On Losing a Generation, but Keeping Their Legacy


Remembering the Greatest Generation

“Almost there,” I tell my squirming toddler. “See? Playground.” We stumble through the door of Chick-Fil-A. She squeals, seeing only the indoor playground. I pause, seeing only the man beside it.

A wrinkled man sits in a corner, alone at the table beside the kiddie area. White tufts of hair peek out from beneath a blue cap embroidered with yellow words, in proud capitals: WW II VET. He looks small beneath the bulging cap; somehow it accentuates his age and the empty chair beside him. Spotting a wedding ring on his finger, I wonder who should be sitting in that chair. My heart gives a painful hiccup, thinking of my grandfather, alone in the world now these thirty days, since my grandmother passed. He, too, is eating lunch alone today.

In a painful rush, it hits me: We’re losing them.

We’re losing them all, one by one, the whole World War II generation—“the greatest generation,” Tom Brokaw has called them—and they’re taking their memories with them.

My daughter wiggles and grunts, trying to launch herself out of my arms. I hold her tight, speared by worry: How can I help her understand the ones who came before? She won’t even remember her own great-grandmother. Soon there will be none left who remember firsthand: none who grew up as children of the Depression; who experienced Pearl Harbor as a personal horror; who huddled around radios, hanging on every word of FDR’s Fireside Chats; who lost friend after friend to war. And soon their stories will fade into hearsay and legend, distorted by retelling and mis-memory, made distant by time and generational differences.

I brush against the man’s table on our way to the playground, and my daughter’s escape efforts grow frantic. Seeing us struggle, the man stands to open the door for me. His back is crooked, his steps awkward, but somehow he stands tall. Gallant.

“Thank you,” I breathe, releasing my daughter into the glass-walled playroom. She giggles her delight and beelines for another toddler, nearly strangling her with a let’s-be-friends hug.

“I remember the days,” he says with a knowing smile.

I smile back and let the door swing shut. “How many children do you have?” I ask, knowing full well what I’m getting myself into. And that is all he needs: He is off, regaling me with descriptions—where they live, what they do, how often they visit. I keep one eye on my daughter, happily playing with her new friend, and with the other eye, I study mine: His grin, sunny and crinkled, topped off by pale blue eyes snapping with humor; his timeworn hands, fiddling with a rectangular object on the table.

“My wife was British, a war bride,” he says, his chest puffing out, as if this is—was, I correct myself, he said was—one of his favorite things about her. “I brought her back here with me after the war.” He reaches for the rectangle in front of him and flips it over. A man in uniform and a woman in white beam up at me from stone church steps, radiant even in grainy black and white. The picture is so similar to my grandparents’ 1946 wedding photo that for a moment I cannot breathe. I give my friend a nod of admiration for his bride, wrestling down a wave of sadness.

Frank and Jane, wedding day

“They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest,” Mr. Brokaw wrote in his book The Greatest Generation. “At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting, often hand to hand, in the most primitive conditions possible.”

And somehow, in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty, many found love and clung to it. This man found love and made it last.

“I lost her two years ago,” he says. The blue eyes turn red-rimmed and glassy.

I want to reach out and squeeze his hand, but I don’t even know his name.

We’re losing them.

A thousand words clog my throat—My grandfather served, too. Flight engineer, US Army. Twenty-seven missions out of Saipan in B-29 bombers. Every time they flew, they almost ran out of fuel on the way back. His hearing was never the same. My grandmother and her sister shared the same wedding dress in the summer of 1946, war brides both. I spent the happiest summer nights of my teenage years in my grandparents’ house—they’d pull up a chair for me between their recliners, and we’d read for hours in companionable silence, eating peanuts and popcorn—but now my new friend is telling me where he met his wife, how she laughed, the way she burned his toast.

And I realize: Today is not my turn to tell stories. It’s his. And so I store my own history down inside, pull up a chair, and sit at his table. I pick up his picture, admire his bride, and let him take me back in time.

