A Tale for Those Left Behind


Their eyes were locked on me, reading my every thought, prying at my secrets, peering uninvited into my soul. The light over the table swayed, uncomfortably bright. Beads of cold sweat sprouted along my hairline. I braced myself for the inevitable interrogation…

“How do you like the pork chops, Dumpling?” she asked, with a nonchalance that belied her intrusive stare.

“Delicious, Mom,” I sputtered between cheekfulls of pork and potatoes, hoping that the compliment might end my ordeal.

“So, what happened at school today?” my father pressed while pushing applesauce around his plate.

Wide-eyed and hunched in a self-protective posture at the opposite end of our kitchen table, I muttered the one word that had allowed me to avoid my parents’ attention for so many years: “Nothin’.”

“Well, something, must’ve happened at school today. Here, I’ll help you out. So … you stepped off the bus, and then?” he badgered, mercilessly.

My older brother, Tray, had recently gone off to the Naval Academy, leaving me home alone, with our parents. For so many years, I had flown completely under the radar. But now, my only sibling was gone.

As the first born, Tray had always carried the entire burden of my parents’ expectations for their offspring. I had merely been the unremarkable little sister of The Golden Boy, The Favorite, The Apple of Their Eye. Tray not only fulfilled, but exceeded their hopes — he was a popular top athlete with gifted math and science skills, who went on to become a Navy jet pilot. His obvious superiority left me free to drift contentedly through childhood, bouncing unnoticed between mediocre and above average.

Wearing ratty Converse Chucks, hand-me-down jean cut-offs, and a camp t-shirt, I’d ride my yellow Schwinn through our neighborhood, my Kool-Aid backpack packed with a cheese sandwich, a few Wacky Package collectors cards, and a Thermos of Tang. On rainy days I’d stay in my room, lost in elaborate pretend scenarios, or I’d play my mother’s old 45s on my Fisher Price record player.

As a child, I did not resent Tray for getting all of my parents’ attention. Quite the contrary, I relished my quiet, comfortable, ignored existence, and happily hid in the humongous shadow of the older brother that I, too, idolized.

But then he left home, and suddenly, the gig was up.

It was as if my parents, Durwood and Diane, looked through the unexpected void left by my brother’s absence and noticed, “Oh yeah … Who is that there? Is that the other one … the little dumpy one … what’s her name again? Oh yes, it’s Lisa!”

I was entering the tenth grade, when I suddenly became the subject of my parents undivided attention. Mom was now interested in what I wore, my social behavior, and how I did my hair. “Oh, Dumpling, let me help you give a little height to those bangs,” she would say, licking her thumb.

My Dad, who had no previous interest in my athletic accomplishments, which by the way, included a second place ribbon for the standing broad jump at church camp, started showing up to all of my high school swim meets. My teammates knew this sudden change in attention made me nervous, and would alert me when he appeared in the chlorine-steamed stands, “Head’s up, Lisa — Durwood’s here!”

Night after agonizing night, I was interrogated by my parents at the dinner table, forced to reveal my likes, dislikes, social pursuits, academic achievements, ambitions, disappointments, hopes and dreams. Durwood and Diane took an unprecedented interest in me, having long talks about life, getting me horseback riding lessons, taking photographs of me before dances, and bragging about me to their friends.

It was like I was their kid or something. Weird.

Thirty-five years later, our youngest child, Lilly, is wide-eyed and crouched defensively in her chair at the dinner table, as if we are about to pummel her with dinner rolls. Her sister left for college last month, and Lilly’s instinct is telling her, the gig is up.

But there’s no need for those left behind to afraid. I’ve lived through it myself, and I’m here to tell the tale. It will take some time, but soon, you will get used to being the center of attention.

Those strange people who’ve been ignoring you all these years? Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you. They are simply your parents, and they are finally beginning to realize that you are pretty darned interesting after all.

Is there life after terminal leave? Keep on dreaming…

dream cartoon

Ever since my retired Navy husband, Francis, went on terminal leave, I’ve been having some pretty weird dreams.

Nowadays, some prefer to use the label “transition leave” because it sounds a little less like someone is about to die, but no matter whether one uses the ominous traditional term or the newfangled sugarcoated expression, both describe the same thing: the period of accrued leave (up to 75 days) that a serviceperson can take before his or her final separation from the military.

