As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter the words, but to live by them. – John F. Kennedy
Today is Memorial Day in the US. Officially the holiday honors those who died while serving in the military. My family always honored all the deceased veterans in our family on this day. Although members of my family fought for the country in every war going back to the Revolution, none of them died in combat. Each and every one of them made it back home. Since my Dad died last year this year is the first year my family will honor my Dad on Memorial Day. When he was alive, he would joke whenever someone wished him a “Happy Memorial Day”, saying, “Wait until I am dead, and there’s not much that’s happy on Memorial Day”. So this Memorial Day I celebrate my World War Two hero father, my uncles, my cousins, my best friend, my grandpa, my great-grandfathers, my great-great-grandfather and all those who served in the military.
Today though I want to honor four great women who waited for the soldiers and sailors to return. Let me start with one of my Great-Great Grandmothers. My great-great-grandfather George Washington Barlow fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was wounded in his right shoulder in battle. He was stitched up and sent back into combat. In fact his father, also served as a muleskinner. His wife Harriet waited for him to return, along with her three brothers, and many cousins.
My maternal grandmother waited for my grandfather to return home from World War One (his photo is at the top). He fought in the brutal trench warfare and was hit with mustard gas twice. He survived the war and came home to my grandmother. He became a coal miner and sharecropper. This is a photo of my mom as a baby less than two years after the end of WWI. My grandfather died from spinal meningitis. He caught the disease from a young boy who he helped. My grandmother later remarried, and my Papa served in World War Two also. My grandmother had two sons who served in World War Two. My Uncle Fred was a spotter for half-tracks and landed just a couple days after D-Day. He was in the Battle of the Bulge, liberated a concentration camp, and received the Bronze Star for heroism. My Uncle Fran was in the 101st Airborne. He was injured while parachuting and was forever mentally nineteen years old.
My Grandmother Wheeler was an incredible woman. My God I loved to talk with her, and listen to her tell stories. She had a hard life in the beginning. She gave birth to ten children but three died as infants and a fourth little girl died at six years old from contaminated well water. Grandma sent four sons to World War Two. She waited at home to hear from all of them. She told me she used to pray every night before going to bed, asking God to protect them. She prayed again in the morning that she would not get the much feared bad news of their death. My Uncle Sam was a medic on Iwo Jima. Uncle Curt was a Navy Chief who served with the Marines on Saipan, and helped evacuate wounded on several islands. Uncle Butch was a Navy cook. And my Dad was highly decorated for his heroic service in the Pacific War. Grandma welcomed each one of her boys back home to this house, in the photo. This was the nexus for all the men who served and all the women who waited for them to return.
I wanted to include a little shopping list from my fantastic Grandma. She was a strong woman. She drank Sunny Brook Kentucky bourbon every day, smoked Lucky Strikes and ate bacon for nearly every meal. I would cut her grass for her in the summer, and stop afterwards to enjoy an ice cold Coke, and swat flies for her as she told me stories.
And my beloved mother. My mom saw how her veteran father was mistreated by the government after the war. Her first husband was an officer in the Navy. She lived on base in Pensacola at the beginning of the war. Many badly wounded sailors would be rehabilitated there. Each day my mom would take some of those terribly maimed men fishing. She would bait their hooks for them and help them land the fish. Her beautiful smile and sweet nature must have the best medicine for those wounded sailors. She divorced that guy during the war, because of his abuse. She met my Dad after the war. The curly haired sailor boy was quite a dashing manly guy. But his mind was branded by the grisly scenes and gruesome images of war. The horror of war was burned deep into his spirit. Mom told me he often woke up in the middle of the night suffering sweaty nightmares. My wonderful Mom soothed his psychological wounds and loved the old man to the day she died. She used to bring flowers to all the graves on Memorial Day – her father’s, her uncles’, her brother’s, her cousin’s.
I like to think of my Mom and Dad reunited in Heaven. Mom always said she had earned a special place in Heaven. I think it must be true. I love the look on Mom’s face as she teases my Dad on their anniversary. This is what he fought for – the Love of a Great Woman. Here’s to all the wonderful women in my family who kept the home fires burning. I took flowers to the ocean for all of you. God Bless you all on this Memorial Day 2021.