An Inheritance Bereft of Poetry

All day we packed boxes.
We read birth and death certificates.
The yellowed telegrams that announced
our births, the cards of congratulations
and condolences, the deeds and debts,
love letters, valentines with a heart
ripped out, the obituaries.

We opened the divorce decree,
a terrible document of division and subtraction.
We leafed through scrapbooks:
corsages, matchbooks, programs to the ballet,
racetrack, theatre—joy and frivolity
parceled in one volume—
painstakingly arranged, preserved
and pasted with crusted glue.

We sat together side by side
on the empty floor and did not speak.
There were no words
between us other than the essence
of the words from the correspondences,
our inheritance—plain speak,
bereft of poetry.
~Jill Bialosky from The Players

The box of over 700 letters, exchanged between my parents from late 1941 to mid-1945, sat unopened for decades. The time had come.

My parents barely knew each other before marrying quickly on Christmas Eve 1942 – the haste due to the uncertain future for a newly trained Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. They only had a few weeks together before she returned home to her rural teaching position and he readied himself for the island battles to come.

I’m now half-way through reading them in chronological order. I’m up to March 1943 when my father received orders that he would be shipped out to the South Pacific within days. They had no idea they would not see each other for another 30+ months or see each other again at all. They had no idea their marriage would fall apart 35 years later and they would reunite a decade after the divorce.

The letters do contain the long-gone but still-familiar voices of my parents, but they are the words and worries of youngsters of 20 and 21, barely prepared for the horrors to come from war and interminable waiting. Much of the time they wrote each other daily, though with minimal news to share and military censors at work, but they speak mostly of their desire for a normal life together rather than a routine centered on mailbox, pen and paper.

I’m not sure what I hoped to find in these letters. Perhaps I hoped for flowery romantic whisperings and the poetry of longing and loneliness. Instead I am reading plain spoken words from two people who somehow made it through those awful years to make my sister and brother and myself possible.

Our inheritance is contained in this musty box of words bereft of poetry. But decades later my heart is moved by these letters – I carefully refold them back into their envelopes and replace them gently back in order. A six cent airmail stamp – in fact hundreds and hundreds of them – was a worthwhile investment in their future and ultimately mine.

The Coiled Shell of Their Lives

Needing them still, I come
when I can, this time to the sea
where we share a room: their double bed,
my single. Morning fog paints the pale
scene even paler. Lace curtains breathing,
the chenille spread folded back,
my father’s feet white sails furled
at the edge of blue pajamas.
Every child’s dream, a parent
in each hand, though this child is fifty.
Their bodies fit easily, with room
to spare. When did they grow
so small? Grow so small—
as if it were possible to swell
backwards into an earlier self.


One more year, I ask the silence.
Last night to launch myself
into sleep I counted their breaths, the tidal
rise and fall I now put my ear to,
the coiled shell of their lives.
~Rebecca McClanahan from “Watching my Parents Sleeping Beside an Open Window Near the Sea” from Deep Light: New and Selected Poems.

My parents have been gone now for some time, my father over 25 years, my mother now over 10 years. Their dying was a long process of counted breaths and pauses. I witnessed their bodies curling into themselves, shrinking smaller, worn down by illness and age.

I still miss them, reminded of them by the events of my own life, still wanting them to take me by the hand as I navigate my own daily path.

After mom’s death, those possessions not distributed to family members have remained packed up and stored in our barn buildings. I know it is well past time to deal with their stuff as I become keenly aware of my own greying and aging.

Untouched in the bookshelf of our bedroom is a sealed box of over 500 letters written by my mother and father between 1941 and 1945. I know the letters began as they were getting to know each other at college, then going from “pinned” to “engaged” and continue for three and a half more years after a hurried wedding Christmas Eve 1942. By mid January 1943 my newly minted Marine officer father shipped out to spend the next three years of his life on the Pacific Ocean, fighting on the battlefields of Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, not to return again to the states until late summer of 1945. My mother wrote her letters from a rural eastern Washington community, living in a “teachers’ cottage” with other war wives who taught school while waiting for their husbands to return home – or not.

It has taken me a decade to find the courage and time to devote to reading these letters they treasured and never threw away. Yesterday I sorted them unopened by postmark date into some semblance of order and sat down to start at the very beginning, which, of course, is my beginning as well. Only sixty letters in, I open each one with some trepidation and a lump in my throat about what I might find written there. I worry I may find things I don’t want to know. I hope I find things that I desperately need to know.