Some lucky military servicepersons line up good civilian jobs before their leave time begins, making leave a veritable vacation. Others sail through their leave without a care in the world knowing they can survive comfortably on their military retirement pay due to independent wealth, or a spouse with a wicked good job, or an absence of major bills like mortgages and college tuition.

But then there are people like us.

We have a dog scheduled for expensive knee surgery, two kids with private college tuition, one child who goes over the data limit on her phone every month, a minivan with 180,000 miles on it and a funny rattling noise in the wheel well, tired old furniture in desperate need of replacement, and an embarrassing amount of accumulated debt.

I could claim that my writing career will carry us, but then again, I could also declare that monkeys will fly out of my belly-button. So, it’s a given: Francis has to get a new job before his terminal leave ends and he stops receiving a paycheck from Uncle Sam.

During this transition in our lives, we could either fight the psychosomatic effects of stress, or embrace them. Did you know that nail biting actually saves wear and tear on clippers? Facial ticks are a form of exercise. Wine actually tastes pretty good on Tuesday afternoons. Diarrhea can be quite cleansing. And terminal leave nightmares are kind of fun to interpret.

In this week’s nightmare, I had a big, sprawling house with lots of rooms. And even though it was my house, I was surprised by several hidden hallways, staircases and bedrooms. At some point, I became aware that I had houseguests. Dozens of them. The house suddenly looked cluttered and dirty. The dream turned chaotic, as I tried desperately to play hostess the hoard of guests. I was frantic to find them all clean towels, bedrooms and baths in the complicated maze of my mysterious house. Just before I woke up, I discovered that the bathrooms were infested with gobs and gobs of slimy black mold.

I couldn’t wait to ask Google what my bizarre nightmare was all about.

Apparently, “new room” dreams are actually quite common. According to www.DreamMoods.com and most other online dream interpretation sources, a house represents “self” or “inner psyche,” and finding new rooms in that house can indicate that the dreamer is facing something new or unknown about himself or herself. Finding dirty or cluttered rooms implies that some aspect of the dreamer’s life is in chaos. It can also mean that the dreamer is suffering from some emotional or psychological clutter, and needs to release these feelings in order to regain control.

What other common dreams may appear during stressful transitions in life?

Teeth falling out can indicate problems with confidence or self-expression. Being late to, or forgetting to study for, a school exam implies that the dreamer feels judged or unprepared for a challenge. Dreams of falling happen when one feels unsupported or out-of-control, but are also linked to a “fall from grace.” Dreams of being naked in public can indicate shame, fear of exposure, and vulnerability. Being chased in a dream can represent fear that a secret, an addiction, or a debt may catch up with you. Dreaming of being in an out-of-control vehicle can indicate a lack of direction in life.

But interestingly, flying often indicates that the dreamer is feeling empowered and optimistic.

So, for those who have recently retired from the military or are considering retirement, never fear. Even if you find yourself toothless on a date, naked in church, late for a Calculus exam, or being chased by wolverines, remember that it’s only a dream. One day soon terminal leave will be over, and with any luck, you’ll be flying high.

Shop, Drop, and Enroll


“Three decorative pillows or just two?” my daughter Anna asked in front of a colorful display of bedding at a local Homegoods store. It was 7:00pm, and we had been shopping since the stores opened that morning.

The first place we stopped was the Apple Store, where I spent over a thousand bucks in less than 15 minutes buying Anna a new laptop that was required for her major. After that we hit Zara, H&M, Macy’s, JC Penny, Target, Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond, JoAnn Fabrics, TJ Maxx and Homegoods.

“What’s another $20 bucks at this point?” I replied to Anna in utter defeat and near starvation. “Definitely get three.”

Two weeks later, we pulled up to her dorm at Syracuse University, our minivan packed to the gills with fluffy new bedding, posters, a clip on lamp, school supplies, a throw rug, a shower caddy, towels, a desk set, a fan, pop-up laundry bins, six months worth of toiletries, various snacks, cases of bottled water, a microwave, a coffee maker, and yes, three decorative pillows.

Happy, helpful sophomores garbed in blazing orange, whose parents had been victims of “The Dorm Room Shakedown” the previous year, were awaiting our arrival with huge rolling bins to cart thousands of dollars worth of unnecessary products up to assigned rooms.

“Hi!” they shouted with rehearsed enthusiasm, shaking us out of our road trip stupor, “I’m Sean/Cassandra/Matt! I’d love to help you move in!” They filled two of the rolling carts to capacity, then guided us like sheep to slaughter to the dorm elevators.

