A Memorial Day Memory Re-visited

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Today my brother Bob and sister-in-law Janice will drive to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery to lay flowers on Dad’s grave.

Protestant Service on Saipan led by my father, Kenneth Campbell Stewart, end of WWII.

Our father served as the Army Air Force chaplain for troops in the South Pacific before, during, and after the bombing of Tokyo. During Dad’s absence, my mother and I lived with my grandparents in Boston and South Paris, Maine, where Dad’s safe return was foremost in prayers before every meal.

I was three-and-a-half when Dad came home at the end of the war. The memory is clear as a bell. I watched as my father emerge from the B-29 bomber, walked down the ramp and across the tarmac at Boston’s Logan Airport. When he picked me up and took me in his arms, I reared back and asked “Are you really my Daddy?” “I am,” he said, “and I’m never going away again.”

All these years later, my hair has turned white, my skin is wrinkled, the world is mute without the hearing aids, my bones ache, and my head hurts most days. But I’m still the three year-old who felt the heavy weight of concern around my grandparents’ table listening for news from the South Pacific

It takes a lifetime for some memories to become clear. “Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet,” published two years ago in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), offers a Memorial Day example.

Today I’m remembering again that night when the burly WWII Marine veteran unburdened himself of the locked box of hidden artifacts from the Japanese soldier he’d killed in hand-to-hand combat during the American invasion of Saipan. The ending of the story written just a few years ago is sorely incomplete.

So…today I observe Memorial Day by returning to the original sense of Memorial Day as a day to remember the fallen – ALL of them – but even more, a day to re-commit to ending the insanity of war itself. It’s a day when I remember the in-breaking of sacredness – three men in the living room – two live Americans and one Japanese – and pray for something better for us all.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p.12

This Memorial Day the three-year-old who waited for his father’s return remembers how strange memory is. As Bob and Janice lay flowers on Dad’s grave today, I am more conscious of a glaring omission. There were not three men in the living room that night. There were four. Dad was the first man there. Bless you, Dad. RIP.

photo of Indiantown Gap National Cemetery
Entrance to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery, East Hanover Township, PA

Grace and Peace,

Gordon

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 31, 2019

Elijah and Mom’s iPhone

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Good morning, Elijah!

Morning, Bumpa!

Whatcha doin’ there?

Just playin’.

But we’re on FaceTime!

Yeah, we’re on the way to work and daycare.

Aha! You’re playing with Mom’s iPhone?

Yeah. Playin’ with Mom’s fone is fun. Mom doesn’t need it. She doesn’t need the GPS. We do this every day.

I see. How long’s the drive?

You k n o w, Bumpa! You’re playing’ with me! Forty-five minutes ’til Mom drops me off at day care. Depends on traffic.

That’s a long time to be alone in the back seat strapped in your car seat.

Yeah, but it’s fun! I get to play! Mom just drives. I have to bigger before I can drive, right, Bumbpa?

Right. You just turned two last Wednesday.

Yeah, I’m two! Two YEARS this time, not two months.

Yes, and we’re so proud of you!

Yeah, I get to do adult stuff like you and Mom.

I hope you won’t take this as an insult, Elijah, but how did you get me on FaceTime?

Don’t ya know, Bumbpa? I push the buttons on Mom’s iPhone. I love talking with people! It’s fun. They’re always surprised! Sometimes they come up on FaceTime. That’s really fun!

So. . . You’re just scrolling through Mom’s contact list?

We don’t use the stroller anymore! I’m two!

I’m sorry. I didn’t say ‘stroller‘. I said ‘scroller‘ with a ‘c’.

Yup. And I’m only through the ‘C’s! ABCDEFG, HIJKLMNOP. QRS TUV! Hold it, Bumpa. I got another call coming’ in. Can I put you on hold?

— Gordon C. Stewart (Bump) with Elijah, May 28, 2019.

Elijah’s Second Birthday . . . Again

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Happy Birthday, Elijah!

Thanks, Bumpa! I’m two again for the first time!

I know. Grandma and I are coming over to celebrate your second birthday with you and Mom.

