew up in. We got a special treat when the pastor made a tour of our old Morningside neighborhood, the familiar parks and streets of my childhood quiet and uncrowded during this unprecedented time. We felt a renewed connection to dear friends, and to a place we called home, which we haven’t seen since my mother’s relocation to Virginia nearly three years ago. We heard two pastors speak movingly of the renewing, life-giving power of God’s love.

Across the country, ministers, church staff and dedicated volunteers have been scrambling to “do church” in a social distancing world, and it’s a challenging work in progress. But by its very nature, online worship, extending any local church’s reach far beyond the boundaries of any brick-and-mortar sanctuary, should send this emphatic message: If God’s love can’t reach across the miles and over the ages to warm cold hearts, change attitudes and offer hope, then what can? In the words of the classic children’s song: The church is not a building. It’s certainly not supposed to be a cushy clubhouse for an exclusive clique of like-minded, self-congratulatory, dogmatic ideologues. Yet that is the impression that some of the loudest voices identifying as Christian are spreading, if perhaps sometimes unwittingly. What church-goer has not heard the criticism of Christians as judgmental hypocrites? What church-goer can wholeheartedly profess that such a criticism is unwarranted? Can we seize the moment and actively work to chip away at this image? Could it be that the new reality of Covid-19 is the prompt, the burr under the saddle, that will get us moving to change this perception?

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted an uncomfortable truth that most of us would prefer to ignore: health and long life are not guaranteed, not even to the youthful and hearty. Confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US have exceeded one million. Nearly 62,000 Americans have died from the virus. While some people may feel a sense of security because their community, far from Covid hot spots, has remained relatively untouched, this could change. The safety net, if not illusory, is fragile and easily torn. Death is no longer the rare visitor, as we like to pretend. Instead, it lurks nearby, sometimes brushing elbows with us when we least expect it. Many people are alone, and lonely. Some struggle with despair and depression. Others are sharing uncomfortably close quarters, and nerves are fraying. Some may be justifiably fearful, as domestic violence is on the rise. Many are plagued by financial insecurity made extreme by sudden job loss. Thirty million people filed for unemployment in the last six weeks. Others, still employed, risk their own health daily as they perform their “essential” but poorly paid tasks. The mood of anxiety is not likely to lessen as states open or prepare to do so. It will not be “business as usual” for a long time.

If only the sad and the hurting could receive a message of love, of assurance, of hope. If only there were some group of unique individuals who might send out such a message, to help transmit rays of much-needed light and comforting warmth when they are so badly needed.

If only.

If only churches and those who used to find themselves regularly in church on Sunday mornings could rise to the challenge.

Let’s give it a try.

Let’s emulate the example of Jesus in our words and actions. Like the friend, brother, teacher and savior we honor in our name as Christians, let’s live by the words of the prophet Micah (6:8), and “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Let’s embody kindness, empathy and compassion. Let’s leave aside our tendencies to debate the fine points of theology, and maybe even our determination to prove that the Bible (and therefore “we” as opposed to “them”) are “right.” Let’s refrain from referring to people with whom we disagree as “Godless.” Let’s try, even when it makes us squirm as we abandon our customary high ground, to leave the judgement to God. And let’s ensure that our church’s online presence is in sync with our actions. That it emphasizes forgiveness, inclusiveness, and transformative love.

May we “church folks” be a light in the darkness as we share the hope that springs from the certainty of God’s abiding love and saving grace for us, his flawed, often flailing, and all too human children. Who knows how many worried and sorrowful hearts we might touch?

Our Covid-19 world really needs us now.

What Does it mean to “Love one Another”? I.C.U. Nurses know.

I’ve been trying to write about the altered state of my family’s life during these strange days of coronavirus isolation, but the right words are hard to find. To say that we’re living through unusual circumstances is an understatement. What makes this time even more extraordinary is the marked dichotomy of human experience. While some of our brothers and sisters are battling the visceral reality of this virus, for most of us, real suffering, and the fight against it, is occurring at a distance.

