About three weeks ago, the question of what it means to be an American moved to the forefront of my mind and stayed there. It can no longer be compartmentalized; it cannot wait for the moments when I read the news, discuss the election, visit landmarks or watch a Presidential debate. It does not wait for my children to go to bed. This question interrupts my sleep and creates ripples in my days, constantly intersecting with two other questions: What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be human?
The shift happened in late September, and is now my new normal. This is a change that will not be settled on November 8th. I remember the weekend when this shift occurred vividly. It is hard to forget a ruined rug, a dead rodent and the moment you look at your daughter and realize her identity and her future are on the line.
On Saturday, September 24th, we drove down to Pennsylvania as we do every fall for Zane’s Run, a fundraiser started by my childhood friend, Hillary. Hillary’s daughter had a genetic disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy and died seven years ago, at six months old. Each year, the loss of Zane brings an undercurrent of sadness while her memory and the fight to raise awareness brightens and warms our collective spirit. Each year, my children understand a bit more about why we are running and what it means for my friend and her family.
We planned to leave our home in Rye, NY and drive to my parents’ house on Saturday afternoon. Other than my mom’s discouraging mid-morning call to inform us that the house currently reeked with the odor of a dead and well-concealed rodent, things were right on track. We ignored the suggestion that we stay in a hotel and hopped in the car. Our children looked forward to seeing their grandparents, great-grandmother, aunts and uncles, and no mere smell would prevent us from invading my family’s childfree existence for a night.
It was a typical drive in many ways, except for the musical soundtrack. Our older two children, Robert and Eliza, had learned some new songs in the few short weeks back at school. Three songs replaced the usual Maroon 5 and Katie Perry. These were patriotic songs, songs that warmed my heart with unquestioning devotion as a child and that now make my head spin: My Country ‘Tis of Thee, The Star-Spangled Banner, and Proud to Be an American. Two hopeful, high-pitched, out of tune voices belted out meaningful yet complicated words. Oh my goodness, where do we begin?
Robert, our eight-year-old, corrected his sister that it is “LIB-erty, not LIV-erty,” as the singing morphed into questions. So many questions. What does it mean that our fathers died? Did they have mothers? Why did the Pilgrims cry? No! It’s Pilgrims’ Pride! Well then what is that? What does PRIDE mean? What men died to give that right to me? Who is she that he is defending? What does that say? Donzerly light – what IS that? My husband Rich and I answered the questions as best we could and helped less successfully to adjust the tune a bit. I fought back tears, unsure exactly what emotion it was that I felt at the moment: Sadness? Hope? Inspiration? Frustration? Pride? Nostalgia? Yes.
We arrived at my parents’ smelly house and my three rowdy children almost made it to bedtime without a major catastrophe. Until about 7:30pm, their worst infraction was being a little too boisterous at dinner with my 96-year-old grandmother. We were about to make s’mores for dessert when my three-year-old, Ian, decided to climb over the coffee table on his way out to the fire pit rather than walk around it. I didn’t see the collision, but he landed in a pile on the floor not far from a huge splatter of neon red. My parents’ favorite oriental rug, an intricate pattern of creams and pale blues, looked electrified. In the split second it took me to register that it was not blood but hot candle wax, true panic set in. Blood would have been so much less damaging, both for the rug and for my children’s reputation.
I quickly tried to remember something I heard on NPR about Quantum physics and the predetermined nature of events. According to Quantum physics, this event had to happen due to a certain amount of energy in the system, or in this case in the toddler. According to my mom, however, this was an act of free will. “If you had just gotten him outside earlier with the other kids, this never would have happened,” she assured me.
I apologized for the accident but still felt pretty awful. Rich, my sister-in-law and I Googled cleaning techniques, set to work with dull knives and weighed the risks and benefits of using a warm iron.
Rich loves to solve problems without outside assistance, and when I thought we hit a stopping point and should send the rug out for professional care, he dug in deeper and looked for more tools. With Resolve in hand, he and I scrubbed while other family members stopped by to check progress. Our daughter Eliza delighted in the opportunity to spray cleaning products. The stains faded as the threads wore thin and I replaced one problem with another less visible one. By the end, my mom had relaxed, I was still apologizing, and my dad could not even find the stain. Remembering our purpose for being in Pennsylvania, I fell asleep knowing that for all of us, this is only a rug.
Sunday morning, the smell was still in full force. Thinking maybe I could help solve this problem since we had botched the rug repair a bit, I ventured into the unfinished basement with my mom and dad. My parents do not have much clutter and there are few places where the dead thing could hide. Once we had rearranged a couple of items and stared into the stinky but empty crawl spaces, it was pretty clear that if the culprit was down here, it was hidden behind the walls.
