Now that my father has been gone 3 years, Memorial Day is not the same. Not that he spoke much about the war; it took him a good 50 years after his last medals were processed to begin meeting with other WWII veterans and survivors. He never really considered his daughters as 'legacy', and one thing I respected about him most-- he considered it bad form to self-aggrandize and accept accolades of bravery when the real heroes had come back in boxes.
In my childhood, it was called 'Decoration Day' and it fell on May 30th. No Monday euphemisms in the 50's and 60's. Holidays were observed-- not shopped and marketed to death. Yes, there was a cookout... even a trip to Washington DC where I experienced presidential and military Memorial monuments which were humbling and inspiring. I was maybe 5-- the scale of these buildings was enormous... the lines of people waiting to enter were impressive; it was my first brush with 'America'. What did I know? My father was a mystery-- a man with a hard shell who occasionally held my hand in crowds.
I've been tough on my father, as he was incredibly tough on me. In the current culture, fathers are so hands-on... they are intimately involved in pregnancies, present at the birth, they change diapers and share parenting equally. They are emotional and tender... this is accepted and acceptable... but maybe not so in my father's day. After all, here was a tough military hero suddenly dropped in the big city with a young wife and domestic responsibility. He left home a boy, lived with terror and violence and a daily task of staying alive against massive odds and challenges... then returned laden with medals and souvenir uniforms to join the city workforce-- to get an apartment, shop for groceries. Every day on the subway and on street corners we are accosted by these displaced veterans who are struggling to adjust to regular life, and failing. We are aware of this now. Back then, there was little empathy built into the system-- they were expected to simply pick up the ball and continue.
The concept of a father, I suppose, was as important as the actuality. Even though I had little communication with mine, it was assumed he paid bills, went to work, had the car fixed, etc. Kind of the way we viewed our President as kids-- the Father of our country. It was Eisenhower, during much of my childhood-- then Kennedy came and we all bonded. He was the movie-star President-father-- our handsome hero who was camera-ready and charming. Brave and smart. We didn't pick our heroes apart in those days; Elvis was King.
By the same token, the concept of children was different. No one bothered to ask me if I was happy or unhappy. I was told where to go and what to do-- Scout wilderness camp, music, ballet... my parents placed their kids into the same slots all their neighbors kids were in. There was no discussion, no question-and-answer. I grew up and left home a teenager. I had little desire to return. As I studied and observed the world, I realized some things just look normal and pretty. My independence, despite the ultra-dependent model of my Mom-- such a perfectly functional 50's style housewife-- was supreme.
Memorial Day now is a day of nostalgia for me. Sure-- the sense of oncoming summer, and the absence of the excitement we felt as children about the end of school coalesces on the brink of June, but for me-- well, no parades, but memories. As a single parent, it always brought the seasonal stress of how to amuse my son with no school and very little money. There were camp options, sports options... but essentially we spent summers sweating it out in the city, me feeling guilty about lacking the means for a vacation... my own father judging me for my failure to do this, but never offering to help out; not his style, nor mine. It is also the anniversary of the death of my baby daughter-- something I could not process for years. It was a beautiful day... she held out until the post-Memorial Day Tuesday at lunchtime.
Coney Island was a frequent treat when I was very small. Ditto for my own son. It was something I could manage-- a subway ride, a day on the Boardwalk.. a few kiddie rides and a hotdog. This year I kept remembering one incident... we took the D train to Brooklyn on the Friday after school. My son had a full scholarship to a prestigious prep school which was great-- but all his friends would be whisked off to exotic weekend destinations and Fridays were kind of a finger pointing at me tattooed with 'Loser'. So he was maybe 10--- had just reached the required height to ride the Cyclone. I'd had my fill of that roller coaster as a child. It was a rite of passage and I closed my eyes and made it through-- terror being the operative emotion. Something about those old wooden rides... but my own son was determined-- it was like a test, a badge. I'd put aside a little extra-- that was becoming tough for me-- to even afford a day at the amusement park.
So there we were, at maybe 4 PM-- we circled the park, watched a few games... finally approached the great ride, the King of the amusement park. How he had grown in one year-- we'd measured him with his running sneakers... even my heart was racing at the foot of the rollercoaster... we could hear screams every several second intervals and the unique rumbling noise of wheels on wooden tracks. I'm really hungry, my son announced... there was a small stand across from the entrance that sold corncobs. We ordered one... they were so good... he drank a coke... slowly... the cars stopped, dropped off their happy human passengers and reloaded... watched another course. Another. He ordered another ear of corn... ate it with deliberation I'd never seen in a boy. We watched. It was loud... terrifying... Five o'clock passed and lines were becoming longer.
8:15... the sun was going down... Four ears of corn, one pretzel for me... I finally announced I think I'd run out of cash... there was barely enough for the Cyclone ticket-- we'd have to walk home. So he scolded me, my son... damn you, Mom... let's go. We rode quietly back, changed trains... he said not one word to me... I never brought it up; he never again asked to go back to Coney Island except to watch Marbury and Sebastian Telfair on the courts as a teenager... that was that.
I often thought-- if he'd had a father-- my father-- he would have been walked up to the ride, strapped in... done. I had enough issues mothering a boy; but I wasn't going to coerce him into anything. I went to all his games, wildly cheered him on... God knows how I ended up with the star athlete, the girl-magnet in High School... Maybe this was kind of a rebellion? Anyway, it was his path. He once commented, after some kid's Dad was coaching his basketball team-- you know, Mom... I'd rather have no father than that father. There was a man downstairs who'd been a professional soccer star in South America. He was rough and tough and his son was gay-at-birth. The soccer star screamed and gave beatings and the kid often took refuge in my apartment; he'd sit and paint, wearing one of my hats; he had incredible talent. Still, I wasn't sure. The very word father made me emotional.
On Memorial Day Monday my son who is nearly thirty now buzzed my apartment unexpectedly. He is rarely in my neighborhood and I am usually at home these days, holiday or not, obliviously working on music and poetry projects. I was dressed in old clothes, unprepared for guests... and he was with a new girlfriend-- they'd been on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum-- one of my favorite places. They came up. She looked at his old room, the photos I have on my shelves and walls... and I realized he was showing her the little monuments and souvenirs of his past-- no medals like in my childhood home-- but his old musician/writer mother in her cabinet of curiosities here... this boychild I had brought into the world with no skills or experience-- without a man to show him the ropes, here he was-- no military honors, no Cyclone ticket stub, no cookouts and grilling contests or company picnics, but plenty of memories --not ashamed but proud of his roots and the past we had somehow created in our own random uncharted family way. Something to salute.