I’ve been wanting to write about the humorous aspects of the modifications in our daily circumstances. Every day we find some new absurdity that prompts a smile or a laugh. For those of us, like my family, who have the luxury of staying together in our home, it’s far more pleasant not to dwell on the source of all this change. We are doing our part, after all, as we keep vigilant in our isolation, carry on with our respective tasks (which have not disappeared), and find some cheer in the beauty of springtime that surrounds us.

But even if we remain among the fortunate who are spared the pain of confronting this grim reality face-to-face, we should still be aware it.

A powerful picture of trench warfare against Covid-19 is offered by Simone Hannah-Clark, an intensive care nurse in a New York city hospital. Her op-ed in the New York Times on April 3 should be required reading for everyone: An I.C.U. Nurse’s Coronvirus Diary.

According to Ms. Hannah-Clark:

“I’ve started to refer to the time before this as peace time. Because this feels like a war. I grudgingly respect our enemy’s tenacity. Unseen, ruthless, random.”

Each workday for her begins well before dawn and ends well after dark. During the short time she spends at home, she takes care to isolate herself from her family, fearing for their safety. Even her commute to the hospital, which may be the least stressful part of her day, involves risk, in a choice between the Subway and Lyft. Once she begins her shift, the logistics alone–of managing the necessary medical equipment within confined and crowded spaces–while trying to protect herself adequately with perhaps less than adequate P.P.E.–sound overwhelming. And that’s before the intimate, meticulous procedures of patient care even begin. She documents these in moving detail.

Death is a frequent visitor. The only visitor, one might say, since the risk of transmission prevents family members and friends from keeping bedside vigil. Ms. Hannah-Clark writes:

“My first task is to help with post-mortem care on a Covid patient we just lost. We had watched her slowly die over the past few days. We did everything we could. It’s just me and a nursing colleague in the room.

It’s a grim affair. We wrap the patient’s body securely, stroking her brow and wishing her well on her next journey. My colleague removes her jewelry carefully; we know her daughter will want it. I have to collect her belongings because security isn’t allowed to come into the room. It moves me to see her wallet, her planner, her toiletries. Only a week ago she was a person with a future, with plans, with cherry-flavored lip balm.”

I will write about the funny side to coronavirus quarantine. But not yet. Maybe after Easter.

For now, I feel pressed to remember, and to acknowledge, why we’re staying home. May we be grateful for dedicated nurses like Ms. Hannah-Clark, who, bound by duty, refuse, at great personal risk, to stay home. May we remember that, even if we don’t know anyone sick with this disease, or anyone who has lost a loved one from it, there are, indeed, many real victims. And they are people much like us, who, until very recently, had plans and hopes for the future.

Words to live by, courtesy of our neighborhood kids.

This day in the Christian calendar is Maundy Thursday, when we contemplate Jesus’s final night with his disciples. It was on that evening, before he was betrayed, that Jesus washed the feet of his friends. He told them to follow his example, to care for one another, to love one another. Medical workers like Simone Hannah-Clark, no matter their religious affiliation or complete lack thereof, are living out the reality of Jesus’s advice.

Let all of us, as fellow humans, especially during these anxious coronavirus days, try to love one another, not just with words, but with deeds as well.

For more on Jesus’s final earthly night, see last year’s post: Before his Death, Advice from a Brother, April 18, 2019.

What is required of you? This one Thing.

The official Coronavirus Pandemic is now in its third week, and the US has become the center of the storm. This “foreign” virus has had no trouble making itself at home. If we persist in thinking of it as an immigrant, it’s one who quickly adapts to our all-American ideals, eagerly jumping into the melting pot, waving the flag and speaking in a familiar local dialect. Our country now leads the world in the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19. As of this morning, over 140,000 Americans have tested positive for the disease, and nearly 2,500 have died from it.

