Photo: The thawing world is a world to be discovered. And get muddy in. Oh Lordy…
The boys and I found ourselves parked outside of a post office one morning this week. In front of it was the requisite flag pole, atop it flew the Stars and Stripes and, below, the black POW/MIA flag. Major, who I am sure has seen the American flag many times before, giggled at it.
“Oh look at that flag, Mommy! It’s got red and white stripes on it, but in the corner, it has blue stripes with white stars! Isn’t that such a funny flag?”
I suppose it would look funny to a four year old. How interesting that “silly” is the first thing one would think when they see it. If you think about the flag of your home country (Hello European readers and you lovely Canadian readers!), what do you think of? I find that my many identities seem to have different views on what that flag is/means.
“I suppose it looks funny. But that’s an important flag. That’s the American flag.”
“American flag? But what does that flag do?”
Oh, my dear child. Who asks a history teacher such a question?
Oh, dear history teacher mama, how do you answer such a question without blowing the child’s mind?
“Well, baby, that flag is a symbol for who we are. And, you know, that flag is important because it’s the flag that means that you are home. If you are ever somewhere and you see it flying, that means that you are home.”
I was feeling pretty proud of myself for that one. That was a pretty good answer.
“I thought home was [town], Massachusetts. Isn’t home Massachusetts?”
Keep it together, Marylander.
“Yes, our house was in [town], Massachusetts. That’s part of home. Think of America as your ‘big’ home, and then home gets more specific as we go. Right down to our address and our house. America is the first stop, I guess.”
There is silent contemplation. A sort of “oh,” and then a pregnant pause.
Not as proud of that answer as I was about the first one.
He has decided that this is a sufficient answer. “So what’s that black flag under the American flag? What does that flag mean?”
Thank God I’m a history teacher. “Baby, that flag is for people who aren’t home. It is a flag that we fly for people who we miss, and it is a flag that says, ‘we miss you, we love you, and we hope you come home.’ ”
This is the best answer to give a four year-old, but he still doesn’t understand. “To our house?”
“Well, baby, to their house. But, in this case, again, I’m talking about America. Sometimes there are people who leave America to do other things in other places… and sometimes, they don’t come back home. But we want them to. So we fly that black flag so that they know we’re thinking about them.”
Quiet contemplation. There just isn’t enough context in his life yet to realize what all this means.
So he’s squirmy and wants to get out of the car.
On this Good Friday, I’m thinking about this conversation because, first, that was my son’s first lesson in social studies and I’m feeling pretty good about it. But I’m writing it because I realize that the conversation that I had with my son today can happen in some places in the world, can’t happen in other places… and there are a lot of mothers in places right now who worry that their governments can’t protect their own children. Indeed, there are children in the world who celebrate the miracle of the risen Lord this weekend under the threat of extreme violence and/or death. And I… feel so utterly lucky.
My patriotism and my faith are totally different things, and I keep them very separate. Indeed, I’m way more vocal about my patriotism than my faith, and still I try to keep a lot of my patriotism to myself. I’m writing this because my little conversation with my son in my car is the first of many conversations that I’m going to have, and the development of his love for and duty toward his country is important. It is extremely important to me. And I think that I can do it in a way that can be nuanced and fair, even when my feelings about what my country does or who is leading my country sometimes makes me angry.
None of that matters to a four year old. What matters to him right now is that he’s in a place that is safe. And what matters to me, as his mother, is that he knows that when he sees his country’s flag, he knows that he’s home.
We live in a world where conversations like this can get flippant really easily. How fast could I have said, “Well, your Republican father would tell you that that flag means I need to treat my gun better than I treat you.” We can pass down our nastiness in a hurry, leaving us open to teaching more and more of the same. And by teaching our children to love our country in only one way, our way (whichever way it is), we aren’t really doing anything for our cause. Of course, I believe that there are a few right answers in the great debate about where the country should and should not go. But then again, I believe in the debate, the freedom of thought, the freedom of choice, and the stability in our collective making of our minds.
So the greater context for my sons, about that flag and colors, and what this “home” of theirs is all about… it will come. With nuanced and thoughtful curation. Until, eventually, they go making up their own minds.
And I have to respect whatever they come up with.
Life emerges from the warming mud, while trees find ways to produce little buds for future leaves. Geese fly high, announcing their arrival home in flamboyant fashion, while the people below sit on porch steps and greet neighbors after long hibernation. Some of us will gather in temples, while others in churches, and many others will simply gather as family or as friends. Either way, on this Friday, the first of many of “true” spring, I hope that you do so safely, and thoughtfully. I hope that you keep in mind that we lost students this week, we lost future leaders and workers and lovers and friends, people who could have made the world better. While we pray (or don’t) in whatever fashion we so choose, others perished simply for saying which side of a many-faced God they choose to talk to. May you, standing under the protection of the flag of your home, feeling secure in your place in the world, give thanks for your moments of free thought. May you hope that others can so enjoy it, if not today, then someday. That maybe children like yours and mine will spread it through peaceful means. In the meantime, may springtime roasts or brunches come with warm hugs and happy smiles. May dresses and suits be received with many compliments. May baskets be full of chocolates and treats, tables be dressed with traditional fare. I wish for you a squeeze of the hand, a kiss on the cheek. I wish for you a look at the moon, a wish upon a star. And I wish, above all else, for your own quiet thoughts. Free and beautiful. And remember that you are deeply loved, near and far, known and unknown and that you are beyond worthy of that love. Today, tomorrow and always.
Until Monday, take care.