A muffled giggle escapes the play place. Taking my eyes off the man’s gnarled knuckles as they gesture mid-memory, I catch sight of my daughter’s happy curls bouncing. In my mind, I make her a promise: I will tell you the stories.

I will tell her about this man, the man from Chick-fil-A. I will tell her about his British bride, so adored, so missed, that her husband carried their wedding photo everywhere, years after her death, and showed it to strangers.

I will tell her about her great-grandfather—my grandfather, Frank: How when he was a boy the milkman rode a horse—a horse!—and delivered milk to back doors in glass bottles, and on icy mornings the tops would pop open. How when he grew up, he went to war, and although many of his friends didn’t make it home, he did. How one balmy spring night in 1946, when the whole world was just daring to live again, to love again, Frank fell in love with Jane, a spunky redhead with a laugh as big as New Jersey.

How they almost called off the wedding on account of that laugh, because one rain-soaked afternoon Frank got his finger trapped in an umbrella, and the madder he got, the harder Jane laughed, until finally he stalked away with the umbrella still clamped to his finger. How he eventually forgave her (it would make a great story for the grandkids, after all), and a few weeks later she walked down the aisle in Westfield, New Jersey, beaming over a bouquet of hydrangeas. How as newlyweds they were the first couple in their town to get a new car—no one had seen a new car for years—and everywhere they drove that car, a black Chevrolet Fleetline with silver trim, a crowd gathered.

Jane Guba 1946 bride

How they finally saved enough to move out of Frank’s parents’ home, and their neighbors helped them build their house, because that’s what neighbors did. How Frank shouted in his sleep for years, still haunted by nightmares of battle. How they moved to Florida and hoarded shoeboxes full of soap, because you never knew when a Florida hurricane, or another Depression, or wartime rations, might hit again.

How they had four daughters, twelve grandchildren, and friends beyond counting. How they grew old together and pulled up an extra chair and made space between them for their insecure granddaughter, and when she was with them she wasn’t lonely, she wasn’t insecure. How way back when, first they saved the world, and then they saved a girl.

My daughter won’t get it, I know—can we ever truly grasp the lives of those who came before? appreciate the extent of their sacrifices? fathom the depths of their losses, the heights of their joys?—but I hope when it’s my turn, she’ll pull up a chair and listen. I hope she’ll hang on every word of my stories. And not just my stories—her grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ stories, too.

Frank and Jane’s stories.

The Chick-fil-A man’s stories.

The stories of the great generation we lost when she was still learning words.

And maybe she’ll realize that their story is my story is her story, forever intertwined. And maybe we’ll help the greatest generation live on after all.

Frank and Jane with baby copy

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IMG_2680 IMG_2684


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These days of small things


how to enjoy childhood via @lizzylit

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

We’re at the North Carolina State Fair on a perfect October night. The sky is cloudless, speckled with stars. The air is crisp, cool but not cold. It’s a night for pumpkins and bonfires, sweatshirts and cider. It’s also a Saturday night, which means that the entire population of North Carolina has been inspired by our same not-so-brilliant idea: “Let’s spend two hundred dollars buying deep-fried candy bars wrapped in bacon, and then get on rides that simulate standing inside a blender, and try not to throw up!”

But the October sky will not be ignored, so now here we are, fighting our way through a heaving river of humanity to find the kiddie area. Kevin is muscling our double stroller through gaps in the mass of people, parting the crowd like Moses with the Red Sea, only with more shouting and carnage. I’m right behind him, clutching fistfuls of the two older kids’ sweatshirts in my hands, praying we don’t lose any of our four struggling, goggle-eyed children in the swarm. Over the crowd, Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome and I keep flashing each other this forced, crazy-eyed smile that means something along the lines of: “Maybe if we keep fake-smiling we’ll trick ourselves into believing we’re having fun, even though we’re terrified—and for the love of all that is good and holy how did we talk each other in to spending our kids’ college fund on rigged games and fried candy?—and by the way, we are never doing this again!”