Many of those now sick with Covid-19 are simply uncomfortable. Their symptoms are mild, like those of the flu or even an annoying spring cold during allergy season. For some, the worry over transmitting the virus to vulnerable family members in close proximity may be worse than any physical pain they feel. Others may endure greater suffering with more dramatic symptoms. Yet most, still, will recover. Approximately 137,500 Americans so far have survived Covid-19. Why not simply celebrate this figure? Why be negative? Why be such a Debbie-Downer?

This is why. Some of those who contract the virus, not only the elderly and infirm, but also the young and evidently healthy, will appear to be on firm footing, well on the road to recovery, when they take a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse. Breathing will become a herculean task. Those who have experienced these symptoms describe a terrifying sensation akin to slow suffocation, like drowning on dry land. Some may not survive without a ventilator, an apparatus that forces air in and out of the lungs. Hospitals have a limited number of these costly breathing machines. A quickly soaring number of Covid-19 patients therefore poses a real hurdle. Some New York hospitals have begun experimenting with a single ventilator for two patients, a solution that has been described as “not ideal.” As cases spike, especially in rural areas, local hospitals will quickly become overwhelmed.

This is why we keep hearing the mantra: stay home to flatten the curve. If we can lower the number of people who get sick and require hospitalization, we’ll all have a better chance of survival.

Another point worth noting is that some people who contract Coronavirus may experience no symptoms at all. At first, this might sound like a good thing. See: it’s no big deal! Maybe it’s even less of a worry than the common cold! But no. Think of what this means: if we continue to carry on as usual, we risk crossing paths with those who look and feel healthy, yet may be actively “shedding the virus.” We can pick it up from such a carrier and be totally unaware of having been infected. Our every action poses a very real risk to those around us. We have no way of knowing who may be hit hardest by the virus. Some “underlying conditions” may become apparent only in the face of an acute illness.

Let’s think of those battling the Coronavirus on the front lines, for whom even small routine tasks now involve difficult challenges, physical, mental and spiritual. For those in our medical communities, their faces bruised from the constant pressure of masks they may be re-using out of necessity, the threat must be all-pervasive. Let’s do the right thing for all those whose jobs put them in the cross-hairs of this pathogen, whether they’re treating the sick, cleaning hospital rooms, working as first responders, as police and firefighters, or in pharmacies and grocery stores.

Let’s do the right thing, for our community.

Let’s do the right thing, for those we love.

Let’s do the right thing, for our country.

What is this that our community, our loved ones, and our country require of us?

Simply this: when at all possible, stay home.

*About a half hour ago, Governor Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order for Virginia.

What do you know, it’s Christmas Eve!

December, always the quickest month, has flown by with even greater speed than usual this year. Suddenly, our daughter is home, half-way through her third year at the University of Virginia. We’re wrapping presents. And it’s Christmas Eve.

Kiko, as usual*, has positioned himself squarely in the center of it all. (He’s the Milford Plaza of dogs.) Evidently, he suspects something very good is brewing. If only he could stay awake But the pull of sleep is strong and inviting. His head nods, and his body sways as he attempts to resist.

Sleep wins out.

Rolls of decorative paper make a comfy pillow on a sun-drenched carpet. I finish the wrapping, walking carefully around him. Soon I’ll wake him up and we’ll head over to the live nativity at our church. And that means it’s really, truly Christmas Eve.

*See the post from last December: Holiday Advice from Kiko: Just Chill

Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn, 2019

Last year, Slim and the pack managed to fit in a quick road trip to Charlottesville on Halloween afternoon to mix with the University of Virginia community during Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn.  This year, due to the threat of severe thunderstorms, the event was postponed until November 1.  While the Skeleton Crew wasn’t in attendance, our daughter was, and she sent some photos.  

The evening was clear, chilly and gorgeous in the wake of the previous night’s heavy rain.  It attracted a big crowd from the university and the town. 

