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In Memory of Ordinary Lives

Originally written By Paula Kowalewski Sullivan in 2004.

Another small town Veterans Day. Every year it seems more personal. Not because of Ukraine or Iraq or Afghanistan, but because of other tyrants, other wars. My father’s war, that second one. We lost him in 2004 – a great guy who had many stories to tell and hardly told a soul. Have you noticed that about the books that keep coming out about World War II? Those boys and men, the “greatest generation,” served silently, came back, and kept it within. There are no gory stories I’ve since found out, no tales of secret heroism. No, my father’s tale was ordinary and probably quite typical. A young man who, after Pearl, knew he’d have to go. He went, saw a bit of the world, saw a war, came back and began to live his life and dream ours. (His biggest claim about the war was that he served with Sterling Holloway, who, among other things, gave voice to Winnie the Pooh. In our attic, we have pictures of them together – my Dad and Mr. Holloway, not Winnie!)

My father was born in 1919, the year after the flu pandemic. I tell my son he has good genes, genes that survived that year. My family’s tale is so ordinary, so typical: four immigrant grandparents from Poland (or Lithuania or the Ukraine, depending on when and who’s telling the tale). Persecuted, conscripted, pursued… until America, this land of freedom and opportunity—the kind of freedom and opportunity about which they truly understood. A place to live and work hard and not be afraid. A place where, when that freedom from fear became commonplace, you set your sights a little higher; maybe bought a house, maybe began dreaming that your children or your children’s children would someday go to college, become “better.”

And that is the simple dream that came true for so many of us blessed children, and children’s children: the freedom to dream, and the jobs to earn the livings to pursue the dreams. They lived those ordinary lives; the lives of jobs and second jobs so the kids could go to better schools or have music lessons. My parents did that—as I’m sure many of yours did as well. And I reaped the rewards: the college degree, the good job, the life in the country.

The life in this country, too. This country that, as Arnold Toynbee wrote, is like “a large friendly dog in a very small room… Every time it wags its tail, it knocks over a chair.” This story of mine is not the place to argue our current situation. It is, however, the place to remember our fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters and others who have fought and died, or are still fighting and dying, so that we can go on living these dreams. These dreams that I see daily living in the country, living in Wrentham, living a life my parents and their parents never dared dream of.

I heard the Veteran’s Day salute shots in time today. Got to walk to the corner in time to see the veterans come. I remember the first time a few years back. I was walking the driveway when I first saw them coming up the road: several older men in uniforms marching to the intersection of Sheldon Road and West Street, where a memorial boulder is etched for Eric Lee Hatch. I pick up trash and replace his wreath sometimes; he was a veteran who died at home in January 1968 as a result of injuries suffered in the Vietnam War. I think of the space as a larger memorial; when the veterans come here on Veteran’s Day, they come in silent reverence, their uniforms tight but still fitting, still representative of so many pasts, so many pains. And yet still representative of America and service to your country. Not because you agree with those who run the country, but because you know the dreams are worth fighting for.

This little ceremony is probably repeated thousands-fold throughout America on a holiday like Veterans Day. Some ceremonies have more in attendance, some have more to remember. But it’s like a hidden spirit, a spine here in America – reminding us we have those quiet men (and women) that know duty. They’re still being born, because they’re still signing up, still serving and, sadly, still dying. And still worth remembering, even when they have gone.

Even when they lived to be 84, like my Dad, who died the way we all should – at home surrounded by family, his war just a memory overshadowed by his ordinary, wonderful life.


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