When I was younger, my eyes were directed toward the future. With age, I look to the past with more curiosity than I once did. Now that my parents have died, I want to ask questions I didn’t value in prior years. That is one of the barbs of grief; there are no more questions. What has passed is past.
I grew up without grandparents. My father’s father, who died a dozen years before I was born, was Hugh Donald Stewart. Hugh’s parents were immigrants from Scotland and England. His mother died at 31, leaving five sons, the youngest just eight days old. He was drafted into the US Army during the First World War. His gravestone notes his service: PVT, Company B, 116th Supply Train. He lived and died in Missouri, married a German Catholic, and was the father of six children, the eldest named Donald.
His story is an American story. His nation is one of service and perseverance through tragedy.
My father was named Raymond Gerard. He was 19 years old when his brother Donald died. At his mother’s behest, he followed Don’s footsteps into the Catholic priesthood. In his late 30s he left his vocation to marry and lead a nonprofit treatment center for alcoholic adults. He supported past clients with his ongoing friendship and patronage. Our Volkswagen Beetle was always serviced by Jesus and Tibor, two such men.
His story is an American story. His nation is one of humble faith and friendship.
My son is named Anthony Raymond. He is my father’s only grandson. When he was two weeks old, my father had a heart attack. My father was not well for any year of my son’s life, but Papa recovered and continued on, recovered and continued on. Anthony possesses my father’s gentle heart and ease with affection. Those two were pals. My father declared it so. “We’re good friends,” Papa assured him. “Really really good friends.”
Anthony’s story is an American story. His nation is one of gentleness and nurturing.
These are white men, one still a boy, the descendants of Christian European immigrants. Their nation may not be what you predict. Their nation never stays the same. Their nation grows wiser and wiser. Their nation learns; it is kind.
My parents bought a modest tract home just a few months before I was born. The back yard seemed vast to me as a child, the trees on the lawn forming three bases for baseball: weeping willow to apple to ash. My father was a tinkerer and fond of books, and he kept his religious faith his entire life. He had his own soft-cover copy of the Bible in which he wrote notes. From Psalm 145, he underlined: “May our sons be like plants well-nurtured in their youth, our daughters like wrought columns such as stand at the corner of the temple.”
My parents began to collect handmade art from native peoples when I was a child. First they bought a Navajo rug. This rug, they explained, was in the Two Grey Hills style. Their collection then expanded into pottery, first Hopi and Santa Clara Pueblo. Maria Martinez of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, they told me, was one of the greatest potters in all the world. Her creations were a marvel. We took a road trip to native land to purchase pottery from artists. My father asked one such artist, named Madeline Tafoya, if he could take her picture posing with her work. She agreed.
Their intersecting story is an American story. Their nation is one of reverent study and mutual respect.
My father coached youth soccer for many years. My mother was into it too; she rooted unapologetically from the sidelines (“Kick it kick it kick it!!!”) and helped my dad plan player substitutions on soccer fields drawn on yellow legal pads. Years later, when I told my parents that my friend, a star defender on our team, was in a same-sex relationship, neither said a single disparaging word. My father didn’t grow up in a world of rainbow flags; he was a young adult in the 1950s, after all. And yet he continued to welcome and support the woman he had known as a determined little girl.
He and my friend together have an American story. Their nation is one of love.
In my father’s penultimate year of life, he and my mother were tended to by a professional caregiver named Fay, a woman from Iran who often read materials in Farsi during her stays in their home. My father thanked her often. One day while she and I sat in an emergency room corridor, Fay told me a tender tale: she had helped my father with his shoes, and as she knelt before him, he kissed her head in thanks. At the estate sale for my parents’ condo not long after that day, I gave a desk, lamp, several pots and pans, office supplies — even a Peruvian tapestry — to an Iranian father who came by. He was a new immigrant to the US. “I have nothing,” he said. He paid me a small sum in exchange for the many items. My father would have done the same.
That immigrant’s story is an American story. His nation is one of hope and opportunity.
My father circled this in his Bible, from Proverbs: “Hatred stirs up disputes, but love covers all offenses.” His father before him, and he, and my son, and the potter, the soccer player, and the immigrant now cooking with my parents’ pots — all have American stories. They are the Donalds and the Raymonds, the Madeline Tafoyas and the Fays. This is their country. No one can take away their nation.