Finally the wave of people dumps us out into the kiddie area—along the way we’ve mowed down twelve love-struck teenagers and one giant stuffed banana wearing dreadlocks, in between dropping sixty bucks on kettle corn, elephant ears, and a Lebanese dish we can’t pronounce but that tasted like glory—and by some miracle, all four kids are still with us, and no one has thrown up (yet).

I convince the three older kids to ride the giant swings with me, and all through the line they do a dance of delighted terror. You’d think they’ve never been on a ride before, the way they’re gaping at the swings, hugging each other and hiding their eyes. I’m worried they might chicken out. But the minute the ride starts and our feet leave the ground, my six-year-old throws both arms in the air and laughs like an experienced roller coaster rider, like she was born for this. (Recalling her habit of flinging her body from terrifying heights in an apparent desire to become BFFs with the local emergency room staff, I suspect she was.) We stumble off two minutes later, giddy and giggling. I’m starting to feel like the fair wasn’t such a terrible idea after all.

And now it’s the two-year-old’s turn to ride something her speed. We ease back into the torrent of people, searching until we spot a merry-go-round of glittery miniature cars. At first we hesitate, hands pressed against our ears, because the ride’s designer, who has clearly never met a child, thought it would be clever to equip the cars with ear-splitting horns, which the happy toddlers are honking as aggressively as their fat fists can manage. But Sawyer’s eyes light up, and we all sigh: She must ride this ride. She must honk a horn. We must sacrifice our hearing for her happiness. As the girls and I get in line, Kevin pantomimes a message over the relentless horns: he and Blake are going to save their eardrums and go pay a fortune to throw weighted darts at unpoppable balloons. I stick my tongue out at them, because they’re totally getting the better end of the arrangement. Besides, they might win a stuffed banana.


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When it’s finally our turn, I stand behind the Parent Fence as my nine-year-old, Cassidy, helps buckle Sawyer in, and then folds her own long legs into their tiny car. Cassidy’s knees are bent almost up to her ears, and she throws me a dimpled, self-deprecating grin—a grin that says nineteen, not nine. Sawyer attacks the horn with gusto. Avery, my six-year-old adrenaline junkie, scrambles into the car in front of them.

Lights flash. Music blares. Horns crescendo. The ride jolts forward, and Sawyer squeals her delight. Cassidy leans in close, showing Sawyer how to turn the steering wheel. For a moment, their twin grins are all I can see, but then I notice Avery. She’s still young enough that she should be swept up in her own ride—spinning her own wheel, honking her own horn—but instead she is twisted backwards, shining brown eyes locked on Sawyer. She is ignoring her own ride so she can watch her baby sister experience hers. Avery beams at Sawyer, a proud, knowing smile. The same maternal smile I feel lighting my own face.

The simple, honest sweetness steals my breath. For a few seconds my ears forget to hurt. I stand there, blinking tears, drinking in the beautiful sight of my three girls, adoring each other in this small moment.

I’m reminded of a scripture I’ve just rediscovered, a new-old favorite, Zechariah 4:10: “Who dares despise the day of small things?” The passage is a celebration of a quiet but significant event in Israel’s history, as God’s people are rebuilding the temple. The temple is still years from completion, but the plumb line—the guiding marker that will assure the building is constructed properly—rests in the designer’s hand. The building has only just begun, but it has begun the right way.

I think to myself, This may seem like a small moment, but it is not small. Not to God, not to me. My girls, here in this fleeting moment, are all that sisters should be. For these few seconds, the older ones care more about their baby sister than about themselves. They may have squabbled a dozen times on the way to the fair today, they may have begged too insistently for cotton candy and cheap stuffed animals, but right here, right now, in these sparkling seconds, they are loving each other, and how lovely it is. This is no small victory, no insignificant thing. It is the promise of things to come, the foundation of all we are trying to build in our family.

I put the night on pause: I will not despise this moment, this small thing. I will not let it pass by unnoticed, unappreciated. I will make it holy, sending a prayer of thanks up into the starry October sky. I will write it down and make it last. Like Mary, I will treasure this memory in my heart, storing it deep inside so I can bring it out and relive it again and again for the rest of my days (Luke 2:51).

