In 1982, I gave the family message at my father’s funeral. I have often been challenged with standing in my own courage, and it had been a testy discourse. “A woman reading the family message?” questioned some men in my family. How could I fight this battle and retain the basic principles that Daddy had strived so hard to have us imbibe?
As I looked out into the church at the people—it seemed like hundreds—who came to bid him farewell, I was amazed at the outpouring of love. Silently, I offered salutations. “This apple did not fall far from the tree. I have inherited your tenacity and your commitment to serve. This is why I stand here.”
After the burial, I learned who some of the folks were: Someone had served with him at the volunteer fire department; another shared memories of their time in the Army Reserves. His church friends remembered his love for God and his service in their fantastic gospel choir.
At the gravesite in Arlington Cemetery, I was moved by the playing of “Taps” and the folding of the coffin’s flag by the honor guard that handed the triangle to my mother. It was bitter sweet, those military honors. Daddy, who had served in segregated units in World War II, was left with the permanent emotional scars of that war, yet had constantly argued with me as I condemned this country’s dive into Viet Nam. But, even as I rejected the act of war, I embraced the black soldiers who had shown the courage to serve, and as I watched the folding of the flag, I felt that I, too, for whatever it was worth, was a soldier.
My father was no saint. He drank heavily, and his temper was unpredictable. Still, with only an eighth grade education, he engaged us in political debate and philosophical discussions, doing his part to make the world a better place. His favorite topic was how to treat your fellow human beings with respect. This, after, as a master brick mason, driving hours to find work, only to be told they weren’t hiring blacks that day.
For reasons of race, time, and place, our lives as a family were part of a unique and bigger chapter in American history that will never be erased. But in those tumultuous times, I learned some basic principles that have stood like soldiers and boosted my own inner courage.
* When you cause another person pain, apologize.
* When someone causes you pain, forgive.
* Show compassion; don’t judge another unless you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.
I think I learned the lessons. Two weeks after his passing, I had a dream. He was in full military regalia, marching in that slow cadence so unique to military display. As the line of soldiers passed me, he stopped, turned to face me, and saluted. Then he continued on his way to where departed, honorable soldier-fathers go.