As I gardened this weekend, musing about Memorial Day in light of the journey I have been on in the past year and a half, I remembered this. It is a story about my godson, three years ago, when he was eight. We had gone to visit the family and to attend the spring fair at the children’s school. I wrote this a few days after I came home.
We told them we would take them out to lunch before we left. There had been much discussion about Doing Things which I had had to negotiate. I needed to convince them that I had no interest in Doing Things. I just wanted to be with the children and not to be visitors who needed to be entertained. But then they were suggesting we go to a Veteran’s Museum, which, we were told, is quite interesting and well-done. I had zero interest in this until I saw my godson light up eagerly. So, that’s what we did.
The museum is in the basement of the former armory, now mostly occupied by a Trader Joe’s. There were men in uniform at the desk, ready to take us around and explain things. The whole thing seemed surreal to me. My godson’s parents are about as mild-mannered and peaceful as one could imagine and here we were in a museum about war. The other grown-ups fell under the spell of a Veteran who was showing off a WWI uniform with Pennsylvania buttons and answering questions about the gas mask. I looked around for my godson. He was bounding from one display to the next, with his little brother trying to keep up, and had paused in front of a diorama of soldiers manning a machine gun.
Anne Lamott says there are really only two prayers, “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “Help me, help me, help me.” As I crossed the room I was saying the second, although it was more like “What the hell am I supposed to do now???” And, in so many words, a thought occurred to me: Try “tell me about…”
So I bent down next to him and said, “Tell me about this.” And he explained all about the gun and what the soldiers were doing and he acted out how far the gun could shoot. Then he moved to a different display and I went with him, following his lead. He talked and talked. If he showed signs of slowing down I would say, “Show me something else.” We saw bullets and a rocket launcher and a case with a full medical kit. We watched a film about the air war that showed the Tuskeegee airmen, and paratroopers, and the nuclear warhead being loaded onto the Enola Gay and then dropped on Hiroshima.
He pulled me over to a picture of the flag being raised on Iwo Jima and acted out the whole scene, including casualties not in the picture. We discussed the Navajo Code Talkers and why they were so important. He didn’t fully understand “code” but did understand that the Japanese never understood it. Just when his parents were suggesting that we should go to the restaurant now I turned him around toward a black and white landscape photograph of a military cemetery and said, “Tell me about this.” He said that this was where soldiers were buried and he ran to the far end and held out his hands and said, “And there were even more than this.”
All of it had the same emotional content, I noticed. He did not evaluate it or make decisions about it. Nor did I. At one point I remember straightening up and whispering to the air, “I am teaching war.” But I just wondered over it.
I asked his mother about his interest and she said he had been like this since he was two and she accepted it on an historical basis. But he wasn’t seeing it as history. I don’t actually know how he was seeing it but I know I felt honored to have been with him that day. And in the end that was my job, just to be with him.
I sat next to him at lunch in an Indian restaurant and we talked about the food and the fact that Tandoori chicken looks like it is hot but it isn’t.