Old Memories, Part 1 (Long)
I've finished all six burial gowns. I only have the four
bonnets left to sew and I'll do those tomorrow. It's been
hard making these little gowns, harder than I'd imagined.
There were times when tears came and I had to stop but I'm
still glad I did it.
Sewing and knitting these tiny dresses brought back memories
of some terrible days. After the two grim men in uniform
left my apartment (although they wouldn't leave until I'd
called someone to stay with me and I chose a poor,
unsuspecting neighbor I barely knew who was only too glad to
leave again when I asked), I knew I would have to phone
Steven's parents. That was the hardest call I've ever had to
make. It was only 9 p.m. their time and I remember feeling
relieved that the timing of my call wouldn't immediately
alert them that there was something wrong. And I was
grateful it was his Dad who answered the phone. It wasn't
until we heard screaming that we both realized that his Mom
had been quietly listening on the extension.
Steven's uncle took care of most of the paperwork. It took
over a week, almost two, to get his body home. I don't know
if that was usual or unusual but it seemed a long, long
time. I remember my heart jumping to my mouth when I
received a letter and recognized Steven's handwriting. It
was a letter he had mailed to me before he died but which
had been delayed. There was certainly nothing to portend
that it would be the last letter. There were several letters
I'd written to him which were returned marked "Deceased.
Return to Sender". There were also letters from men in his
unit and one from his commanding officer but these letters I
couldn't and didn't read then. I put them aside and didn't
look at them again for many months.
Steven's family wanted to bury him in Indiana. That was
fine. It was where he had been born and lived most of his
life; it was where the people who grieved for him lived,
where his family and friends all were.
I flew out to Indiana on a dark, rainy Thursday in mid
November. Steven's aunt and uncle picked me up at the
airport. I had been offered the spare bedroom in their
home--they didn't live far from Steven's parents--but chose
instead to stay in Steven's childhood room. It was oddly
comforting to sleep in his small, narrow bed surrounded by
the things of his childhood and teenage years--books,
posters, sports equipment, record albums. Like many parents,
especially it seems Midwest parents of only children as
Steven was, they kept his room the same after he'd left to
live his adult life. Nothing was packed away, nothing was
changed. His mother would go in every week and dust.
His uncle, God bless him, took care of all the funeral
details. I had known Steven was especially close to his
uncle and I suspect it was to him that he wrote what he
couldn't write to me or to his parents. He had served in
World War II and I found out, many, many years later that he
too had had a son die in Vietnam in the late 1960's. I
wondered if Steven's Dad had done for him and his wife what
he later did for me and Steven's parents.
We went to the funeral parlor, all of us--his parents and
his aunt and uncle-- the next day, Friday. For some reason
I had expected to see Steven's body in his uniform. I'd
clung to the belief that I would see him one more time.
That wasn't to be. If I'd been thinking half way straight I
would have known that. I knew he'd died when his helicopter
was blown up by a mine. I knew it'd taken almost two weeks
to transport his body. There was a silver colored coffin
marked "Sealed. Remains Not Viewable". His mother must have
thinking the same thing I had, that she would see him one
more time, because we both had the same stunned reaction
when we read it.
The week-end was a blur. The house was filled with flowers,
food and a seemingly endless line of people dropping by to
offer condolences. His parents talked to me that week-end
several times, together and separately, asking me to
consider moving to Indiana after the baby was born. I was
almost six months pregnant with their first grandchild. And
we all knew that that baby would be their only grandchild.
Steven's family did everything they could to make me feel
welcome. His Dad was a car mechanic with his own shop; he
was a pleasant, quiet man, very much like Steven. I felt
comfortable with him. I felt shy with his Mom. She did a
lot of volunteer work, especially for the church, and seldom
spoke, not often sharing her thoughts or opinions, but she
was always thoughtful and sweet to me and I was grateful for
Steven and I had talked about moving to Indiana. We had been
discussing in the months before he died where we would live
after he came home. I had planned on quitting my job in mid
January and then staying with my parents until the baby was
born with a due date in early March. He had been arranging
for his R&R in Hawaii for mid-April. I wanted to bring the
baby with me, with the thought that it might be the only
chance he would have to see his child. He wanted me to come
alone. He said it would be hard enough to go back after
seeing me; how could he go back after seeing me and the
baby? That decision was never made. He had also wanted me
to go to Indiana with our child after the R&R, at first
suggesting it would be only a visit but then with the idea
of our staying there until he came home. I was uncertain and
that decision, too, was unresolved.
The funeral was on the following Monday. It was a Catholic
funeral Mass, solemn and long. I remember the smell of the
incense made me feel sick. I remember the soft, sweet sound
of the bells rung by the altar boys startling me and making
me jump a little. I remember there were so many people and
all of them were so gentle with me, so kind.
Steven was buried in the Catholic cemetery, several miles
from the church. His uncle had arranged for military
honors. Taps was played. It was cold. So cold. I had a
warm, black coat over my dress but I couldn't button it
because of my pregnancy. I remember being handed a
carefully folded flag by a man in a uniform, kneeling at my
feet. Words were spoken about the thanks of a grateful
nation but some of the words were lost in the wind and when
he stood, I noticed that it had begun to snow.
That afternoon was spent with people expressing their
condolences to me, sharing memories about Steven as a child,
showing me photographs. I slept for the last time in his
childhood bed that night, an uneasy and dreamless sleep,
while it snowed and snowed. Still, they are use to snow in
that part of the country and we had no trouble getting to
the airport. I was hugged and kissed good-by and then I went
home to Oregon, numb and exhausted, thankful that I had
Steven's baby to comfort me, not knowing that soon I would
I'll continue tomorrow.