Most of all I want to understand the two people who became my parents within the coiled shell of their forty years together, though broken by a painful divorce which lasted a decade. Having lived through that awful time with them, I want to understand the origin of a love which mended their cracked shell, glueing them back together for five more years before my father died.

As I read their words over the next few weeks, I hope I too can cross a bridge back to them both.

We Shall Not Sleep Though Poppies Grow

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In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.
~Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae “In Flanders Fields”
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They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
~Lawrence Binyonfrom “For the Fallen” (1914)

 

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Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. 
It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.
~ G.K. Chesterton 
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 November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
~Malcolm Guite “Silence”
When you go home tell them of us and say –
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph” 
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To our U.S. veterans–with deep appreciation and gratitude–for the freedoms you have defended on behalf of us all:

My father was one of the fortunate ones who came home, returning to a quiet farm life after three years serving in the Pacific with the Marines Corp from 1942 to 1945.  Hundreds of thousands of his colleagues didn’t come home, dying on beaches and battlefields.  Tens of thousands more came home forever marked, through physical or psychological injury, by the experience of war.

No matter how one views subsequent wars that our nation has fought and currently is fighting, we must support and care for the men and women who have made the commitment to be on the front line for freedom’s sake and for our sake.

I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did 99 years ago at the Armistice. This is a day that demands much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and disrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who sacrificed time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives in answering the call to defend their countries.

Remembrance means never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom. It means acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf. It means never ceasing to care. It means a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported. It means unending prayers for safe return home to family. It means we hold these men and women close in our hearts, always teaching the next generation about the sacrifices they made.

Most of all, it means being willing ourselves to become the sacrifice when called.

To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow…
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So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded ‘War is done!’
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
‘Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,

And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?’

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
~Thomas Hardy from “And There Was a Great Calm” (On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)
afterthestorm

A Full Circle Remembrance Day

weddingMy parents Henry and Elna Polis on their wedding day,
Dec. 24, 1942, Quantico, Virginia
He shipped out to the South Pacific front one week later,
not to return until June 1945

 

Sometimes, as a child,  when I was bored, I’d grab a step ladder, pull it into our hallway, climb half way up and carefully lift the plywood hatch that was the portal to our unlit attic.  It took some effort to climb up into the attic from the ladder, juggling a flashlight at the same time, but once seated safely on the beams above our ceiling, being careful not to put my foot through the carpet of insulation, I could explore what was stowed and normally inaccessible to me.

All the usual attic-type things were put up there:  Christmas ornaments and lights,  baby cribs and high chairs,  lamps and toys no longer used.  Secrets to my parents’ past were stored away there too.  It was difficult imagining them as young children growing up on opposite sides of the state of Washington, in very different circumstances, or as attractive college students who met at a dance, or as young marrieds unencumbered by the daily responsibilities of a family.  The attic held those images and memories like a three dimensional photo album.

My father’s dark green Marine Corps cargo trunk was up there, the one that followed him from Officer Training in Quantico, Virginia, to beach and mountain battles on Tarawa, Tinian and Saipan in the South Pacific, and three years later back home again.  It had his name and rank stenciled on the side in dark black lettering.  The buckles were stiff but could be opened with effort, and in the dark attic, there was always the thrill of unlatching the lid, and shining the flashlight across the contents.  His Marine Corps dress uniform lay inside underneath his stiff brimmed cap.  There were books about protocol, and a photo album which contained pictures of “his men” that he led in his battalion, and the collection of photos my mother sent of herself as she worked as a high school teacher back home.

Most fascinating was a folded Japanese flag inside a small drawstring bag, made of thin white see-through cloth with the bold red sun in the middle.  Surrounding the red sun were the delicate inked characters of many Japanese hands as if painted by artists, each wishing a soldier well in his fight for the empire.  Yet there it was, a symbol of that soldier’s demise, itself buried in an American attic, being gently and curiously held by an American daughter of a Marine Corps captain.  It would occur to me in the 1960s that some of the people who wrote on this flag might still be living, and certainly members of the soldier’s family would still be living.  I asked my father once about how he obtained the flag, and he, protecting me and himself, waved me away, saying he couldn’t remember.  I know better now.  He knew but could not possibly tell me the truth.

These flags, charms of good luck for the departing Japanese soldier as he left his neighborhood or village for war, are called Hinomaru Yosegaki (日の丸寄せ書き).  Tens of thousands of these flags came home with American soldiers; it is clear they were not the talisman hoped for.  A few of these flags are now finding their way back to their home country, to the original villages, to descendants of the lost soldiers.  My brother, who now has the flag, has returned it as well to its rightful owners.