Since the 1980s, the University has invited Charlottesville families to bring their children to trick or treat at each of the rooms on the Lawn and the West Range.  These are the historic student accommodations dating from Jefferson’s original plan for his University’s Academical Village.  Candy is donated by many student organizations.    

The Rotunda, glowing like a lantern in the dusk. 

Our daughter and a friend. 

The moon rises.  Twilight deepens.  Time for little ghouls and goblins to head home.  If my college experience counts for anything, I’ll assume that, for the students, Halloweekend festivities were only beginning.    

For last year’s post on Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn, see here

 

Congrats, Nats! (A Salute from Slim & the Pack)

On Halloween night, the storm held off here until our last trick-or-treater had come and gone.  The torrential rain and howling wind that followed only heightened Slim’s jubilant mood.  He gleefully deemed it perfect Halloween weather.  Well, it was too hot, he admitted, but that just made it feel more eerie. 

When Friday arrived with a crisp chill and glorious sunshine, Slim was equally bubbly.  “Now this is fall!,” he exclaimed.  “Feels like October!  Or November!”  And when my husband presented him with a Washington Nationals cap, he had yet another cause for celebration. 

Slim was thrilled to be out and about during such an unprecedented sporting event.  Did I know Slim had some amazing baseball stories?  Including some involving a few of his buddies who happened to play with the Senators during their greatest year in 1924?  I do now. 

He and the gang had been in a deep sleep in May of 2018 during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory, so this home team win was all the more precious.  When Slim learned that the Caps were playing in DC on Sunday night, with the triumphant and festive Nationals in attendance, he caught yet another wave of enthusiasm.  Soon he was outfitted in a combo of Caps and Nats gear.  He pleaded and cajoled to try on my husband’s hockey skates, but H, accommodating though he may be, had to deny the request.   He’s picky about blade maintenance.  Our daughter’s were off limits for the same reason.  I volunteered my figure skates, but Slim kindly said no thanks.      

Slim’s many talents do not include hockey, but he has been a superb skater, in the Hans Brinker style.  Some of his favorite memories involve skating on the frozen river, with my maternal grandparents, in Kentucky when they were teens.   One year it got so cold that they could skate from Bradfordsville to Louisville.  Oh, the bonfires along the banks!  Oh, how Slim (and Sam, my grandfather) impressed the pretty girls with their style and speed!   

Slim hadn’t seen a hockey game in decades, and the nonstop action had him on the edge of his seat.  He made us promise that, come spring, if the Capitals are in the playoffs, we must wake him up!    

 From Slim and the pack: 

Congrats Nats!  Fight finished!  And belatedly, congrats, Caps!  Rock the Red!

Halloween 2019 with the Skeleton Crew

Halloween dawned gray, warm and humid. Slim studied the forecast with a practiced eye.  He consulted the experts at the Capital Weather Gang.  Stepping outside, he remarked ominously, “Feels like tornado weather.”  But then, with a flippant wave of his elegantly bony hand, “I tend to exaggerate.  We’ll be fine.”  Much like my dear late father, whom he adored, Slim believes firmly in keeping on the sunny side of life.   

Yet with rain most certainly on the way, he summoned the pack for their annual Halloween joyride a bit earlier than usual. “Let’s get a move on for a morning ride, friends!  And Kiko, old man, how bout you drive?  I wanna sit up high and feel the wind in my face!” Kiko obliged and settled into the driver’s seat, where he typically feels most comfortable.

But Slim had to go back inside to search for his ball cap.  “Wish it were a red Nats cap!,” he mused.  Having stayed up late the previous night to watch the historic World Series win by the Nationals,  he was in a particularly buoyant mood.  Seated in the back of the VW, he remarked, “Hey look, we’re in the championship parade!  I’m Rendon!  No, I’m Strasburg!  No, I’m Kendrick!”  The pack looked up admiringly, delighted to bask in Slim’s glory.  Golly, they all felt like champions.  Slim has that effect on those around him.  That’s one reason we all love him so.  And why he reminds me of my father. 

