A day to honor those who have fallen

Memorial Day. For many, the words conjure up a weekend to party, back yard barbecues and get togethers and marks nothing more significant than the brilliant start of the summer season. For me, and for my family and for millions of others, it is a more solemn occasion. It runs much deeper than red, white and blue table decorations, plastic cups and burgers and dogs. It is truly a day to honor the fallen, those who died while defending our nation.

I learned early to appreciate the significance of the day. My father served at Guadalcanal and, later, in Washington DC. He had a distinguished career in the Army Reserves. But Memorial Day, he reminded his children, is not for the living–it is for the dead. Those who left to serve and didn’t return. It affected my father deeply and, in turn, the solemnity of the occasion was made clear to us, his flock of nine offspring.

Dad paradeMy mother is a veteran, too, and served in DC. Year after year, my parents donned their uniforms, my father’s festooned with medals and ribbons. They would separate then (an occasion most uncommon), my mother to join the squad of marching WAVES and WACS and my father to the head of the line in his position as marshall. It was his voice that for so many years rang out and led the parade: the flag bearers, the honor guard, the troops of Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, Campfire Girls and marching bands. Those of his children who were not marching would gather in front of my grandmother’s house and listen intently for the sound of approaching drums. As he appeared around the corner, the parade stretching out behind him, my heart would thump, and not just to the beat of the John Philip Sousa tune. It was with awe and respect of the greatest measure that I watched my father pass in front of us. His posture was ramrod-straight, his eyes unwavering and focused straight ahead as if he were still marching into battle. Though he stopped leading the parade many years ago, the intensity of that sight hasn’t left me. It never will.

Now my father is among the fallen, too, taken not by battle but by age and this is our first Memorial Day without him. The day still belongs to our military; my father would be the first to remind me of that. But I honor him, too, this Memorial Day. To stand quietly, hand over heart as our flag passes by; to ache to the words of Flanders Fields; to watch a wreath disappear beneath the water; to hear the crack of the honor guard salute and hear it echo and fade: this is the day we honor our fallen heros and thank them for our freedoms. My father never forgot what it meant to fight–nor to lead. I thank him for teaching me that kind of respect and for leading by example.

My daddy’s holiday

My mother likes to explain that, when her brood was young (long before Monday holidays rearranged our calendars), many of us thought that Washington’s birthday was a holiday only because is was my father’s birthday–and therefore a holiday just for him. If it were up to me, we’d still be celebrating my father’s birthday every year as a national holiday. As a matter of fact, we’d celebrate in grand style. There would be pageantry: dancing girls and horses with plumes, in the way  he once requested. He’d get quite a kick out of it, I know. Particularly those dancing girls.

So, here we are,February 22: no longer celebrated as Washington’s birthday, no longer a “living birthday” for my father. It is our first without him; it would have Carlo cake2been his 99th. How close he got to that goal of 100 years; how much we all believed, hoping against hope, that he’d actually make it. And yet, we’re here, without him, faced with the truth that we just can’t live forever.

How trite to say, “the memories live on.” But they do. And how glad I am of that. For a week or so now, I have had one scene in my mind, so indelibly imprinted, it makes me wonder where the years went. I see myself standing in the pantry of the old homestead. The pantry was huge, a real “walk-in” and truly a magical place. It was decked out floor to ceiling with old wooden shelves  chock-a-block full of cereal boxes and canned goods, decorative tins and seldom-used kettles set high on the uppermost shelf (yes, Mom, we knew that’s where the Halloween candy was hidden and there wasn’t a one of us that couldn’t climb those shelves to find it). My hand reaches, guided by habit, to the dangling pull cord, an age-slicked, greying piece of butcher’s twine, and  one pull pops the bare bulb on the ceiling into light. Across the kitchen, dinner is done though the table is full of a chattering horde of siblings awaiting desert. My father, the honoree, sits in his usual spot at the head of the table, my mother to his left. We proceed with the ritual. In the pantry, I find the box I’m looking for: the chocolate covered cherries.  What else? They’re in honor of a young General Washington and his cherry tree, of course, and now, for my father, an obligatory confection for their dual birthday celebration.