Seventy some years ago doesn’t seem that long, a mere drop in the river of time.  There is more than mere mementos that have flowed from the broken dam of WWII, flooding subsequent generations of Americans, Japanese, Europeans with memories that are now lost as the oldest surviving soldiers in their 90’s pass, hundreds of them daily, taking their stories of pain and loss and heroism with them.   My father could never talk with a person of Asian descent, Japanese or not, without stiffening his spine and a grim set to his jaw.  He never could be at ease or turn his back.  As a child, I saw and felt this from him, but heard little from his mouth.

When he was twenty two years old,  pressed flat against the rocks of Tarawa, trying to melt into the ground to become invisible to the bullets whizzing overhead, he could not have conceived that sixty five years later his twenty two year old grandson would disembark from a jumbo jet at Narita in Tokyo, making his way to an international school in that city to teach Japanese children.  My father would have been shocked that his grandson would settle happily into a culture so foreign, so seemingly threatening, so apparently abhorrent.   Yet this irony is the direct result of the horrors of that too-long horrible bloody war of devastation: Americans and Japanese, despite so many differences, have become the strongest of allies, happily exchanging the grandchildren of those bitterly warring soldiers back and forth across the Pacific.  I care for Japanese exchange students daily in my University clinic, peering intently into their open faces and never once have seen the enemy that my father knew.

More than seventy years later, my son still teaches, with deep admiration and appreciation for each of his students, those grandchildren and greatgrandchildren of the soldiers my father hated and likely killed.  Not only does my son teach, but he married a granddaughter of those my father fought.  Their daughter is the perfect amalgam of once warring, yet now peaceful, cultures; symbol of blended and blending peoples overcoming the hatred of past generations.

In coming to the land of the red sun, in coming full circle, my father’s descendant, the teacher and missionary,  redeems my father, the warrior.

It is, on this Remembrance Day,  as it was meant to be.

 

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A Renewed Dawn

momdad

 

(for my father on Memorial Day)

It was only a part of what we knew about you-
serving three long years in the South Pacific,
spoken of obliquely
only if asked about,
but never really answered.

We knew you were a Marine battalion leader,
knew you spent too many nights without sleep,
unsure if you’d see the dawn
only to dread
what the next day would bring.

We knew you lost friends
and your innocence;
found unaccustomed strength
inside a mama’s boy
who once cried too easily and later almost never.

Somehow life had prepared you for this:
pulling your daddy out of bars when you were ten
watching him beat your mama
until finally getting big enough
to stand in the way.

Then Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian beaches
bitterly bloodsoaked
battles won,
to be restored and renewed
as vacation resorts.

We let you go without knowing
your full story–
even Mom didn’t ask.
You could not share the depth
of horror and fear you felt.

It was not shame that kept you silent;
simply no need to revisit
the pain of remembrance.
It was done, finished, you had done your duty.

So as we again set flowers and flag
on your grave,
reunited with Mom after years apart,
I regret so many questions unasked
of your sacrifice beyond imagining.

Sleep well, Dad,
with Mom now by your side.
I rejoice you have wakened
to a renewed dawn.

 

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A Readiness to Die

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morning113154

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Courage is almost a contradiction in terms.
It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.
~ G.K. Chesterton 

To our U.S. veterans–with deep appreciation and gratitude–for the freedoms you have defended on behalf of us all:

My father was one of the fortunate ones who came home, returning to a quiet farm life after three years serving in the Marines Corp from 1942 to 1945 on Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian.  Hundreds of thousands of his colleagues didn’t come home, dying on beaches and battlefields.  Tens of thousands more came home forever marked, through physical or psychological injury, by the experience of war.

No matter how one views WWII, or the subsequent wars that our nation has fought and currently is fighting, we must support and care for the men and women who have made the commitment to be on the front line for freedom’s sake and for our sake.

I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did after WWI. This is a day that demands much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and disrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who sacrificed time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives in answering the call to defend their countries.

Remembrance means never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom. It means acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf. It means never ceasing to care. It means a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong. It means unending prayers for safe return home to family. It means we hold these men and women close in our hearts, always teaching the next generation about the sacrifices they made.