In the newfangled co-ed hallway, Anna found her room, which was a “split double” — one room separated down the middle by a wall of closets and dressers. This gave Anna and her roommate their own private spaces within one room.

Anna’s roommate had already moved in, and her side was so spectacular, it looked like something straight out of a Pottery Barn catalogue. We stared at her shabby chic bedside table, complete with a vase of peonies and a trendy mirrored lamp. There were whitewashed faux ironwork wallhangings, cool enlarged letters, clear canisters filled whimsically with popcorn and pretzels. Her rug was larger, her bed risers were higher, and she had way more than three decorative pillows.

Concerned that Anna’s room would look a cell at Rikers Island by comparison, we quickly unloaded everything we’d already purchased, and left to find the nearest Target. Two-hundred more bucks later, we added modern shelving, storage bins, two strings of twinkle lights, curtains, a coat rack, hangers, plastic drawers and a bowl of fresh fruit.

While Anna and I scrambled to decorate, Francis retreated to the busy co-ed hallway. “Eyes forward!” we heard him bark in military fashion when passing boys tried to sneak a peak at his daughter.

Before saying good-bye to Anna the next day, we all went to her dining hall to take advantage of the free lunch offered to new parents. I contemplated filling my purse with chicken tenders to supplement the beans and rice we’d be eating at home for the next six months, but selected a modest plateful of quinoa-spinach-mango salad and coconut shrimp instead.

“You know, Anna,” Francis said between mouthfuls of made-to-order chicken salad panini, “when I went to college, all I brought was the blue quilt off my bed and a Journey poster. And our dining hall only had things like casseroles and meatloaf. Do you have any idea how lucky you are?”

Looking confused, Anna chomped her gourmet veggie pizza, and said, “Want anything from the Froyo Bar?”

When it was all said and done, Anna’s room looked better than the hotel room we stayed in at the Syracuse Holiday Inn, and had much better coffee. But then again, our hotel was only $100 with our military discount. I guess the old adage is true: you get what you pay for.

Or in this case, your college kids get what you pay for.

Yard Sale Booty Blues

Make it rain, baby!

Make it rain, baby!

“I’ll give you thirty bucks for all of it,” the man said in a heavy Rhode Island accent, gesturing to a table heaped with vintage toys from my childhood that I’d decided to sell at a recent neighborhood yard sale.

“Are you kidding me?!” I blurted incredulously.

“No way!” I continued, “I could get that much on Ebay for just the Dawn Dolls … and you want my Holly Hobby sewing machine, my Sunshine Family, my Barbies, and my Bionic Woman Doll … complete with the original box and accessories, too? What … are you nuts?”

A crowd of yard sale-ers stopped milling about my folding tables heaped with used junk to witness our banter. As the Rhode Island con artist did his best to swindle me out of the beloved toys that I’d refused to part with through nine military moves, I realized that my inside hoarder was getting the better of me.

It’s time to give up old things, I told myself.

But my inside hoarder resisted total surrender: “Gimme thirty-five at least!”

In the end, I settled for $32 and stood back as he callously threw my precious relics into his van. “Be careful!” I shouted pathetically, “You almost dropped the Bionic Woman’s Morse code translator!”

Two hours after our yard sale had ended, my husband, Francis, and I were headed to a Connecticut casino with a Ziplock baggie stuffed with $276 of yard sale booty, along with tickets to the Counting Crows/Rob Thomas concert that night.

“Make it rain, baby!” I yelled from the passenger’s seat of our minivan, jingling the baggie and envisioning a wild night of prime cuts of beef, top shelf cocktails, double-or-nothing winnings, and sweaty rock songs.

Mohegan Sun appeared quite suddenly in the Connecticut woods, and with our baggie securely stashed in my fanny pack, we found our way to the casino. I pictured us shouting excitedly over a crowded roulette wheel or muttering “Hit me” at a suspense-filled blackjack table, but we were lost in the indoor jungle of flashing lights, ringing bells and cigarette smoke. Overwhelmed, we found ourselves feeding bills into a lonely poker machine near the restrooms.

After five minutes, we cashed in our whopping $8 winnings and went to one of the many casino restaurants, where we shared a delicious stack of chicken and waffles drenched in Vermont maple syrup and sprinkled with crispy onion straws before heading to the concert.