But after our morning walk, Kiko was a tired champion.  He was already asleep.    

Of course, there’s no raining on Slim’s parade.  There would be a Halloween joyride.  And it would be exhilarating. 

May your Halloween be merry and bright, come rain or come shine! 

Skeleton Crew 2019

Like clockwork, every year on October 1, our old friend Slim and his pack of loyal pups emerge from a state of semi-hibernation in the peaceful subterranean depths of my mother’s basement.  After eleven months of repose, they traipse back, a bit unsteadily, into the light.  Gradually they ready themselves for Halloween, their Big Night.  Slim typically spends the first few days roaming the various rooms of our two houses.  He reacquaints himself with the familiar and notes even the most minimal changes in décor.  The old photos on the desk in Mama’s living room prompted him to hold forth with a wealth of amusing reminiscences.  He’s known our family for decades, and his memory is unfailingly sharp.  Slim’s a sentimental sort, but his keen wit keeps him from waxing maudlin. 

After their long period of introspection and slumber, the dogs take a renewed interest in neighborhood activity.   Champ, Elfrida and Rocky keep watch at their favorite front-window perch. 

Little Ruth has claimed a perfectly chihuahua-sized chair for her lookout post at the front door. 

Slim was so surprised at the mildness of the weather that he thought his dependable internal clock may need winding.  The gang enjoys the shade of our back porch on a particularly balmy afternoon.    

The pack is poised for the chase.  Squirrels, cats and all intruders, beware! 

Slim and the gang love mixing with the kids of the community and handing out candy at our church’s annual Trunk or Treat.  This year they had the pleasure of hanging with a friendly T-Rex. . .

and swapping tales of patriotic heroism with a young George Washington. 

Following a leisurely meal, Slim is persuaded to recount some of his favorite anecdotes of Halloweens past. 

And now, on this Halloween Eve, time to kick back for a few winks before the festivities begin!

For previous posts on our Skeleton Crew adventures, see here, here, here, here, and here

School Bus Sounds Summon a Long-Ago First Day

As of last week, school is in session here in Northern Virginia.  With my only child starting her third year in college, I’m no longer directly involved in the much-ado about back-to-school.    

But until I’m deaf, I’ll be well aware of the start of the new school year.  Once again, on weekday mornings beginning around 6:30 AM, the school buses make their loud, laborious way down the side street below our bedroom windows.  There are so many buses.  They swoosh, they roar, they sigh, they creak.  They emit piercing back-up beeping sounds for extended periods. We discovered, when we moved here nearly twenty years ago, that we had settled in a pivotal juncture in Fairfax County, a dividing line between two school districts. If we moved across the street, our daughter would have to change schools. There are buses for elementary, middle and high school students for both districts, as well as those for several magnet schools. There used to be a special Kindergarten bus in the afternoon, before the all-day program arrived. Some buses are picking up or dropping off; others turn around, having reached the end of their routes. 

The clamor and commotion of the school buses every fall brings back the conflicting and powerful emotions I felt on our daughter’s first-ever school day.  The day she started Kindergarten, when we sent her off, parentless, on one of those enormous, monstrous, heaving, yellow-orange vehicles. 

Our five-year old put on a brave face that memorable day.  My husband and I watched and waved, smiling with forced cheer, trying not to grimace, until we could no longer see her dear little blonde head peering from the window.  Then we turned away, avoiding other parents, fighting back tears.  H quickly jumped in his car and followed the bus to school.  At a distance, he waited until she was safely inside the building.  All that morning I wondered:  What is she doing now?  And now?  Is her class lining up to come home yet?  Just a few hours later, around 12:30, the Kindergarten bus dropped her off at the end of our driveway.  When our girl emerged happy, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  The after-school photo I took of her, sitting in our doorway, shows her confidence, her triumph.   