My mom spotted one ratty-looking box partially hidden under the steps. “It could be in that,” she said, pointing to it. My dad opened the flaps as we held our breath. We found our silver trumpet from childhood, still in its tattered case, and a black trash bag. All of my siblings played the trumpet growing up. My grandfather and my dad played the trumpet, so we already had a couple trumpets lying around and we got another one at a yard sale. In fourth grade when we could join the school band, I did not even explore the other instruments. We were a trumpet family.
“What’s in the bag?” I asked.
“Huh,” my dad said as he peered in. “It’s my old Army uniform.” He pulled out his Army fatigues from Vietnam. “Look, my helmet. And these boots. I wondered where this was. Wow.”
We stood there, marveling at the strength of those boots and the size and weight of the uniform, a uniform that held my dad’s stories from nearly half a century ago. I grabbed the helmet and ran upstairs to show Robert. Many of the boys in his second-grade class are intrigued by the military. For Rob, it is more than something he reads about in books. It is the memory of conversations between him and his maternal great-grandfather, a World War II veteran injured in Anzio, Italy. It is part of the story of Rob’s grandfather, my dad, a Vietnam vet who weathered a terrifying and unpopular war as a young newlywed and went on to be the goofy, loving and supportive dad and grandfather he knows today. It is the story of his paternal great-grandfather, a chemist who worked for DuPont after college and was part of the team hired by the government to work on the Manhattan Project. It is a complicated history, both for our family and for our country, but not one that I shy away from sharing with my children.
When I got to the top of the stairs, excited to show Rob this treasure, Eliza was right there next to him. He asked why the helmet said Airborne as he placed it on his head and looked in the mirror. Looking at her brother, Eliza asked, “Mom, can girls be Army, too?”
A lump filled my throat as I considered any of my three young children growing up to be soldiers. Then I thought about the songs, and my children’s cheers for Hillary when the topic of the election comes up. I gulped and hoped that the truths I tell her and her brothers hold true in our future.
“Yes, Eliza. In our country, a woman can be a soldier.”
Noticing the time, I muttered directions to the kids about running clothes and sneakers. The helmet sat on the bench in my parents’ foyer as we left to take our place in the crowd at Zane’s Run. We hugged, remembered, smiled and ran with old friends and strangers, all united for a common goal. Eliza and I ran the mile fun run side by side, her short legs taking two strides for every one of mine. She was hesitant and slightly intimidated to start, and proud and confident at the finish.
We packed up our bags, breathed in a final whiff of the dead rodent and glanced at the pink hue of the rug before piling in the car and waving goodbye. At our obligatory food and bathroom stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, Robert, Eliza and I hurried inside, leaving Rich in the car with a sleeping Ian. Right inside the door, I heard Eliza gasp and turned my head. Three soldiers dressed in fatigues sat at a table about twenty feet away. The one facing us was a woman. A smile spread over Eliza’s face. Rob pulled my arm toward them as I asked Eliza if she wanted me to introduce her. Without hearing her answer, I know she said yes.
We said hello to the soldiers, two women and a man, and explained the question from earlier. One soldier took a Velcro American flag badge off of her uniform, bent down and handed it to Eliza. She saw Robert’s face and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I have another one.” He understood. This one was for her.
Everyday life is full of surprises, coincidences, setbacks and opportunities. The source of the mysterious odor was discovered and laid to rest a couple of days after we left. While working in the garden, my dad spotted a dead fox just outside the house, near the window to the basement crawl space. He buried it and the weekend’s events came to a complete close, another entertaining story to add to our family narrative. We learned lessons about tables, toddlers, candles, rugs and forgiveness; about soldiers, perseverance, memories and letting go. We uncovered the past, accepted the present and glimpsed the future.
Our country’s story is so much more difficult to unravel, but if I turn off the television, close Facebook, and look at the everyday examples of humanity and role models for our children, I see goodness in our world. I see soldiers fighting for our freedom, parents loving their children, people helping one another and communities uniting towards common goals. Our nation is like one big family; imperfect but optimistic at best and dysfunctional but tied together at worst. This is not a moment defined by simplicity or straightforward solutions. We cannot bury the dead fox or scrub away our nation’s problems, but we can look out with discomfort at our flaws and be part of a better path forward. As an American, a woman and a human, I see that there are no clear answers to my questions, but I hope that somewhere in us we have core values of compassion, respect, freedom and equality. If we look hard enough, we can find them, still alive.