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Things we carry

By November 10, 2023 13 Comments
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I’m working away on something, when Alexa offers me “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” ancient Americana penned by Stephen Foster, no less, 150 years ago or more.

Stops me dead in my tracks. I remember my mom telling me how, when they were courting, Dad used to croon that old tune to her, his own brand of seduction, I imagine, and hers. He kept it up for years. Her name, after all, was Jeannie; and she once had light, brown hair. They both have been gone for years, but I couldn’t help thinking that, just then, that old song was being sung in some heavenly realm.

Something grabbed at my heart. I am, in some ways, the issue of such crooning. I know very little about my parents’ courting days, but even if I never heard protestations of love in those early years together, there was nothing cold nor reserved about my parents’ lifelong affection.

In a Bible that belonged to Dad, I found that picture of his Jeannie in a swimsuit. Much of what was left in the pages of that tattered scripture is what remains of his World War II experience–some letters and even a picture of the Coast Guard tug he and a small crew ran to and from tiny little island hotbeds of the war in the South Pacific, pushing around destroyers.

My swim-suited mother is holding hands with her two war-born kids. They’re on some Lake Michigan beach (western shore) I probably know well from my childhood. The snapshot is a treasure, really, because that picture–and the Bible it was in–probably dragged him through the war aboard an old wonder of a tug that rarely exceeded five knots in endless South Pacific journeys.

That picture, and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” is what I have of their early years together—that and her story too, the only one she ever told me of her war years, she and their two little girls holed up in Wisconsin, their sweetheart Dad far, far away.

When he returned, he would be getting off the train in Milwaukee, Mom told me. And, like so many other war wives, she faced a choice she never forgot. She had trouble determining just how to manage that homecoming, because while he’d seen his oldest daughter for a year or more before he left, he’d never seen the littlest girl, who’d been fathered when he was in the Coast Guard’s basic training at Lake Macatawa, of all places.

So, Mom’s dilemma, she loved to say, was very real. She saw herself standing at the station, a darling daughter in each hand, like that beach photograph, awaiting a loving husband she hadn’t seen for at least two years.

She had all kinds of trouble trying to guess what he’d do. Would he grab the four-year-old he remembered from his dreams, or the two-year old he’d never seen? And if he would grab either of them, she used to tease, was it right and good of her to be jealous he didn’t grab her? Was that a sin? And if it was, how could she help it?

When I got old enough to figure out what was going on in that moment of her life, a moment she treasured, I finally asked her to tell me exactly what she did there at the railroad station.

Sniffed snidely, raised her chin a little and said, “I went alone.” Then, a sly smile.

I told that story twice in my life, both times at the weddings of my kids, because I think there’s much more to it than meets the eye.

Years ago, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was standard fare in intro to lit classes. Always went over big too. Odd stories, haunting recitals of what exactly Vietnam’s great grunts lugged along into the jungle—”the things they carried.”

All of that—my parents’ story and even Vietnam–is ancient history today. My guess is that if you want to read Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam war tales, you’ll have to hunt them up on some dusty library shelf.

Dad’s been gone for years. He never made much of his war experiences. I’ve always thought maybe he was a little shy about the ease by which he made it through the war, when he compared himself with some of his friends, vets all, who worked in the foundry where once again he got a desk job in the office.  

Tomorrow is November 11, something of a holiday, a remembrance, a time of tribute to vets, even vets like Dad who pushed a pen but never pulled a trigger–and never asked for attention or certainly adulation. I don’t think he ever walked in a Memorial Day parade, never put on his uniform once he made it safely home, stuck it in an upstairs closet, where I used to strap on the leggings.

But I’m a richer man for the memories the two of them gave me long ago—for “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” a tattered Bible, a page or two of letters from his parents, and that wonderful pin-up of his wife and kids–all of that, the things he carried.

I never served, couldn’t, flunked the physical in 1970. Still, this Veterans’ Day I’m thankful to be so wealthy, so favored. All these little things my folks left me, really, are some of the things I carry.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

13 Comments

  • mstair says:

    loved your pre-vet-day reminiscence…
    and to all vet readers this year…
    ‘thank you for your service…”

  • Gene Miyamoto says:

    Beautiful. Touching.

  • RZ says:

    Thanks for identifying as holy something truly holy. Another great story. I recall a grad-school professor, turns out a Christian one, telling the men in our child-psych class: “the best gift you can give your children is to love their mother.” I never forgot that! Your mom recognized that and claimed it.

  • Annie Valkema says:

    Wonderful memory… it unlocked my own memories of stories told by my own mother of those times. That’s a gift from a writer, isn’t it? To share your story and your gratefulness and use it to expand readers’ minds to even more stories, gratefulness, emotion. Sending thanks from lake Michigan this sunny morning,

  • Jan VanKooten says:

    This piece is evocative, tender, and touching, Jim. Thanks for taking us with you on your trip into your parents’ love story.

  • Jack says:

    Jim, I am moved by every story you give to us. Each is about a focused subject and then we realize it’s also about this and this and also this, all ineffable. And I so admire and appreciate how seldom you employ the word God, instead trusting we feel His presence throughout. Is this “In the beginning was . . .”

    My father was the white Captain of a Black company. I was two when I first saw him. How did they all live within each day at war, at home? My father signed each letter to his bride, “PS. This war will never end.”

    Thank you🙏

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I loved this. Now I love your mother and honor your father.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Beautiful memories that move and inspire – thank you, Jim!

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Thanks, Jim, for another tender, poignant, and moving story. Your mother was clever and a bit flirtatious in a loving, commendable, and beautiful way. Exemplary. Thank you for inviting us to be privy to the story and to enter it with you.
    Harvey

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Such a tender story on Remembrance Day. I loved it. Thank you.

  • Janet Bloem says:

    Thanks for the warm remembrances of your mom and dad, my dear Aunt Jean and Uncle Cal. UncleCal was certainly a sweet, soft-spoken man. Thanks for sharing this loving, personal memory.

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