Rob Thomas took the stage singing recognizable tunes such as “This Is How a Heart Breaks,” “Her Diamonds,” and “Someday.” We would normally leap to our feet at a concert, but we’d gotten up early for the yard sale, and we were both feeling full from dinner.

Besides, most of the crowd of 40-to-60-year-olds stayed seated too, with the exception of a surprising number of women, whose peri-menopausal hormones were compelling them to gyrate their capri-ensconced hips quite enthusiastically. The women reached out longingly to Rob Thomas, and being a 40-something himself, he obliged with an excellent performance.

“Oh good grief,” I cringed halfway through the show, after Francis let a belch slip by that reeked of those crispy onion straws.

“Sorry,” he confessed, “do you have any Tums in that fanny pack?”

The next act was the one Francis had been waiting for. Back in the 90s, he played Counting Crows’ August and Everything After album a zillion times on our old CD player. “Time to get sweaty,” he said as lead singer Adam Duritz took the stage.

But soon it was clear that we were all getting a little too old for these late-night endeavors.

Duritz, now 52-years-old himself and endowed with an ample gut, loped around the stage as if he suffered from joint degeneration. We felt Duritz’s pain literally and figuratively, as we shifted in our seats to ward off hip numbness.

Although Duritz displayed his true artistry on the stage that night, the middle-aged crowd was not long for this world, fighting back yawns by ten o’clock.

“For criminy’s sake, Honey!” I winced on our way home after Francis expelled another pungent belch.

The strange combination of the day’s events had taught me that, getting rid of old things in life won’t stop the sands of time. Just like Francis’ crispy onion straws, the years will just keep on repeating.

chick n waffles

Piped ashore, but still rocking


Francis and I being piped ashore on July 29th; photo taken by Francis’ cousin, photographer Marianne Mangan.

At 7:55 am Monday morning, the base loudspeakers blared the five-minute warning, alerting us to the upcoming daily broadcast of our National Anthem. I cracked an eyelid, squinting at the bright sun blasting persistently through our closed blinds. With a mop of tangled hair stuck to one side of my forehead, I heaved my torso reluctantly upward and let one foot fall to the floor.

“Why am I so tired?” I thought. And then, it dawned on me, “Oh, yeah … Francis retired from the Navy over the weekend.”

I made my way to the kitchen for fresh-brewed sustenance, noting the evidence of the weekend events along the way: my husband’s formal white uniform hanging from a knob on his dresser, relatives sleeping in kids’ beds, kids sleeping on the floor, flowers, cards, and gifts. Opening the fridge in search of cream, I found it still packed with leftover food from all the parties over the last couple of days.

I slumped at our kitchen table, inhaled the steam from my cup, and tried to remember it all.

Relatives and friends arrived on Thursday, enough to occupy a 40-room block at the base hotel. On Friday, we buzzed like bees. Did Hayden shave? Is Lilly’s skirt too short? Did Grams take her insulin? Does Father Joe need a ride to the reception? Does Uncle Frank know where to park? Will the rain stop before the tent party? Are my Spanx in the dryer?

Miraculously, everyone arrived to Spruance Hall on time. After speeches, awards, and a tear-jerking flag ceremony, Francis took the podium, drawing laughs when he said that his square-jawed boss, Admiral P. Gardner Howe, had to contemplate some of the most significant leadership and ethics issues facing the Navy, but was never able to solve the unanswerable riddle, “With such a chiseled physique, why didn’t Francis ever become a SEAL like me?”

At the end of his remarks, I thought I heard Francis’ voice crack as he said, “…and so, in just a few moments, as I figuratively load Lisa and the kids into the jolly boat and make way to the near shore, we will look back at this magnificent vessel that is the United States Navy, the finest in our world’s history, and forever hold our heads high with pride, honored and humbled by the fact that were allowed to be part of its crew for nearly three decades.”

My damp eyes turned into a full-on ugly cry face, as the poetic words of The Watch were recited. “For twenty-eight years, this Sailor has stood the watch … Today, we are here to say … ’Shipmate, you stand relieved.’ We have the Watch.”

Before I could find a tissue in my purse, Father Joe gave the Benediction, the Orders were read, and, to the tune of the bosun’s whistle, Francis, the kids and I where whisked over the red carpet  flanked by saluting sideboys — a ritual symbolizing being “piped ashore” for the last time.

