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Front Porch: Remember the rituals that make you … you

Thu., June 14, 2012

Today is Flag Day. Father’s Day is just three days off. And, frankly, after performing my own little memory ritual recently, I find that these two celebrations fit together quite nicely.

When I was little, we lived in New York City, where I was born. My mother was born in the Bronx, the daughter of immigrants. My father was born in Germany and in the mid-1920s came to America and proudly became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

When I was about 2, we moved from Manhattan to Flushing in the borough of Queens, smack in the middle of an Irish Catholic neighborhood. St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was half a block away. All the girls going to parochial school wore their middy blouses and lined up smartly lest the nuns, awesome in their habits (it was pre-Vatican II), turned a steely eye on them. I wasn’t even a member of their flock and they put the fear of God into me.

As Lutherans we were one of the few non-Catholic families on the block, which made us a bit suspect. I remember there was one Jewish couple around the corner, one Italian Catholic family and one or two unaffiliated families here and there, but being a pale-skinned, blue-eyed, freckle-faced kid named Murphy, O’Shea or Kerwin (real families, honest) was the thing to be. Alas, I was olive complected and had brown hair and eyes and went to a church founded by the guy who started this whole untidy Protestant thing. I was often at a loss trying to stick up for my people when my best friend Kay Murphy and I got into the kind of fights 5-year-olds get into. Her final epithet when we’d run out of other insulting things to say was “well, Martin Luther was a dirty bum!” I had no retort.

My father was not a religious man. The church-going was my mother’s doing. Nor was he a political conservative. He was definitely a liberal who was proud to be an American and who worked hard to learn English quickly and endeavored to speak it correctly. Whenever there was a patriotic holiday, my father would place the American flag outside our front door. Then he did his ritual. He’d go out into the street, look up and down and sometimes walk down a ways. The only other flag that was out, holiday after holiday, was in the yard of the man who lived across the street from us. I don’t recall much about him except that he was old and reclusive and a refugee from Hungary. My father would come inside and say to my mother words to this effect: “Well, it’s still just us and Mr. [insert neighbor’s forgotten name here].” My father thought it was a sad commentary that those who were born elsewhere were the only ones to display the nation’s colors.

I was not yet born during World War II, but my mother told me how insulted my father was that he was rejected for military service in the war. It’s not that he was all that anxious to go back to Europe to shoot people, and he answered honestly when asked what he would do if he raised his rifle only to see a cousin or other relative in the German Army aiming a rifle back at him. My mother said he replied that while he would not want to shoot his cousin, he would much prefer to shoot than be shot – and would indeed fire. His language skills alone would have been invaluable, it seemed to him.

Still, my father suffered from migraines and it was for that reason that he was formally rejected for military service. He didn’t quite believe the explanation.

I was in my 20s and my father had already died by the time my mother told me this story, and how that rejection pained him. He certainly understood security concerns. After all, his mother and sister were still living in Berlin in the early 1940s. Even so, he felt second class. He felt that his American citizenship was somehow regarded as less real than other people’s. That hurt.

But he always flew the flag proudly. Back in the early 1950s, most people didn’t put flags out routinely, as I know some people do today. My immediate next door neighbors here in Spokane, both born in America, have theirs out daily. But still, when I go out to raise ours on Flag Day or Veterans Day or July 4 or any other special occasion, I take a quick peek around the neighborhood, as I did this past Memorial Day, invoking my father’s ritual.

Sorry Dad, still just two flags flying in the neighborhood.

Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@comcast. net.

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