September 7, 2004.  All done with the first day of Kindergarten. 

Last week I looked back at that photo and compared it with the first-day images preceding it in the morning.   They told a different story.  The group photos struck me as especially poignant.  My daughter, like the other younger children, tries to express a sense of ease, but her anxiety and trepidation show through.  The bulky backpacks contribute to the littlest ones’ slightly awkward postures.  No one’s clothes seem quite right.  Wasn’t our daughter hot in that fall sweater?  All the other kids wear tee shirts.  And within the group, each child is a little island unto itself.  Even the older ones who appear more self-assured, even they look isolated and alone.  At least they do to me.  Maybe, in a fit of nostalgia, I’m reading too much into these snapshots from fifteen years ago.  But I don’t think so.    

During the morning dog walk with the pack, I heard the first-day stories from friends who still have kids in school.  Later, I saw the photos on Facebook.  There are the little ones summoning their courage as they hold up hand-lettered “first day of” signs.  There are the older ones glaring sullenly, attempting to shoot poison dart rays at a parent who insists they pose uncomfortably in the gray light of dawn. 

Several of my friends are dreading the college send-off that looms in the future.  I understand, and I remember.  But I will tell them this:  it will probably be less painful than that off-to-Kindergarten day. 

And it will be here before you know it.   

   

  

 

For Uncle Bill, on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day

With the ceremonies attending this month’s 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, my Uncle Bill, a veteran of World War II, has been very much on my mind.  Bill wasn’t among those who stormed the beaches of Normandy.  Instead, he was a Frogman in the Pacific.  But were he alive today, he would have been 93, the same age as many of the veterans who returned to the French coast last week to be honored for their long-ago heroism.  Like these now elderly, frail gentlemen, during his military service, Bill persevered in the face of daunting odds and certain danger.  Like them, he would likely look back today and marvel at his youthful naivete, fearlessness and fortitude.  Also like these aged honorees, he would probably contemplate the accident of his own survival as he recalled friends who were not so fortunate. 

It seems fitting, then, to repost an amended version of a tribute to my dear Uncle Bill, written during Father’s Day week in 2012. 

Bill, age 5, with his younger brother Edwin, 1930.  Family photos are few in my mother’s family, and no baby picture of Bill seems to exist. 

William Graham was born in rural Marion County, Kentucky in 1925, the third of five children, the second of my maternal grandparents’ three sons.  My mother, the baby of the family, would enter the world ten years later.  In physical appearance, temperament and attitude, Bill was very much like his father, who died when I was almost six.  For me, Uncle Bill provided a tangible, very real link to my grandfather.  (See my earlier post here: A Week of Good Fathers: My Grandaddy.  For that reason alone, I would have revered him. For many other reasons, I loved, and loved being around my Uncle Bill. 

Uncle Bill, Mama and me at my grandparents’ house, c. 1965

By all accounts, Bill was so like my grandfather that they were often at loggerheads during my uncle’s boyhood and teen years. Each was painfully honest in every situation, and this may have proved more of a stumbling block than a stepping stone in their relationship. Bill had little interest in becoming a farmer like his father.  Fortunately for him, his older brother Leland had followed in Grandaddy’s footsteps and taken over the cultivation of the land by the Rolling Fork River. My grandfather continued to maintain the farm closer to town.  When World War II began, Bill saw it as an opportunity to escape farm work and put a stop to conflict with his father. He enlisted at seventeen, just before Christmas of 1943.  Although blessed with a keen intellect, a rebellious streak led to conflicts with teachers, and Bill left for the Army without completing his senior year of high school.  

A sad and serious Bill, age 17, in his first Army photo

Bill wrote home diligently throughout his military service, and we have most of the letters he sent. Never overly sentimental, never self-pitying, his early letters border on heartbreaking. They express the thoughts of a young man who acted in haste and immediately regretted his decision.

