My mother was born in Vladivostok, Russia. Her parents had fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and had settled in Shanghai. They had lost everything. Mother attended Holy Ghost Convent in Tsingtao, and the Public School for Girls in Shanghai. She was working at the American Consulate when she met my father.
My father, seventeen years her senior, was a China Marine, joining the Marine Corps in 1927 and serving seven Admirals of the Asiatic Fleet. My mother accompanied my father to Manila and, when Manila fell, my father fought on Bataan and Corregidor and was in one of the death marches. Both were interned for three years in Japanese prison camps: he at Cabanatuan, O’Donnel, and Bilibid; she at Santo Tomas and Los Banos. During those three years, Filipinos risked their lives smuggling father’s letters into mother’s camp. She kept those letters and, later, passed them on to me.
After liberation, they were repatriated into the United States and eventually settled in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with father’s family and an Army-Navy Hospital nearby. After my sister and brother and I were born, mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was hospitalized in Denver. She came home once or twice a year and we were instructed not to get too close. After seven minor and five major surgeries (including the removal of half a lung), mother was released from the hospital, maintaining excellent health until her death at age 89.
While mother relied on perfectionism and control as a defense against chaos, father turned to alcohol. I knew my father was a good man, but he was mean when he drank, and he always drank. When I’d hear my father’s car each evening, I would begin to shake. During my senior year in high school, I came home to find him dead. The military hospital that had treated him before his death, had said that he wasn’t clinically an alcoholic because he had no withdrawal symptoms, but that he had been self-medicating the remnants of beri beri and other physical problems, and the horrendous memories of war.
We left Hot Springs, I attended college, married, became a mother, and later a widow. While serving as a volunteer in the Junior Great Books program at my daughter’s school, I joined other volunteers for coffee one day at the Village Inn. Somehow, W. W. II. came up in the conversation and I shared my parents’ story. One gentleman seemed particularly interested. Smitty, as he was known, was a retired Colonel, U.S.M.C., and happened to be well-schooled in the history of Asia during W.W. II. We spent the next year going over the family papers and the letters my father had written to my mother while they were interned. Admiral Hart, whom my father had served, had written to my aunt after father was interned and had shared father’s accomplishments during the war. Smitty understood each reference and had carefully explained the meaning of each accomplishment and its impact. Admiral Hart had documented several instances when father had gone beyond the call of duty to protect others. The Admiral had even credited him with saving his wife’s life when she had become seriously ill and father had knocked on doors late into the night until he found a doctor to assist her. During my life, my father never spoke about his experiences, but I knew his heart broke over the tragedies of war.
Smitty was giving my father back to me. He took it upon himself to write to the Navy Department, documenting the letters from Admiral Hart, my father’s letters, and some photographs, and asked that my father receive the recognition that he felt he had deserved. Over the next few months I received nine medals from the Navy Department. One day, I received notice that a package had arrived. Taking the notice to the counter, I was given a large manila envelope from the Navy Department and, as I opened it, we saw a rectangular navy-blue, hinged box that had embossed gold letters: The United States of America, and inside -thirty years after his death, and fifty years after his contribution – my father received the Bronze Star.
Now, years later, I have assisted my mother as she found herself on Hospice care. During her last months, she began to let go of the perfectionism and became more relaxed. We were like two girls holding hands through a dream, and there was a lot of laughter. As I leave my mother’s home, I hold the nature of my mother and my father’s innocence and courage close to my heart.
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