I was born in 1959, by 1969 my father was gone. I think of him especially on Memorial day and on the 4th of July, not just because he was a veteran of WWII, but because he seemed his best leading the parade dressed in his uniform as Commander of The Amaral Bailey American Legion Post. Above is a picture I painted from a photo of a Memorial Day Celebration, Manchester by the Sea in the late 60’s when I was old enough to remember him.
My sister Ruthie asked, “Why is it so bright?” I remember Memorial Day being all yellows and greens punctuated by lilac trees and uniforms. My father was tall but not stiff. He looked like a Commander, a thin version of Lee Marvin from The Dirty Dozen. He also smoked, all the time, which made him look and perhaps feel, more cool and relaxed. As a child, I could not understand why anyone would want to put something with fire on it in their mouth on a hot summer day. Now I know that nicotine calms nerves.
My father was a bit jittery. He walked everywhere or took the train. He always wore a hat outside. Not a Boston Red Sox hat but a real hat like men used to wear. He was bald but the hat not only protected him, it made him even taller. My old friend Patty Walsh used to tell me it would scare her to see just the top of his hat come by the bottom of her window. I used to get up to see him walk down the street to work. He kind of scared me too. I didn’t understand things like wars and war buddies, drinking and smoking, balancing work and family. I wasn’t exactly happy that I had to be quiet when he was around. I felt bad that we kids “got on his nerves.”
Now the tables are turned. People “get on my nerves.” They jangle my bell and I can’t stop the reverb. Of course there are pills for that kind of thing now. I remember being labelled “high strung” as a child. I would cough for months after I was done with the flu just because I would work myself up. Maybe I learned to cough because my father had emphysema. Maybe that’s just the therapist in me trying to form some kind of attachment. Basically, I am a lot like my father.
There was a young man each year chosen to read the Gettysburg Address and a young woman who got to read “In Flanders Field.” Although my brother Paul read one year and my sister Beth another, I was wisely not chosen. I was a bit of a wild card – either frozen in an cube of icy inhibition or clownishly extroverted, not exactly a good fit for reciting in a silent cemetery. My father stands saluting in the picture as a trumpet plays taps. He looks like a living version of the stone obelisks behind him. Guns were fired and children broke ranks to run for the shiny casings. The Women’s Auxiliary would lay a wreath, the breeze would blow, a gull would squawk. After the ceremony, people would chat in tones suitable for a graveyard or maybe a little louder as it was a bright day and most people in the town were there. Kids might be getting out of hand or crying in their carriages. I most certainly did not run up to my father or talk to him. He was very important, but I might have pinched my sisters.
I don’t remember barbeques on Memorial day. My father may have grilled with his Legion buddies but not with us. The day had begun with poppies being thrown in the harbor behind The Legion Post. I thought they floated over to France until last year when I found out that Manchester is more on the latitude of Portugal. I don’t know anything about WWII and Portugal. My father’s brother Tom served in France and was in The Battle of The Bulge. I didn’t know him either but at least I knew a little about France and the French from school. My father served in the Pacific theatre in the Army Air Force. He was at Iwo Jima for the last battle which was basically a suicide raid. Perhaps that’s one reason he didn’t like hearing a bunch of little girls running around screaming .
I also remember marching in a procession in kindergarten or first grade. We followed an older boy who beat a drum. We walked silently up the long hill from the school to the cemetery where we lay lilacs on the graves. This was probably around Memorial Day. Greg Majenski played the drum. He has died as well. He was my sister’s basketball coach. I remember he drove my sister and I to UMass after my mother died so Ruthie could try out for a scholarship. She had to play guys from the mens’ team. He didn’t talk much on the drive. He was good looking. I didn’t say much either. It was a long ride.
It’s been a long ride from Manchester by the Sea to Anchorage, Alaska but everything comes back so quickly when I return there. Although my mother and father have been gone for decades there are millions of memories which are bright and shiny as a spring day.