Bill, a year or so later, home on leave, looking a bit more upbeat.  It may have been during this trip that he brought my mother the biggest and most beautiful box of chocolates she’d ever seen.

These first letters, sent from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, tell of receiving vaccinations, shoveling snow in blizzard-like conditions, and hoping to join the Air Corps but being eight pounds underweight. Bill lists the various articles of clothing he has been issued, remarking with amazement that it’s more than he’s ever seen before. He asks his family to send some shoe polish, because his boots have stiffened uncomfortably from daily wear in the snow and slush. He also asks for a pencil and a few wire coat hangers. The talk in the barracks, morning and night, was that of homesick young men pining for their loved ones and the lives they had left behind. Most, like Uncle Bill, were from rural areas. They had realized, too late, the simple glory of farm life. In Bill’s words, he “never realized how swell home was, but he sure would like to see it now.” His father, he admits, knew more about the Army than he did. His letters are always signed “Love, Billy.”

Bill and a Navy pal.  My mother remembered this young man, Terry Hogan, a good friend of her brother.  Sadly, Terry was killed in the war. 

He was soon transferred to Fort Gordon-Johnston in Florida for basic training to enter an amphibious brigade. At the end of January 1944, he reports getting $39.55 for his first month of duty. Nearly every letter begins with an apology for not writing sooner, but he seems to have written every few days. He often asks about my mother’s asthma, the progress of the tobacco stripping, and he offers hopes that the crop will bring a good price. A high point about army life, he notes, is access to new movies. He mentions seeing Jack London, Swing Fever and later, Double Indemnity. In one letter he writes that he was “feeling fine, and at times, almost happy, but not quite.”  That expression of thoughtful, measured restraint is so very Bill. 

As the months ticked by, Bill wrote from increasingly exotic places, although his exact location could not be divulged. From Florida, he went to New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies, many small islands in the Phillipines, and then on to Hawaii for training in Underwater Demolition. After his return, he talked of being dropped in the ocean, no land in sight, and no special equipment but a pair of flippers. He and his fellow Frogmen were expected to tread water for six to eight hours as they awaited the ship’s return. The Frogmen were the precursors to the Navy SEALs, and I can only imagine the intensity of other training exercises and actual duties. Bill didn’t talk much about any of that.

Bill, home on leave, with his older sister, my Aunt Jessie

The tone of homesick regret is gradually replaced by a sense of wonder at the strange beauty of places he could never have imagined. In the Philippines, he buys a handmade mattress from a local woman, tours a ruined city in a horse-drawn buggy-taxi, attends Saturday night dances on base where the “fine-looking” Spanish and Filippino girls “can jitterbug to put the girls back home to shame.” He discovers an injured cockatoo in the jungle and nurses it back to health.  He revels in the abundance of tropical fruit and notes that there is no cigarette shortage in the army, unlike in the States. He is surprised by his ability to work all day, on a ship in the equatorial zone, in temperatures up to 115 degrees, with hardly any ill effects. The miserable poverty of some of the native villages affects him deeply. Hospitalized for a while with “yellow jaundice,” he enjoys the rest, as well as the fluffy pillows. When a fellow patient has a break-down and runs screaming in the halls, he remarks that the jungles will do that to you, after two or three years. He laments not being able to write about the most interesting parts of his days, because such information would be censored. Despite his discretion, in several of his letters a line or two has been neatly cut away.  How I wish I’d read these letters during Bill’s lifetime.  There are so many questions I would have asked. 

Some of Bill’s letters home during his Army years
Bill’s Army knife, useful for cutting jungle foliage

In Bill’s letter of August 16, 1945, news has just broken of Japan’s surrender. The war is officially over. He begins to believe he will return home soon, to the farm he had so wanted to leave.  After several months in the U.S. occupational forces in Japan, he arrived stateside in the winter of 1946.  Like his fellow soldiers lucky enough to return, he was older and wiser, and had a renewed appreciation for home.   