And I will look for more moments like this, small blessings I might miss if I’m not paying attention. I will savor these too-short childhood years, this endless stream of simple joys:

Happy shrieks on scary rides, ice cream stains on brand-new shirts.

A night with no tantrums, a day with dry diapers.

A thousand silly but splendid firsts: the first time they whistle a note, tie a shoe, blow a gum-bubble.

I will not despise these chaotic days in my marriage—this stage of sleepless nights and zombie days, of stolen romance and secret smiles—these years that demand so much, yet make us better.

Family is a happy mess, life a hectic whirlwind. One minute is a disaster, the next a delight. But countless gifts glisten, hidden inside each roller-coaster day, if only we’ll pause long enough to notice. To open. To savor. And in noticing and opening and savoring, we sanctify these small wonders, these insignificant things.

Perhaps we find that small things are not so small after all.

That fleeting moments are not fleeting, not momentary, after all.

That simple days of small things are the best days—the biggest things—after all.


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Childhood’s a Blur…and So Are the Pictures


how to slow down and enjoy childhood via @lizzylit

We didn’t do the last day of school right.

All six of us woke up late—we had already started easing into slack summer bedtimes a few days early, and we all slept in.

So the last morning of school turned into a whirlwind of cereal-shoveling and lunch-packing and gift-wrapping, all to a frantic soundtrack:

“Please tell me someone found that library book!”

“Quick, tie a bow around that teacher gift!”

“Mommy, did you remember to buy water bottles?”

“I forgot—just grab your broken Thermos.”

“Mommy, you promised!”

“WHERE’S MY SHOE?”

We stumbled out the door, a flurry of backpacks and uncombed hair and teacher gifts with bows half-tied. We made it just in time.

After the kids sprinted to class, I knocked on the door of my son’s second-grade classroom for the last time, to deliver his teacher a gift from her students: a framed photo collage, our attempt to preserve a memory so she could keep it forever.

This spring she had organized a 24-hour “Skype-a-thon.” Mrs. L and her students camped out for 24 hours at school, Skyping other classrooms in time zones they could never contact during normal school hours. Mrs. L found a way to stretch class time long enough so her students could meet other children across the globe.

Overnight she helped her students “travel” to every time zone, to places few will ever visit in person—to Palestine, Nepal, South Africa, Australia, Malaysia, Belgium… 27 countries and 3 U.S. States in all. In those wondrous 24 hours my son and his friends met other students “face-to-face,” talking school and history and favorite soccer teams. They giggled and shared and built bridges, one cinderblock classroom to another, on cheap computers with unreliable Internet signals—but they did it. They pulled it off. She pulled it off.

It was a herculean feat, a one-of-a-kind, world’s-first type event. It was worthy of a photo collage, and so much more—maybe a World’s Best Teacher award, or better yet a Nobel Peace Prize. In lieu of a Nobel Prize, Mrs. L’s students did the best they could: they made a photo collage. The pictures were blurry, taken by weary parents with cell phones in the middle of the night; the kids’ signatures were sloppy, scrawled in their second-grade style… but somehow Mrs. L got teary-eyed anyway. I left to the sound of happy chatter, as she tried to hold on to a few last hours with her students.

But halfway across the school parking lot, I stopped, stricken. I’d forgotten to photograph the moment. I’d been so caught up in it—wanting her to feel our gratitude, wishing the kids could fully grasp this great experience she had given them, this lifelong gift—that I forgot to take a picture to memorialize the memorializing. I stood debating: Should I go back and interrupt, waste their dwindling class time, embarrass my son for the sake of posterity? Or just let it go?

I decided to let it go, but the memory-maker inside me died a little.

And so there will be no Last Day of School picture of my son with his second-grade teacher and the gift we gave her. (Really, the gift she gave him.)

And thanks to our family’s hectic morning, there will be no cute split-screen, first day-last day pictures of my kids on social media, the ones that show how much they’ve grown during the school year. There just wasn’t time.