Minutes later, we were caught in a whirlwind of guests, chatter, drinks and food that started at our reception, and continued on to a tent party for over 150 out-of-town guests, where we danced like fools until the wee hours. Running on less than four hours of sleep, we threw an afternoon tailgate party at a local polo match on Saturday, and everyone came back to our house for pizza until after midnight.

Somehow, by the grace of God and a sugar-free Red Bull, I made it to the 9:00 am mass Father Joe organized for everyone in our yard on Sunday morning, where we gathered one last time. At the end of his homily, Father Joe asked our backyard congregation of lingering family and friends the question posed by poet Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do with your wild and precious life?”

As I sipped my coffee on Monday morning, I realized that we have no idea what is in store for us next. After 28 years in the Navy, it’s hard to contemplate civilian life.

Like all things, it will take time. And meanwhile, we will find comfort in the “mal de débarquement” — the feeling that we are still on board the ship, swaying, rocking, sailing toward the endless horizon.

Father Joe celebrating mass in our front yard at the end of our military retirement weekend.

Father Joe celebrating mass in our front yard at the end of our military retirement weekend.

Military Retirement Event Planning: Beware of Bridezilla


My husband, Francis, is truly extraordinary. And no one knows it better than he does.

Some men humbly avoid excess attention and accolades of praise. But not Francis. He prefers the limelight, and finds no shame in celebrating himself.

So, several months ago, when he announced that he would transition out of the military after 28 years of service, he knew he wanted to plan a spectacular retirement event that would match his exceptional personality.

While I expected Francis to dictate the details of the program for the retirement ceremony, I thought that he would naturally want to leave much of the minutia of the after-party — food, drink, decorations, music, etc. — to me as his more domestic partner.

But early on, when I suggested a modest guest list and affordable catering at our house, Francis scoffed. I soon realized that, although he would stand before the throngs of well wishers at the retirement ceremony and tell them “we are a team,” he had no intention of leaving any of the planning to me.

I would have been perfectly happy setting up borrowed folding tables in our back yard, but before I knew it, Francis had signed a contract with a professional company for a 60-foot rental tent that included lights, a dance floor, and tables. He met with musicians, security personnel, caterers, photographers, bartenders for hire, and the members of a steel drum band. He stayed up late night after night, picking the format for the program, selecting photographs for a slideshow, writing his speech, and going over the ten-page guest list spreadsheet.

As if a one-day retirement event wasn’t enough, Francis also rented three tailgating spaces and two shade tents at the local polo grounds, and invited our guests to continue the celebration at the polo match the next day.

While worrying that Francis was draining our kids’ college accounts to pay for everything, I began to realize that planning his military retirement event was very similar to planning a wedding. I warned our youngest daughter, Lilly, who was turning 16 a few days before the ceremony, that she might get overlooked. “Go watch the movie ‘Sixteen Candles’…” I told her, “… you’re Molly Ringwald and your dad is the bride.”

And just like a bride to be, Francis soon became frazzled with all the details. A cousin said she’d cancel unless Francis could find a suitable kennel for her dog, friends announced they were bringing uninvited guests, no one ordered bowls for the bisque, the tent company needed more electrical outlets, the caterers asked that we provide a floral arrangement for the dessert table, and the weather report called for thunderstorms.

The most popular last-minute questions that came in from guests were “What the hell is ‘business casual’ anyway?” and, even though detailed maps went out with the invitations, “Can you give me directions to the event?”

“I have got to get my hair cut!” Francis barked yesterday morning while I tried to keep up with him on a power-walk around the base. “And please do not let me forget to ask the caterers if they are supplying the cutlery. I still need to wrap the highball glasses I bought for Father Joe, and borrow two more chest coolers for the polo match. Do you think I should play the slideshow before or after my speech? ”

When I asked him what I could do to help, he gave me the following list: “1. Charge the camcorder, and 2. Pick out your outfit.”

Fortunately, I really don’t mind that Francis is planning the entire event without me. In fact, as long as we don’t go broke, I’m pleased as punch about it.

Besides, unlike some weddings, a military retirement ceremony only happens once in a lifetime, and after 28 years of dedication, sacrifice and service to our country, Francis deserves to have the celebration he has always dreamed about.

And I’ll be the first one to kiss the bride.

retirement cake

Once A Military Family

20160718_094227 (1)

At seven in the morning, the summer sun was already shining hot and bright. I found space among the passengers on the train platform. My husband, Francis, hastily parked my luggage at my feet, inadvertently nicking my toe in the process.