Bill went to the University of Kentucky on the G. I. bill. His dark hair turned completely silver when he was still in his late 20s, giving him an air of elegant sophistication. My father, seeing Mama with her brother on campus, assumed she was with a handsome professor. Bill was in his 30s when he married a divorced woman with two sons. Margaret was the sister of one of my mother’s childhood friends. Bill never had any biological children, but he was a supportive and caring stepfather. Mama and Bill were close, and they were alike in many ways. As long as I can remember, Uncle Bill was a big part of my life. He often traveled to Atlanta on business. When it was still a rather grand hotel and hadn’t slipped into seediness, he stayed downtown at the old Henry Grady Hotel. He often had a free evening, and he’d treat my parents and me to a festive dinner, somewhere we wouldn’t ordinarily go. Occasionally he stayed at the now long-demolished Admiral Benbow Inn on Spring Street, which had a pool.  I remember swimming there a few times with my two best elementary school friends.  I always looked forward to Uncle Bill’s visits. I loved his dry wit, which was sarcastic and sometimes biting, but never mean-spirited. He was well-read, reflective, widely informed and inclined to doubt.  He shared with my mother and me a love for the melancholy humor of Thomas Hardy novels.  As a connoisseur of life’s ironic absurdities, Bill was highly amusing company.

Bill in the mid-60s, with his beagle Ginger, the first of his dogs that I remember.

Uncle Bill was empathetic and attuned to the plight of the down-trodden. He was especially soft-hearted when it came to animals. (I sure wish I could have learned more about that injured cockatoo!)  Bill always had a dog, or he cared for someone else’s dog, typically one that would prefer to be Bill’s. When a neighbor’s three-legged lab mix made it clear that he would much rather live with my uncle, his owners passed him on. With Bill, Colonel got several walks each day, plus a long car ride. Colonel loved a ride, so Bill made it part of their routine. During a visit after Colonel’s death and not long before Bill’s own, I went with him on his nightly duty to walk a neighbor’s dog. Bill had noticed that the dog’s owner worked long hours, and he offered to provide an afternoon walk. Before long, this had turned into three daily walks. Bill was retired and dogless at the time, so he was happy to oblige. On the night I went with him, he put his raincoat over his pajamas and we walked down the street to the neighbor’s home. He let us in with his own key, and the woman rose to greet us warmly, from what appeared to be a late-night dinner party. No doubt her guests thought it odd that her dog-walker was a dashing silver-haired seventy-year old in PJs. No doubt they also thought she had lucked into a great deal. Bill never cared if people considered him somewhat eccentric.

Uncle Bill and me at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire in 1989

Bill’s time in the service may have fostered his love of travel. He and Margaret were always setting off for some legendary spot. During my year in England they popped in on several occasions. Our pre-dinner pub conversation was always a particular pleasure. They were my first visitors when I lived in Cambridge. We ate at the city’s best restaurants and took day-trips to Eton and Windsor Castle. Later in the year, we rented a car and drove up to York over the course of nearly a week. Bill and Margaret went on to Scotland and I returned to London by train. And when I was in England for a month the next year, they came back, too.  I can still see the look of incredulity on Bill’s face when he saw my tiny, cell-like room in the London House Annex, a dormitory for visiting students.

Bill, c. 1965

Uncle Bill died much too soon, at 71. I guess because he was so like my grandfather, who made it to 79, I thought we’d have him around for a few more years. He was there for my wedding, but he never got to see my beautiful baby girl. He would certainly have enjoyed watching her grow into the unique young woman she is now.  It’s a great consolation, however, to reflect on the many lives that Uncle Bill touched, with his kindness, generosity and humor. And I have faith that now, in some heavenly realm, he and Grandaddy, two kindred spirits, are enjoying peaceful, yet lively good fellowship.