Most of all, it means being willing to become the sacrifice if called.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.~Lieutenant-Colonel (Dr.) John McCrae from “In Flanders Fields”

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Dismissed in Peace

wedding

Seventy two years ago this week, my parents were married. Christmas Eve certainly wasn’t a typical wedding anniversary, but it did make it easy to remember during their years together. It was a date of necessity, only because a justice of the peace was available to marry a score of war-time couples in Quantico, Virginia, shortly before the newly trained Marine officers were shipped out to the South Pacific to fight in WWII.

Now that they are both gone, when I look at their young faces in their only wedding portrait, I see a hint of the impulsive decision that led to that wedding just a week before my father left for 30 months. They had known each other for over a year, had talked about a future together, but with my mother starting a teaching job, and the war potentially impacting all young men’s lives very directly, they had not set a date.

My father had to put his college education on hold to enlist, knowing that would give him some options he wouldn’t have if drafted, so they went their separate ways as he headed east to Virginia for his Marine officer training, and Mom started her high school teaching career as a speech and drama teacher in rural Colville in Eastern Washington. One day in early December, he called her and said, “If we’re going to get married, it’ll need to be before the end of the year. I’m shipping out the first week in January.” Mom went to her high school principal, asked for a two week leave of absence which was granted, told her astonished parents, bought a dress, and headed east on the train with a friend who had received a similar call from her boyfriend. This was a completely uncharacteristic thing for my overly cautious mother to do so it must have been love.

They were married in a brief civil ceremony with another couple as the witnesses. They stayed in Virginia only a couple days and took the train back to San Diego, and my father left. Just like that. Mom returned to her teaching position and the first three years of their married life was letter correspondence only, with gaps of up to a month during certain island battles when no mail could be delivered or posted.

As I sorted through my mother’s things following her death six years ago, their letters to each other, stacked neatly and tied together, reside now in a box in my bedroom. I have not yet opened them but will when I’m ready. What I will find there will be words written by two young people who could not have foretold the struggles that lay ahead for them during and after the war but who both depended on faith and trust to persevere despite the unknowns. The War itself seemed struggle enough for the millions of couples who endured the separation, the losses and grieving, as well as the eventual injuries–both physical and psychological.  It did not seem possible that beyond those realities, things could go sour after reuniting.

The hope and expectation of happiness and bliss must have been overwhelming, and real life doesn’t often deliver.  After raising three children, their 35 year marriage fell apart with traumatic finality.  When my father returned (again) over a decade later, asking for forgiveness, they remarried and had five more years together before my father died.

And so too there must have been expectations of happiness in the barn on that first Christmas Eve. It must have been frightening for the parents of this special Baby, knowing in their minds but not completely understanding in their hearts what responsibility lay in their arms. They had to find faith and trust, not just in God who had determined what their future held, but in each other, to support one another when things became very difficult. Those challenges mounted up quickly: there was to be no room for them, there was a baby to deliver without assistance from anyone, and the threat of Herod’s murder of innocents eventually drove them from their home country.

When Mary and Joseph go to the temple for the circumcision and consecration of their son the following week, they allow a “righteous and devout man”, Simeon,  to hold their baby as, moved by the Holy Spirit, he tells them the role this child is to play in the world.  He prays to the Lord, “As you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace.  For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

It must have been like looking into a crystal ball to hear Simeon speak, as we’re told “the child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.” But Simeon didn’t whitewash the reality to come. It would have been easy to do so– simply mention salvation, the light and the glory that will come to the people due to this little baby, but leave out the part about how His existence would cause division in Israel as well as the rejection, anguish and suffering that He would experience. Not only that, but the pain is not His alone but will be His parents’ to bear as well. I’m sure that statement must have ended the sense of “marvel” they were feeling, and replaced it instead with great sorrow and trepidation.

Christmas is a time of joy, a celebration of new beginnings and new life when God became man, humble, vulnerable and tender. But it also gives us a foretaste for the profound sacrifice made in giving up this earthly life, not always so gently. A baby in a manger is a lovely story to “treasure up” in our hearts but once He became a bleeding Redeemer on a cross, it pierces our living beating hearts, just as Simeon foretold.

My parents, such young idealistic adults 72 years ago, now servants dismissed from this life in peace. As I peer at their faces in their wedding photo, I know those same eyes, then unaware of what was to come,  now behold the light, the salvation and the glory~~the ultimate Christmas~~in His presence.

Song of Simeon by Aert De Gelder, a student of Rembrandt
Song of Simeon by Aert De Gelder, a student of Rembrandt