I can see the box, feel it’s weight, know the size and thickness exactly. Wrapped in paper printed with a gaudy photo of a chocolate mound with drippy red syrup and the brilliant orb of the cherry spilling out, the box never changed.  Though I remember the candies as far too sweet for my liking, the memory is not about the eating of them (I didn’t), but rather the act of having them. Together. As a family. It was a part of us, the opening of that paper box. It was as much a part of us as my father was–and that he is, even now. We never asked him if he actually cared for them himself. He never would have admitted otherwise. That’s the kind of man he was. The best kind. Honest. Sweet. Dependable.

The pantry light has gone out. The memories remain. Happy 99th, Daddy.

In a very timely visit, my sister Jan has been touring Yellowstone National Park this week. The park was one of the more spectacular venues my family visited on our 11,000-mile cross-country adventure in 1963. For me, seeing it when I was only six years old, Yellowstone left an indelible impression. I have also revisited the park in the past and hope to go again someday. For now, I will enjoy it through my sister’s recent pictures and this except from A Bridge Between which may help explain why both the park and my father hold a special place in my heart.

(A brief aside: times are hugely different now and the park has changed: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RECREATE MY FATHER’S ACTIONS!)

Yellowstone Hot Springs

Yellowstone Hot Springs

While my mother had a love of learning and adventure, she was more likely to stick to established conventions, to play by the rules, so to speak. My father, on the other hand, was always more comfortable traveling off the beaten path.

Off the path was exactly where he had maneuvered one particular day, while visiting the colorful mineral pools of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. The springs were a wonderland of terraces, limestone sculptures and steaming pools, spattered with an array of liquid Crayola colors creating living art. The waters were shaded hues of orange, green, yellow and pink, a wondrous concoction of water, heat and limestone painted by microorganisms into a spectacular palette.

My father left the plank boardwalk that marked the sanctioned route over the terraced limestone springs and knelt at the edge of one of the pools. My mother turned her back, whether in embarrassment or fear for his safety, or a little of both. Carlo fished with a spoon strapped to the end of a metal antenna—items, I suppose, any truly adventurous man is capable of producing on a moment’s notice—gathering souvenir coins for his children from out of the steaming mineral water. Replacing each travertine coated salvaged coin with one from his pocket, he entertained passing tourists with his antics. My father was so comfortable in his actions that no one questioned his motives, appearing as he did to be an employee of the National Park Service offering a demonstration.

Many years have passed since that day. Portions of these magnificent hot springs have gone dry and their colors have faded to white and gray. Still, their beauty lives on, the formations growing and changing with time. When the flow of water becomes blocked by deposits of silt and stone, a new way is forged, and the springs morph in a new direction, painted with a different brush. Resolute and redirected, only then can their colors continue to develop and thrive. As it is with most anything that ages, a fresh path must be found when the old one is no longer passable—in nature, in life.


A bridge between

A Bridge Between
(Original verse written 1967 October 22 by Carlo A. Pola.   Notations by the 8th child.)

A word, a laugh, a tear
In those final hours, we gathered and chatted and smiled and  cried.

A way back when
He was there for us, always,

A helping hand now and then
and as he’d cared for us, so did we for him.

An attentive ear to youth’s hopes and fear
I spoke softly to him, stroked his hair and held his hand.

A father’s yes to a child’s request
No questions left to answer, God’s will alone would rule.

A mother’s prayer about some minor scare
We prayed for peace for him.

A lighted candle on a birthday cake,
We’ll celebrate him 

A joke, a smile, all these
And remember him

Could make a bridge between.
with love. 

The look of love

It is just over 12 hours since my father has passed from this earth. It’s been a time full of phone calls and discussions held with family, friends and Facebook. The outpouring is overwhelming. When this time passes and his death is no longer immediate, I ask myself, what is it about him I will miss the most?

I’ll feel his loss a million ways, of course. I’ll miss that strong jaw, his practical manner and calm demeanor and, especially, the way we grew closer as his body grew weaker. I will see shadows of him everywhere, and every corner of my life will feel the void. But what I’ll miss most is the privilege of witnessing the love he showered upon my mother, a love incomparable. It was unmistakable, intangible, a force of nature:  the way he looked at her, the way he loved her. But it was visible, as well, and evident to all who met them.  It shone in the way they held hands,  in a soft goodbye kiss or when they’d reach for one another in times of stress. I am so much the better for witnessing this love. I am a product of it. I will hold it in my heart forever and bask in its afterglow like a sunset well remembered.