And that’s the trouble with time, and with childhood… there’s never enough. Not during the school day. Not on the last day of school, or the first, or even in the summer. Because even today, with six vacation weeks stretching out ahead of us, sparkling with possibility, I feel the tug of the real-life calendar: the work that still has to be done, the summer reading list I should probably enforce, the dozens of fun family memories we want to cram into such a short span.

And sad as I feel today about the last day of school, in six weeks I know I’ll be mourning the end of another blink-of-an-eye summer, wishing for more. Wishing for more lazy mornings; for more days that end with sand in the bathtub and wet towels on the floor; for more long stormy afternoons when everyone’s bored and it’s all I can do to keep them off electronics and using their imaginations instead. Those days too will fade, faster than they should.

So it all has me thinking: How do I want to spend these glorious, too-few summer days?

And how should we have spent that last day of kindergarten, second, and third grades? Should we have gotten up a little earlier? Rushed a little faster, pushed a little harder to do it all right, take the pictures, mark the moment?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Because the thing is, on that last morning, somehow the kids made it to school with clothes on—clothes that weren’t photo-worthy, but were perfect for one final romp on the playground with friends. All the teachers got gifts from the heart, and most of the gifts even had crooked bows on them. And all my kids had lunches in hand—composed of weird, end-of-the-paycheck-so-the-pantry-is-bare kind of foods—but still, food. More food than some of the students we met in the Skype-a-thon will ever see in their lunchboxes.

My kids rushed out the door that last-day morning, true to youth. Rushing, rushing—over too quickly, gone too soon.

No, I didn’t stop to photograph it, this fleeting childhood moment… instead we fumbled it together, raced through it together, tried to make each other laugh when we all felt like crying. I didn’t photograph it, but I experienced it with them, as present as time would allow.

Maybe that’s the way our morning should have gone after all.

It’s the way I hope our summer goes, minus the running late part: all of us together, trundling along in a sandy minivan, off to make a mess, and maybe new friends, in a new place. Embracing the chaos, forgetting to take pictures because there isn’t time for anything but each other—anything but now, this moment, this memory-in-progress. Making the most of what time we have. Knowing that even if we stopped to take pictures, they’d turn out blurry anyway.


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Don’t forget to subscribe to my monthly parenting newsletter! As a welcome gift, you’ll receive a free download with 7 two-minute devotions to do around the breakfast table with kids!

 how to slow down and enjoy childhood via @lizzylit

 Photo credit: Sara Engel of Sara Engel Photography


A Letter to My Child About Your Unfinished Baby Book


Why I didn't finish your baby book via @lizzylit

Dear darling,

I’m haunted by this nightmare where you come to me as an insecure preteen and ask, “Mom, can I see my baby book? I need some dates and things for a school project.”

Choking back tears of shame, I dig out a dusty blue and yellow book. You pluck it from my guilty hands. A few souvenirs and ragged coloring pages slip out. To you, they look random, unimpressive, disorganized, but I remember: That’s the first time you drew a circle. That smiley-faced blob there? The picture you drew of me on our third Mother’s Day. That thumbprint collage? Your first preschool art project.

unfinished baby book @lizzylit

You flip through, and I know what you’re seeing: A handful of haphazard photos, too many half-empty pages. I try to distract you with the highlights: There’s an ultrasound photo—that grainy peanut is your very first picture . . . There’s a coming-home-from-the-hospital shot; you’re swaddled, pink and scrunchy, in the striped hospital blanket . . . Look, twenty-six pictures from your epic first birthday party . . . A few play dates at the park . . . And then we skip ahead to your first day of preschool (that stain there? definitely raindrops, not tears) . . . er, one blurry shot from preschool graduation . . . Okay, let’s keep moving.

In the margins, you’ll find a few handwritten notes:

Seven weeks: Still not sleeping, but oh, that smile!

Five months: You must be teething. You drool through four outfits a day.

Eight months: You love bananas, your daddy, the dog, and screeching at the top of your lungs.

