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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To Set A-Tremble

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“No man is an island,” John Donne wrote, “intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Or to use another metaphor, humanity is like an enormous spider web, so that if you touch it anywhere, you set the whole thing trembling…

As we move around this world and as we act with kindness, perhaps, or with indifference, or with hostility, toward the people we meet, we too are setting the great spider web a-tremble. The life that I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place and time my touch will be felt.

Our lives are linked together. No man is an island.
~Frederick Buechner from The Hungering Dark

 

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As we say “till we meet again” to our son and family who return today to their mission work in the island nation of Japan, I sense the strength and tenacity of the web that continually connects us to them. As they serve people thousands of miles away, the love and support of family and friends who touched them during their stay here is “set a-tremble” and extends far beyond our patch of soil here.

It helps to know we are linked, no matter how separated.  It helps to know what happens there will reach here with a tiny tremble, if I stay tuned for the smallest vibrations.  It helps to know that despite long history of conflict, our nations are connected again.

Fare well, dear hearts.  Until we meet again, we remain connected, trembling.

 

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The World as Wheat

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I tried to paint the sound of the wind in the ears of wheat.
~Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to Paul Gauguin
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Ears of Wheat ~ Vincent Van Gogh 1890 in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

There is nothing here but wheat, no blade
too slight for his attention: long swaying
brush strokes, pale greens, slithery yellows,
the hopefulness of early spring. All grass
is flesh, says the prophet. Here, there are no
gorgeous azures stamped with almond blossoms,
no screaming sky clawed with crows, no sunflowers
roiling gold and orange, impasto thick as Midi sunlight.
His brush herringboned up each stalk, the elemental
concerns of sun, rain, dirt, while his scrim of pain receded
into the underpainting. He let the wind play
through the stems like a violin, turning the surface
liquid, a sea of green, shifting eddies and currents.
No sky, no horizon; the world as wheat.
~Barbara Crooker, “Ears of Wheat, 1890” from 
Les Fauves

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I come from this – these green-ripening-to-amber wheat fields.
My mother was born nearly a century ago in a house built in a swale of these Palouse hills, where grain rose prolific each year from the soil.  Her father used horses and harvester over hill and dale to bring in the wheat, and piled it high in the local elevator until the train could pick it up.
My grandfather, grandmother, uncle and my mother are no more, now but dust, yet this land continues to produce and yield without their help.
When I return for a visit, I listen for what Van Gogh must have heard and seen in his own fertile land: the sound of the wind in the ears of wheat, the grain moving in waves across the landscape, the complexity of color of each individual stalk blending together to become an unending carpet undulating over the earth.
Yet to really take it in and not be overwhelmed, (to get out of the weeds, so to speak), I go high on the butte to see the world as wheat from above.  I then can imagine God’s own view of our grassy flesh which withers and fades away, as we shrivel in the sun and fall – yet the harvest of His Word endures forever.
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Sending the Light

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I want you to read this some day, 恵真
our new little Emma Sophia:
as you took your first breath in the dark of the night
so far away from this farm where your father grew up,
we bid farewell to the sun here
so God could bring it glowing to your first day in Japan,
that misty island where your mother grew up.

Your birth blesses so many all over this earth
and proves that war from two generations ago
exists only in history books now,
now love digs so deep in the genes
it overcomes what has come before.

You have sent the sun back today to us,
brand new grandparents,
to rise pink over this snowy morning,
and we will send it back to you tonight
to wake you for your second day
resting calm in the arms of your loving family.

Each day from now on
may we always return the Light you sent
and send it forth to shine on you.

 

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To Catch the Sunset

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…he says
let’s walk up to the field and catch the sunset
and off we go, a couple of aging fools.

I hope, he says, on the other side there’s a lot
less work, but just in case I’m bringing tools.
~Maxine Kumin from “Chores”

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When I pull open the barn doors
every morning
and close them again each evening,
as our grandparents did
one hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears,
rumble grumble back a response.

We do our chores faithfully
as our grandparents once did–
draw fresh water
into buckets,
wheel away
the pungent mess underfoot,
release an armful of summer
from the bale,
reach under heavy manes
to stroke silken necks.

We don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
don harness
to carry us to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as our grandparents did.

Instead,
these soft eyed souls,
born on this farm
two long decades ago,
are simply grateful
for our constancy
morning and night
to serve their needs
until the day comes
they need no more.

And we depend on them
to depend on us
to be there
to open and close the doors;
their low whispering welcome
gives voice
to the blessings of
living on a farm
ripe with rhythms and seasons,
sunrises and sunsets,
as if yesterday, today and tomorrow are
just like one hundred years ago.

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