Right now?

First I have to finish cooking the bacon.

Why?

Why what?

I was already two!

I know. You were. You were two MONTHS old. It’s confusing. Today you’re two YEARS!

Yeah, I don’t know stuff like that yet. I’m still liddle. But I’m not a baby!!!

So . . . Whatcha doin’, Elijah?

Baking cookies!

You’re baking cookies?

Well . . . Mom’s baking the cookies. I’m helping. I love Mom!

That makes me happy. How are you helping?

I’m gonna take the cookies out of the oven, Bumpa! You’ll see when you come over.

Wow! You couldn’t do that the first time you were two. Be careful, okay?

I am, Bumpa. HOT, HOT! I’ll put my mittens on. Happy Birthday to me!!!

Elijah and Mom baking cookies for Elijah’s second birthday party

Gordon C. Stewart (Bumpa), Chaska, MN, May 19, 2019

Elijah asks Grandpa about lying

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Bumpa, put your hearings in. I got a question. It’s serious.

Okay. Just a minute. Now, what’s your question, Elijah?

We’re not supposed to lie, right?

Right. We should always tell the truth. We don’t want be liars.

Why? Everybody’s doing it?

No they’re not, Who’s everybody?

The mean guys!

What mean guys?

The Publicans!

You mean Republicans?

Yea, them. The Publicans.

Where’d you get that, Elijah?

I saw it on Rachel!. We couldn’t watch Simple Songs at daycare!

What did you see?

The Publicans putting little Mexican children in prison. I saw it on TV.

Okay, I see. Anything else?

Yes. Marissa says we don ‘t have to worry about dictators. We shouldn’t have to worry about dictators. Right, Bumpa? What’s a dictator?

Ah, I see. Dictators do whatever they want. They lie and cheat and get away with murder. Their countries don’t have constitutions to check their power. Understand?

We live in America, right?

Well, yes. We live in North America, like Canada, but yes, our country is called The United States of America. Does that make sense?

Bumpa, I’m only 23!

No, you’re not 23. You’re almost two. You’re 23 months, not years. You have 16 more years before you can vote.

That’s not fair! One last question before you clean your hearing aids, and don’t make it complicated.

Okay, shoot. Try me.

You said we don’t have a dictator. Do we really have a constitution?

Preamble of the United States of America

— Gordon (Bumpa) and Elijah, Chaska, MN, April 27, 2019.

Church With Rachel

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What can be said that isn’t being said over and over and over again and that adds something of value to public reflection on our time? Fellow Presbyterian minister John Buchanan’s personal story of worshiping with his granddaughter took me by the hand and led me home to church.

Hold to the Good

I sat beside Rachel in worship Sunday. Rachel is my 24-year-old granddaughter. She is a young woman with Down Syndrome. She is part of a remarkable program at National Louis University, lives in university housing, works part time with infants and toddlers in a day care center. She rides the El and the Chicago Transport Authority buses, loves to sing, knows the titles and words to every Beatles song and can dance for hours. Rachel starred in a motion picture, The Spy Who Knew Me, in which all the actors have special needs. It was produced by A.B.L.E.- Actors Breaking Limits and Expectations, which also puts on several stage productions per year including Shakespearean plays and original work. Many of the volunteers who work with the actors are from the Chicago theater community. 

Rachel greets me with more enthusiasm than anyone else, throws her arms around me as if…

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Amid the Flood

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Days before reading and re-publishing Linn Ullman’s lines about memory and the loss of it (“You just can’t think too deeply about it”), one of the four remaining classmates of what we’ve called The Chicago Seven, The Gathering, and now The Old Dogs, sent the rest of us an article on Alzheimer’s our latest deceased brother, Wayne, had published years ago.

Chicago Seven Gathering L to R: Wayne Boulton, Harry Strong, Gordon, Steve Shoemaker, Dale Hartwig, Don Dempsey, Bob Young@ McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, 2004.