Eleven months: You lunged forward today, trying to pinch the dog. First step? Maybe?

Twenty-two months: You got into the magic markers. I need a new kitchen table.

Twenty-nine months: I wish I could give your pacifiers back. You miss them so much.

Three years: You got your first princess dress today. You smiled so big, I thought your cheeks might pop. 

Seven years old: Pinkeye AND lice on the same day. I’m still twitching.

You flip to the back pages. The tooth chart is woefully empty. I managed to jot down the month when your first tooth came in—not the day, I couldn’t remember which day—and then I drew a sad little frowny-face when it came back out again, five years later.

The how-we-celebrated-your-first-five-birthdays section? Well, I did a killer job on the first birthday—see the pictures? see the cake I spent three days researching on Pinterest and sculpting in the shape of Elmo?—after that, the birthday party pages are all blank.

Worst of all, I picture you flipping to the chart of firsts, that page where I’m supposed to write down every first from your First Year of Life, and even some milestones from your toddler years. Your baffled gaze runs down the page, finding only a few scattered notes. You’ll never know the exact date you spoke your first word, or which day that first pointy tooth poked through, or how much you weighed at your eighteen-month doctor visit.

And I picture your expression crumpling in confusion, an accusation etched in your eyes as you glare at me, mystified and hurt: You don’t love me enough. If you really loved me, you would have made me a baby book I could be proud of. You would have written down all of the things so we could remember them. Didn’t you care?

And I’ll try to explain, to help you understand:

I didn’t write down exactly which day you spoke your first word because I was too busy clapping, too busy savoring the sweet sound of that voice I’d been trying to coax out of you for so long. You were so excited, so proud of yourself, and you wanted me to listen. And I did.

There wasn’t time to mark down which day your first tooth came in because you were so fussy that you wouldn’t let me put you down. You just wanted me to snuggle you and rock you and sing to you. And I did.

I forgot to record how much you weighed at every doctor visit, because after all the prodding and shots, you were always tired and grumpy, and so was I. And so I got my coffee and you got your chocolate milk and we called it a day. We just cuddled on the couch and watched Elmo until we both felt better. And we did.

I didn’t write down what we ate at your second birthday party, because I’d learned my lesson from the first party—a blur, the whole grand cake-sculpting affair—so for the next few years, I got a store-bought cake, inflated balloons with my own breath, blew some bubbles, and crazy-danced with you and a few friends. I put down my camera and watched joy twinkle in your eyes while you played silly games and tore open gifts. When it was all over, you wanted to ignore your presents, ball up the wrapping paper, and have a wrapping-paper fight. And we did.

I didn’t actually forget to take pictures of your preschool graduation. It’s just, my eyes were so cloudy, I couldn’t focus the lens right. But I tried.

And every time I found a spare rainy afternoon and thought to myself, “I could catch up on the baby book today,” a chubby fist tugged on my pant leg, a sunbeam smile flashed up at me, and a little voice lisped, “Come play with me, Mommy.” And I did.

Why I didn't finish your baby book


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Freeze-Frame

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This article first appeared on The Huffington Post. 

 


Freeze-Frame


Freeze-frame

Across the room you catch my eye,
bouncy curls bobbing, glinting sun,
chubby hands clutching, waving spoon,
secret laugh bubbling, casting joy,
and I want to stop time,
freeze-frame your innocence,
your toddlerhood,
this moment,
forever.

So I try.

I pick up the camera.
Snap.
Reframe.
Zoom.
Adjust the lighting.
Try another angle.
Snap again
and again
and again.

But I cannot capture
the way the fading sun fingers your golden curls,
painting a second sunset in my kitchen;
the way the twinkle in your honey eyes sparks,
and I see my grandmother winking there;
the way your coy giggle spins and curls and winds
across the room, around my heart.

At last, suddenly wiser, I stop trying.

I put down the camera,
and sit down across from you,
and drink you in,
and share your secret joke,
and we laugh,
and I know, somehow,
that I have finally caught the moment,
and my heart will always remember.

poetry about motherhood