“Ooo, sorry Hon, but I’d better get to work … call me when you get to your mother’s.” He leaned down to give me a quick kiss good-bye, wearing his khaki uniform — buttoned, tucked, pinned and polished. In 22 years as a Navy wife, I’ve become quite accustomed to good-byes, but this one felt different.

I observed the other passengers waiting, and drew conclusions about their lives. A sleepy student, a hip grandmother, an arrogant businessman, a frumpy divorcee. It dawned on me that they had taken notice of Francis’ uniform, and deduced, “A military family.”

The uniform that I scrubbed ink stains out of, ironed countless times, hung on the back of the kitchen door, and often took for granted, had defined us for more than two decades.

The uniform dictates that I am a military spouse and our kids are “military brats.” It is a sign that Francis has dedicated his career to military service. It tells a tale of duty, deployments, separation, transition, challenges, hardships, patriotism, pride and adventure. The uniform speaks to the strength, resiliency, and courage of the people who wear it, wash it, and hang it on the back of their kitchen doors.

At our wedding in 1993, Francis was a young Navy Lieutenant and I was brand-new attorney. Within two years, we rocked our baby boy, Hayden, in base quarters in Monterey, California at the Naval Postgraduate School. In another couple years, we were in rural England, where Anna was born by an Irish midwife, and where Francis drove a beat up Fiat on dark, winding roads to stand the watch. A few years later, we were in Virginia Beach, where Francis completed a sea tour, three shore tours, and a year-long deployment to Djibouti, Africa while our family grew to include our youngest daughter, Lillian.

After a three-year adventure in Germany, where Francis worked at Africa Command, we found ourselves at Naval Station Mayport, Florida, where we could see dolphins, frigates and destroyers in the Atlantic waves just outside our base house’s kitchen window. Now, in Rhode Island at the Naval War College, we watch our children use their skills as military kids to succeed in high school and college.

A rooster suddenly crowed from behind a house across the tracks, bringing me back to the present. I gulped hard, remembering that at the end of the month, after 28 meaningful years of military service, Francis is retiring from the military.

“Where do we go from here?” I wondered, squinting at the sun’s reflection on the tracks. Francis and his uniform were long gone, and I was there, just another passenger on the crowded platform. Is this what it’s like in the civilian world?

“Stand clear of the yellow line, fast train approaching,” blared from the loudspeakers. Instinctively, I gripped my heart, as a flash of metal and momentum blew by, sucking the air from my chest and clearing the cache of my wandering mind.

With newfound clarity, I realized that our military identity lies deep within our hearts, not in outward signs and symbols. In a month, Francis’ uniform will be stored in the back of the hall closet, but our family will always be military, through and through.

The Number 95 arrived right on time, and as I stepped off the platform and onto the train, I knew that our military life was not coming to an end. We are on to the next stop as our journey continues.

The Middle-aged Woman and the Sea


Thanks to a guy named Big Victor, I’m finally free of years of bitter resentment. No, I didn’t put a hit out on anyone — although, Big Victor did seem like he’d be up for that kind of thing — I simply went fishing.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve idealized fishing. As an awkward kid, I would search the neighborhood gutters for the slightest trickle of a creek. I’d fashion a fishing pole out of a stick, string, and a safety pin. I’d pack a canteen of lemonade and a little snack — Oatmeal Cream Pies were tasty and doubled as decent bait.

To me, catching fish was secondary to experiencing a classic summer past time — leaning against a shady tree on the edge of a river, jeans rolled up, bare toes dipped in cool water, waiting patiently for a nibble while communing with nature.

Fortunately, I had an active imagination, because my childhood fishing trips mostly took place in a drainage ditch under Route 286 and the only thing I ever caught was a bacterial infection. My family was not into fishing, so other than a few fruitless tries with a rental pole from a pier while on vacation, the opportunity to go on a real fishing trip never presented itself.

That is, until the summer of 1978, when my parents arranged to go off-shore fishing. They invited my grandfather, aunt, uncle, cousin and brother … surely this was my big chance! “Lisa, you’re staying at home with the dog,” I was told. A tiny spark of resentment ignited deep inside.

In the summer of 1990, I was at school studying for my law exams, and called to find out how my family’s summer vacation was going. “We’re eating the tuna your brother caught today on our deep sea fishing trip!” I was told, and the embers glowed red.