As Wayne had imagined his ship going over the far horizon, his worst thought was not death. It was that he would live on, like his father had, without remembering how to tie his shoelaces and without recognizing Vicki, the love of his life, his sons Matt and Chris, daughters-in-law Liz and Libby, and the grandchildren who brought him such joy.

That nightmare didn’t happen. He went out with his mind in tact, as much as a hospice patient’s mind is ever fully there. Aside from his last few days, Wayne’s mind was clear and his heart was full. The article Harry sent the three other surviving Dogs is a reflection on Psalm 90:10, 12 (RSV):

The days of our life are seventy years,
    or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
    they are soon gone, and we fly away. teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.

When he died in 1989, the sum of Dad’s years came closer to fourscore than to threescore and ten. With the psalmist, I attribute this number to his strength, but I would not wish the manner of his death on anyone. He died of complications due to Alzheimer’s disease.

It was my first experience with the death of an immediate family member, so I was no veteran. I found myself up against a more complicated reality than I had anticipated. I remember thinking at the time that some portion of this is just plain death: nasty, sad, the way death always is. But it is not natural death. It is something else. In the words of Martin Luther’s signature hymn, the disease threw every member of Dad’s little nuclear family—his wife, daughter-in-law, and myself—into a “flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

Amid the Flood,” Wayne G. Boulton, Reformed Review, Western Theological Seminary, December 1, 2000.

Wayne died the way he lived and lived the way he died. Faithful son, husband, grandfather, and friend. Wise. Compassionate. Pastoral. Realistic. Hopeful. Consoler. Prayerful. Private. Counselor. Social critic. Political wonk. Brilliant Christian theologian-ethicist. Follower of truth wherever it led him. All of that and so much more. But, if I had the pen to engrave his epitaph on the simple grave stone in the cemetery of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, if might read,

A sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming, humble servant his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ amid the flood of mortal ills.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 5, 2019.

Elijah’s Advises Grandpa on Happiness

Elijah, you seem really happy this morning.

I am, Bumpa! It’s a great day!

I wish I could be that happy!

You can, Bumpa. It’s easy.

Easy for you to say. It’s not easy

Uh-huh! Stop watching How to Get Away with Murder,” Bumpa!

You mean Ray Donovan?

Ray, too. Ray and Annalise aren’t good for you. They’re making you grumpy like Oscar!

I know. Those shows are pretty depressing, Elijah. What do recommend?

Like I said, it’s easy, Just do what we do in day care.

I’m too old for day care, Elijah. Way too old. Look at me!!!

Do I have to? You have hairs sticking’ out of your nose and stuff! And you need a haircut!

Let’s get back to happiness. What do you recommend for Grandpa?

Like I said, stop watching those bad shows. They’re making you sad.

Okay, so I’ll stop watching Annalise and Ray. What do I do now?

Go to day care, Bumpa. Day care’s not just for kids. They have day care for grumpy old men. It’s called adult day care.

What do they do at adult day care?!

Don’t you know? They watch Sesame Street and get happy with Big Bird!

Sesame Street‘s for kids!

AND, for old guys with hairs sticking out of their nose and stuff. They accept anybody! Check in at 123 Sesame Street and get happy with Big Bird.

— Grandpa (Bumpa) Gordon, Chaska, MN, Feb. 23, 2019

Elijah for President

Bumpa!!! Did you see that?

See what, Elijah?

Someone wants us to run in 2020!

Run for what?

President and Vice President!

Aha! Someones pulling your leg.

Uh-uh. Someone is serious, Bumpa.

Who’s Someone? Give me a name.

SomeoneIS the name.

I see. Where’d you hear Someone say that, Elijah?

On your blog!

Ah! So you saw Someone’s comment on the missing children post!

Yeah, Grandma showed it to me.

What do you mean “showed” it to you? You can’t read yet.

Yes I can. A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-3-4-5 . . .

I’m so proud of you, Elijah! You’re only 21 months old.

Yeah. When I turn 35 we can run as a ticket! We’ll make Someone happy!

Who’ll be at the top of the ticket?

Grandma said you got a ticket. You have a record.

