Scenes from the train trip across country -- Portland, Day 1
Posted by on May 2nd, 2006
|My mother turns 75 tomorrow, and I pick out a birthday gift for her: a coverup she can wear over her swimsuit, and a box of chocolates wrapped in images of various First Ladies that I bought at the Oregon Museum store. At lunch with her and my father, I feel happy that she is still vigorous and active with aqua aerobics and other interests, and that I have much in common with her. We both love to swim and be in the water, for one thing. Mother is less than celebratory about her milestone birthday. "This is the oldest I am going to be," she declares. "I'll just continue to be 75 -- that's old enough."
The three of us make desolutory conversation over a buffet lunch, then I tell Dad that I want "some girl talk" with Mother. "I figured something like that," he calmly answers, going off to read in the hotel lobby while Mother and I go to my hotel room for what I really want to talk to her about: my nephew Joel going into the Marines Officer Corps after his college graduation. In this neutral setting, she and I are having the sort of anguished, inconclusive conversation I imagine women are having in private all over the country. Why is he doing this? What does the military represent to him, and how can we counter that? He's so enthusiastic about everything, but why is he enthusiastic about THIS? What can we do? Who will he listen to? How can we change his mind?
I learn two pieces of good news: Joel will not graduate until December 2006, so there is more time than I had thought. (Let's end this war in June! I think.) And my mother has written him a long letter, urging him to consider all his options, not to think that he HAS to join the Marines, and he wrote back an appreciative response. My mother worries, though, that while his brother Russell has talked to him about the negatives of being in the military, a positive alternative has not been presented to him. After a while, my mother expresses that she has done all she can as his grandmother. That's probably true. I haven't seen him for 10 months, haven't mailed him a copy of "10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military," haven't called him on this trip. I'm scared that I may be so vehemently against the war and the military that he won't want to have contact with me. I'm hesitant, uncertain of my role in his life.
I also feel, passionately and with some guilt, so glad that my son, 22 years old and currently unemployed and out of college, has never mentioned joining the military. If he did, what would I do? I have an image of myself going to his recruiter's office and stripping myself naked and screaming, but would I really do it? And would that accomplish anything other than my involuntary confinement in some psych ward? A terror lingers in the back of my mind that he might choose the military option and I avoid the subject with him, always striving to be positive, hopeful and relaxed -- not hard when we're enjoying baseball or some other common interest. But my tension about his future stays with me, shows up in occasional insomnia and snappishness.
And Joel... I haven't talked with him about this blog, so I won't put in his personal details except to say that literally from his babyhood he has been the "party hearty guy," the boy and now young man with the smile and the great, open-hearted attitude. As I say to my mother, probably just adding unnecessarily to her anxiety, the nausea and the disbelief I feel when I think of him THERE... I can't bear to say it. Iraq. In the empire's latest farflung outpost.
Our faces mirror each other's anguish, but we do not cry. My father comes to the door, we make small talk, I walk them down to their car. My parents are going off to Astoria, on the gorgeous Oregon coast, for a few days of birthday celebration.
We wave good-bye, don't hug. It only occurs to me later that this is strange. We are a little remote from each other, a little guarded.
This war and its silences -- what we don't say to each other, what we can't bear to say to the people closest to us -- haunts, taints, strains every human relation by it. Even here, so far from war's foul destruction.