In 1995, a couple years after marrying my Navy husband, Francis, we were living on Fort Ord, just outside of Monterey, California, and the opportunity to go salmon fishing came up. “Nope, you’re eight months pregnant,” I was told, and steam rose from my ears.

In 1998 while stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, there was a bachelor party fishing trip (“No women allowed”) and in 2012 while stationed in Mayport, Florida, a fishing trip with guys from work (“Who will watch the kids?”) Before I knew it, the spark of resentment had flared into a raging wildfire.

But recently, in a strange twist of irony, the chance I’d been waiting for came among the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles, California. While visiting family there, Francis’ brother, Chris, proposed a five-hour off shore fishing trip.

“FISHING?” I blurted, “SERIOUSLY? ME, TOO?!” I may not have been an intended invitee, but at that point, Chris had no choice.

We boarded the boat in Marina Del Ray, looking like idiot tourists with our fanny packs, sunscreened noses, and a cooler with enough snacks and drinks to sustain us for a month. The hulking hispanic deck boss, “Big Victor,” carried a knife, a gaffing hook, a large gold chain, about 150 excess pounds, and a look on his face that said, “I eat idiot tourists for lunch.”

After finding a good spot among the whale watchers and the oil tankers, the crew flung chum over our heads while we set our lines. Four and a half hours later, we thought Francis had finally caught the big one. His hands shook as he strained to pull in what was surely a 40-pound yellowtail.

“It’s kelp,” Big Victor said, and used his gaffing hook to retrieve Francis’ mangled line.

I knew I’d be coming home from my first real fishing trip empty handed, but it didn’t matter. The sun on my face, the spritz of chum flying overhead, the bubbles of a cold beverage, and the satisfaction of baiting my own hook had fulfilled my childhood dreams.

“Fish on!” I yelled excitedly, just as we were about to haul anchor. “Is it big enough to keep?” I whispered to Big Victor.

He nodded his massive head, and with a swipe of his knife, I had two tiny fish fillets to contribute to dinner. I stepped off the boat that day, grateful for my first real fishing trip …

… and that there was plenty of spaghetti at home.


Reconstructing Patriotism


Back in 1976, it was our country’s Bicentennial, and I was in the 4th grade. At East Pike Elementary, Ms. Degatano’s class was picked to reenact life in 1776. For five months until school let out for summer, we wore bonnets and three-cornered hats, churned butter, sewed our own flags, ran a general store, and did our classwork by candlelight. Not only was it an excellent way to learn our nation’s history, it was really cool.

When Independence Day rolled around, copious hot dogs were grilled, watermelon sliced, and cobs of corn boiled as friends and family gathered in honor of this exceptional national birthday. With bellies full of barbecue, we bent our faces upward to see what our forefathers saw in The Revolutionary-War-torn sky two centuries ago. We “oooed” and “aaahhhed” as the fireworks imitated “the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” and we took it for granted that Americans are special.

But nowadays, thanks to the complex quagmire of extremes in modern society, the mere act of being patriotic has become a political statement subject to judgment, debate, and controversy.

Webster’s Dictionary defines “patriotism” simply as “love for or devotion to one’s country,” but the complicated gridlock of ideas regarding politics, economics, religion, domestic issues, gender roles and sexual norms has politicized national pride.

A person can no longer identify as “patriotic” without suggesting that he or she might also be pro-life, pro-gun, pro-war, anti-gay, anti-amnesty, or racist. How did patriotism become bogged down with so much extra baggage?

Terrorist attacks have become a regular part of our 24/7 news stream, and rather than banding together the way Americans did after 9/11, public discourse degrades into bitter debates over gun control, administrative failures, race and religion. The “new normal” for political campaigns includes tabloid-like press coverage, bitter personal attacks, Twitter wars, and violent protests. Extreme divisiveness has the public defensively poised, ready to pit black against white, gay against straight, atheist against believer, male against female, choice against life, and animal against human in an all-out fight for who has rights.

In recent years, scholars, pundits and pop stars have pontificated over whether patriotism is the quiet and unpretentious love of the best ideals of one’s homeland, or ferocious blind faith jingoistic nationalism that incites excessive military action. (See http://www.thenation.com/article/what-patriotism/ and http://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-do-you-define-patriotism/.)