No, this is a different kind of ticket. It’s not a speeding ticket.

Phew!!!

So, who does Someone think should be President?

You don’t pay attention to anyone, Bumpa.

That’s not true, Elijah. You hurt my feelings.

Just start by listening to Someone! One person at a time.

Okay, what did Someone say?

Someone said, “Elijah for President! Bumpa for Vice President! I vote for this team!!!”

And it all started with Someone.

Jimmy Durante, “Make Someone Happy”

— Grandpa (“Bumpa”) with Grandson Elijah, Chaska, MN, Feb. 22, 2019.

Elijah and the Missing Children

Bumpa, you’re mean! Why do you keep saying that?

Say what, Elijah?

That there’s no national emergency?

Because there isn’t.

Yes there is.

No, there isn’t. How would you know? You’re only 21.

You’re cruel, Bumpa! POTUS is kinder than you!

What’s gotten into your little head?

My head’s not little! My head’s bigger than 96 percent. Doctor said so! I’m in the top four percent!

I know. That’s good. But you shouldn’t get a big head about that! So, tell me, why do you think there’s a real national emergency? 

POTUS declared it. I saw it on PBS!

On Sesame Street? Did Big Bird tell you?

No. It came on after Sesame Street. I saw it!

What did you see, Elijah?

MISSING children, Bumpa! Don’t you know? 1,475 kidnapped children, Bumpa! That’s a national emergency! We need to help rescue all those kidnapped children!

I hear you. We do. But the kidnappers didn’t come from south of the border. The kidnappers are not here illegally.

Uh-huh!

No, they aren’t. They’re legal. Homeland Security took them!

I like security. So there’s no national energency? The children are safe?

Well, no, Elijah. Homeland Security took them away from their parents, and then Homeland Security lost them

So the President called a national emergency to find them, right?

No, Elijah. POTUS hasn’t said one word about the missing children.

Why, Bumpa? Why? That’s not right! Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, right?

Right! It’s not right! 

Right, I told you! You’re wrong! There is a national emergency.

— Bumpa and Elijah, Chaska, MN, Feb. 18, 2019

Elijah and Grumpy Old Bumpa

Bumpa, can I be president… or do I have to be a lawyer?

Yes, you can, and no, you don’t. Why would you ask that, Elijah?

‘Cause they’re the only people who count.

Oh, my, Elijah! You were born in a strange time!

Uh-uh! I was nine when I was born. Mom says it was past time. Mom was miserable before I got borned.

She was, Elijah. She sure was.

You’re miserable, Bumpa! Are you pregnant?

No, only young women get pregnant and miserable. Old men just get miserable and grumpy.

Yeah, we’re Minnesotans. When can we go ice fishing?

fish houses of ice fishermen in Minnesota

Grandpa doesn’t do ice fishing. Maybe Uncle Andrew will take you and Calvin together.

Does Uncle Andrew have a fish house?

No. You don’t have to have a fish house to go ice fishing.

But you have to have a big house if you want to be president or a lawyer, right?

Well, no. You don’t have to have a big house to be a lawyer. Some lawyers are street lawyers and public defenders. All lawyers take an oath to protect the constitution.

But some lawyers are bad, right? Like Michael Cohen and Rudy Giuliani. Grandma says they’re walkin on thin ice. It’s a national emergency!

Yes and no, Elijah. Mr. Cohen and Mr. Giuliani represented or represent the president. The president’s about to fall through the ice for making stuff up.

Yeah, the president’s a national emergency and his lawyers pretend he’s not!

Yes, that’s our opinion.

Right! I changed my mind. I don’t want to be president, Bumpa, and I’m glad I don’t have to be like Michael and Rudy.

Like I said, Elijah, you could be either president or a lawyer, but you don’t have to be. You can be anything you want.

OK! I wanna to be like Uncle Andrew! I can be a ice fisherman right here in Minnesota and grow up to be a grumpy old man. I wanna be like you, Bumpa.

— Grandpa (“Bumpa”) Stewart and Elijah (21 months old), Chaska, MN, February 17, 2019