Every year around this time, new polls on patriotism ask questions such as: “Would you describe yourself as patriotic?” “Do you feel this country has gotten off track?” “Are you proud to be an American?” “Do you think the United States has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world?” Each statistic is broken down by gender, race, age and political party, so that inferences can further separate individual groups. (See https://www.aei.org/publication/aei-public-opinion-study-polls-on-patriotism/.)

Despite the attempts to deconstruct patriotism, the intangible notion of “The American Spirit” remains intact, having transcended current governments and political parties. Ever since our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence back in 1776, America has been a truly unique melting pot of democratic values, personal liberties, military superiority, industrial and scientific advancements, and humanitarian responsibility.

As a military family, we have daily reminders of how fortunate we are to be Americans. Every morning, we pause reverently to face one of the many flags flown on base, hands over hearts, to hear “The Star Spangled Banner.” “United States” is in the job title of every military serviceperson. War monuments and memorials on base remind us of those who fought and paid the ultimate price for our democracy and freedom. For us, patriotism is a lifestyle.

But average Americans caught up in the complications of the 21st Century may need to be reminded that patriotism is not a political statement – it is an expression of our undying American Spirit.

This July 4th, keep it simple. Wear red, white and blue. Fire up the barbecue. Fly the flag. Raise your face to the night sky. Wipe away the tangled web of rhetoric and divisiveness, and remember what it means to be free.

Just listen: A father’s full story

20160520_181015 (1)

I stepped from airport baggage claim into the steamy Richmond sun, and found a bench at curbside pick up. I hadn’t seen my father in a while, and a twinge of nerves caught in my throat.

When in a good mood, Dad is fun, larger than life in every way. While watching his favorite sitcoms, his loud and uncontrollable laughter is infectious. Also, he has an uncanny ability to seek out the best restaurants, always over-ordering for the table, and insisting on paying the bill. But like many people, my father has moody side. When angry, he makes it uncomfortable for everyone, especially those he loves the most. We had both traveled to Richmond for my cousin’s wedding, and agreed to share a hotel room. Knowing my father was a man of extremes, I didn’t know what to expect.

Suddenly, I heard three sharp blasts of a car horn. Then three more. I stood up to investigate, just as I heard the blasts again. They were coming from a car driven by my Dad. Good mood, I detected gratefully. I knew that the obnoxious greeting was my father’s way of being playful.

I hopped into the passenger’s seat, and while exchanging side hugs over the center console, I noticed that his skin was like crepe. Getting old, I thought.

“Okay,” my father said in his characteristically domineering voice, “we don’t have to be at the rehearsal dinner until six, so I thought I’d take you on a tour of Sandston.” I knew the excursion to my father’s hometown was more for him than me, but I was curious to see the setting of his  upbringing.

“When I was a kid, this road seemed to go on forever,” he said of Sandston’s sleepy main drag. He pointed to a faded drug store sign, explaining that his nanny, Irene, used to take him there for ice cream. “She wouldn’t go in with us, because she never wore shoes.”

We turned slowly down Garland Avenue, and my father told me about the “creek” he used to wade in, now a grassy ditch along the side of the road. Among the line of tiny steep-roofed houses, he pointed out the one he used to live in, where his parents divorced when he was only six years old. We rounded the corner to the school, and on to a small civil war cemetery, as my father told of being sent to Fork Union Military School at the age of ten.

For once, I let him do all the talking, and he told all the stories I’d heard before, and a few I hadn’t. Something in me sensed that my father needed to reflect on his life, and the best thing for me to do was to listen.

“I was devastated,” he commented about his father leaving. “I always wanted the kind of dad who would take me fishing, but he just wasn’t that way… After my mother sent me to Fork Union, I held the record for the most runaway attempts. But eventually, the school became like family to me.”

Later, in our hotel room, my father napped while I settled into a polite routine intended to minimize the awkwardness of the situation. Although we had visited each other many times over the years, sharing a hotel room was more chummy than we’d been in decades. But something in me sensed that my father simply needed a witness, not only to his stories, but to the advancement of his life.

Rather than armoring myself with defenses formed during rockier moments in our relationship, I opened myself to see my father as he was: a 73-year-old character with a unique story to tell. That weekend, I enjoyed his company, helping him with his buttons, brewing him coffee, researching local breakfast joints, and even plucking a particularly conspicuous white hair from his nose.

“This has been nice,” my father said after breakfast at The City Diner on our final morning together. Grateful for having had the opportunity to get to know my father in the context of his full life story, I genuinely agreed.

%d bloggers like this: