My Mother’s Day

My mother taught me to read when I was so young that I do not have a active memory of it. My memory device (I think it is referred to in medical texts as a “brain”) started to record life when I was two-and-a-half, and in my recollections of moments spent with my mom and books, I am an active participant in the task at hand: our endless laughter at the very idea of eating green eggs and ham (the “and ham” was my favorite part), our (re-)discovery of the Cat in the Hat’s many hijinks.

Mother’s Day, the annual holiday, is one whose date I annually forget. It is perhaps because it is celebrated on different dates in different nations and I have online friends in some of those different nations that “Happy Mother’s Day” Facebook posts make a weekly appearance in the spring. I think that I have sent my own (American) mom a Happy Mother’s Day note twice in one year thanks to this phenomenon.

Today is not Mother’s Day; it is my mom’s birthday, my own Mother’s Day.
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Veterans Day 2016

“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly—but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”—Ernie Pyle, World War II journalist, writing about what he saw at the front. Killed in action April 18, 1945.

I do not come from a family that talks much about its military service. My father was drafted in 1958, served his two-year-long tour, and then came back home to a job that had been held for him. This was during the Cold War, so he did not see action but he did see more of the world than he had up till then, or since. He served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Cold War as a calculator tasked with determining missile flight paths. (I believe he worked with the Atlas missile, an early ICBM model.)
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Mark Aldrich and Me

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

To the best of my knowledge, there are no murderers in the part of the family tree that leads directly to me. I have done my best to maintain this streak of successfully not murdering anyone, but if I am ever accused, I will not be the first person named Mark Aldrich to be charged with murder.
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Fire at the Mill

Some memories are of photographs and not the incident itself, but some feel to the rememberer like they are of a photo, with the details so clear and so accessible. There is one memory … I could count the rocks in the creek bed if I would just take the time.

My father was born 80 years ago this Saturday. If August 15, 1935, is known for anything, it is not the birth of my dad but for it being the date Will Rogers and Wiley Post died when Post crashed their airplane north of the Arctic Circle near Point Barrow, Alaska. (They may be the first celebrities to have perished in a plane crash.)
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I’m My Great-Great-Great-Great … Grand-Who?

“Happy Father’s Day, dad.”—Me

To the best of my knowledge, there are no murderers in the part of the family tree that leads directly to me. I have done my best to maintain this streak of successfully not murdering anyone, but if I am ever accused, I will not be the first person named Mark Aldrich to be charged with murder.
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Who’s My Great-Great-Great-Great … Grand-Who?

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

To the best of my knowledge, there are no murderers in the part of the family tree that leads directly to me. I have done my best to maintain this streak of successfully not murdering anyone, but if I am ever accused, I will not be the first person named Mark Aldrich to be charged with murder.

Almost every person with the last name Aldrich in the United States is descended from George Aldrich of Derbyshire, England, a tailor who was born in 1605 and emigrated to America in 1631, a decade after the Pilgrims. He is my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather and probably the only one whose name I will know. George and his wife Katherine Seald Aldrich settled in Dorchester, Massachusetts, had 10 children (one, a daughter who died in infancy, bore a classic Puritan name, “Experience”) moved to Braintree, and then moved to Mendon, Massachusetts, where his name is inscribed on a monument naming the town’s first settlers.

His second son, Joseph, is the great-great-great-great grandfather of Rhode Island Senator Nelson Aldrich, whose daughter Abby, married John D. Rockefeller II and was the mother of several prominent Rockefellers. One son, Nelson Rockefeller, carried “Aldrich” as his middle name.

Another son, Jacob, had a dozen children, and those from his son, Joseph, were early settlers (in the 1740s) of Mattituck, on the east end of Long Island, and the Tafts, including President Taft.

One of Jacob’s other sons was named Peter, born in 1686, and he is my direct ancestor.

The sheer proliferation of Aldriches in America—when ten children have ten children, the family tree suddenly has a lot of branches on it—makes research a challenge. The genealogies have notes like, “Jacob 2 and Jacob 4 both had sons named Jacob who married wives named Sarah, or they are the same Jacob.” I exaggerated that a little.

Thus I do not know which line in upstate New York produced Mark Aldrich. The one in 1801. The Mark Aldrich from upstate New York born in 1968, that one is me, last I checked. But in 1801, Mark Aldrich was born near Lake George, New York, son of Artemus Aldrich. He is not my namesake. By the date of his death, September 1873, in Tuscon, Arizona …

Tuscon?

His death notice in the Arizona Citizen fills in some blanks: “Hon. Mark Aldrich died in Tucson, Sunday evening, of old age. … A very large number followed his remains to the grave. The Masonic Brotherhood took charge of his remains and buried him in accordance with the rights of the order.

Mark Aldrich. Not me.

Mark Aldrich. Not the me Mark Aldrich. The other one.

The deceased was seventy-one years of age. He was born in the state of New York, but subsequently settled at Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois. We know but little of his early history, but are informed that he was three times a member of the Illinois Legislature, and served with Lincoln, Douglass, and other distinguished men who have since written their names high on the roll of fame.He came to California in 1849, and we believe engaged in mercantile pursuits. Of his history while there we are not informed.

He came to Arizona in the latter part of 1855, and has since resided in Tucson. He was the first American merchant in this town, the first postmaster, and the first alcalde.

“Mercantile pursuits” in California in 1849? Whatever might those have been? That was the year the Gold Rush started. The first alcalde of Tucson? “Alcalde” is spanish for “Mayor,” so he was the first American mayor of Tuscon, Arizona.

But the early history that the newspaper writer “knew little of?”

Hancock County, Illinois, in the 1830s was where Joseph Smith had led his followers in the Latter Day Saint Movement. Aldrich tried to sell Smith and his followers some land that he owned but Smith did not purchase. After renting the land, however, Aldrich turned into one of the worst landlords (or best, for Mormon history) and started changing the terms of the lease at whim. Smith and the early Mormons left and settled what became Nauvoo, Illinois; Smith named himself mayor and announced a run for President of the United States. Aldrich went bankrupt.

Nauvoo is in Hancock County, the same county that Aldrich’s land had been on. Now a vocal opponent of the incipient LDS movement, Aldrich was also one of those figures one still sees a lot of in small-town America: he seems to have always been in at least one elected or appointed position wherever he resided. He was a major in the Illinois State Militia, and in June of 1844, Joseph Smith had been arrested and was being held in the Carthage City Jail.

Smith was charged with ordering the destruction of the Nauvoo newspaper facilities because the paper, founded by former associates who turned against him, had printed stories accusing Smith of polygamy. The newspaper was declared a public nuisance and its press was destroyed, but so was its building. When a neighboring town issued a warrant for Smith’s arrest, he declared martial law in Nauvoo, which turned the issue into an Illinois issue and the governor ordered Smith put on trial.

Smith was held with his brother in the Carthage City Jail and on June 27, 1844, a mob of hundreds stormed the jail. The two prisoners were killed. Someone had to have let the mob in. Someone had to have directed the mob. Aldrich, a militia major with men under his command who took part in the mob, was charged with four other men. A trial was conducted and an all-non-Mormon jury acquitted the five. Aldrich ran for sheriff of Hancock County the very next year.

When I lived in Iowa, near Nauvoo, a friend invited me to visit Nauvoo. She did not know this history and I decided against risking matters.

Within a decade, Aldrich was an early settler of Tuscon and its first American mayor. And his body is, to this day, buried under the streets of Tuscon. The cemetery in which he was interred was closed by 1890 as the city grew into city-hood and paved things. Most remains were moved to other locations in subsequent decades but no record exists that states that any Aldrich relative claimed the body of the former mayor and accused-but-acquitted murderer of the founder of the Mormon Church.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 19 asks, “We all have that one eccentric relative who always says and does the strangest things. In your family, who’s that person, and what is it that earned him/her that reputation?”

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‘Dulce et decorum est’: Veterans Day 2014

“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly—but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”—Ernie Pyle, World War II journalist, writing about what he saw at the front. Killed in action April 18, 1945.

(This is a revision of a column I first wrote a year ago.)

I do not come from a family that talks much about its military service. My father was drafted in 1958, served his two-year-long tour, and then came back home to a job that had been held for him. This was during the Cold War, so he did not see action but he did see more of the world than he had up till then, or since. He served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Cold War as a calculator tasked with determining missile flight paths. (I believe he worked with the Atlas missile, an early ICBM model.)

His older brother, my uncle Richard, was a lifelong Army man who served from the 1950s into the ’70s. Richard was a combat veteran, but he never spoke of his experiences in Vietnam with any family member; my understanding is he would go silent for long periods so his letters home were not sent from Vietnam or associated military mailboxes in order to protect his family from the fear that he was in a dangerous combat zone.

Their father, my grandfather, was too young to enlist for action in the First World War, and by December 7, 1941, he was the father of four young sons and nearly 40, so our country did not call on him.

His younger brother, my great-uncle Walter, died in action in France in 1944. (My dad has been producing a family history and I did not know this fact until recently. At the top of this article is a photo from Find A Grave.com of Walter Aldrich’s gravestone in Lorraine American Cemetery, near Metz, France, one of 10,000 Americans buried in that cemetery. It is the largest American World War II cemetery in Europe.)

Purpleheart

Purple Heart

The 104th Infantry Regiment, an element of the 26th Division, is one of the oldest in the country, having first been mustered in 1639 in Springfield, Massachusetts. This is the area of the country my part of the Aldrich family comes from. (It is a line that can be traced directly to the first Aldrich in America.) The 104th saw action at the Battle of Bunker Hill and at Gettysburg and is also known as the “Yankee” Division. Technical Sergeant Walter J. Aldrich, killed November 19, 1944, was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. (Here is a PDF of the division’s battle casualties. If you do not have Adobe Acrobat or if your browser does not open PDFs, do not click on it.)

According to an online history of the 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division: “On 15 November, after an intensive shelling, the Regiment took Marsal and Harracourt and assembled in the Foret de Bride et de Koecking to establish a defense along the Lindequin-Dieuze Road. In driving for the towns immediately east of the Foret de Bride et de Koecking to cut off railroad arteries that fed Metz, the Division ran up against a strong defensive position.” In some way, my great-uncle played a part in the fight for Metz, which the Allies re-took on November 17, and where he is buried.

My father wrote in his family history that Walter “enlisted in the Army on March 10, 1941. I remember Uncle Walter visiting us in South ‘Derry while wearing his uniform prior to being sent overseas. I wish now that when I was in the Army in 1958–1960 and stationed in Germany, I had known where he had been buried in France. I went to Paris, France, on a long weekend pass and would have gone to the cemetery to see his grave.”

There is a National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, NY, near where I live, but Walter Aldrich is not on their roster.

On my mother’s side of the family, my great-uncle Louis Miller also served in the Army in Europe in World War II, and he saw the concentration camps, a solemn thing for a American-born Jew to witness.

When I was 18 and struggling with the identity issues that 18-year-old boys are supposed to struggle with, but a bit more loudly than the New England side of my family was accustomed to witnessing, my Uncle Richard had some advice: “Take one step forward and raise your right hand.” Military service was what I needed, he made clear in his loving but curt way, and he was the only family member, friend, or guidance counselor in my life to offer this advice. A couple decades later and a few mistakes along the way, I wonder if he might not have been correct, but only because I remember that at the time, we were not at war.

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War is one of the least common shared experiences but is the one that writers and other artists most desire to capture in the moment, to make it seem a common shared experience. Many great works are the result of the attempt to make war real for those, like me, who have not and probably never will witness combat.

Each new generation at war masters new technologies for waging war and new ways to describe it. The Civil War brought new fighting machines and battlefield photography; the Second World War debuted mass anonymous bombing runs and heroic, large-scale battles—it was the war for novelists and filmmakers; the First World War was the war of chemical attacks, soul-crushingly slow trench warfare, and new mechanical technologies of death-creation sadly under-anticipated by those who were planning for yet another war fought in straight lines.

World War I was the absurd war, fought for reasons so complicated and obscure to the common fighting man that for Christmas Day 1914, an unofficial truce was declared by the soldiers on the battlefields of the Western Front and there, on the fields, carols were sung, holiday cards were exchanged between enemies, and joint burials of the battlefield dead were conducted by the opposing sides. It was the war for poets.

Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” (Latin for “it is sweet and right”) is a poem that attempts to capture a small moment of death in the large landscape of a battlefield shrouded in mustard gas. It calls the Horatian declaration that closes the poem, “Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori” (“Sweet and right it is to die/for one’s country”), “the old Lie,” and there the reason for the poet’s close study of a fellow soldier’s violent death is delivered. For Owen, there is no great message to be gleaned from recounting his comrade’s gurgling death other than the sad, empty absence of any message. You would not tell children eager for heroic tales, he concludes, you would not tell them of great glory, if you were to see and hear the “smothering dreams” of death that he has seen.

If any members of my family carried such “smothering dreams” in them from the military portions of their lives, they certainly did not attempt to convince any of us in the next generation of the beauty of “patria mori.” I suppose that that is an honorable silence. My uncle’s Vietnam combat stories were only for the ears of his VFW buddies and hunting partners.

Owen himself died on November 4, 1918, one week before peace was declared, on November 11. So I honor our patriots this Veterans Day by reading a poem that reminds us of the absence in the grit of war of any heroic message, a poem that some 96 years after it was composed probably better describes the unconventional battlefields seen in our current conflicts than many attempts today.

Dulce et Decorum Est—Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 10 asks, “Fill in the blank: ‘Life is too short to _____.’ Now, write a post telling us how you’ve come to that conclusion.”

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‘Two of One Kind’


This is the story that moved me the most today. Clara Gantt of Los Angeles, 94 years old, accepted the remains of her husband on Friday at Los Angeles International Airport, a short time after learning that he had in fact died in 1951 as a prisoner of war in North Korea. That country has slowly, so slowly, begun to release information about and even the mortal remains of battlefield dead and dead POWs to its sworn enemy, the United States.

Mrs. Gantt’s final contact from her husband was a Christmastime letter sent from the front at the end of 1950. Shortly after, historians now know, he was taken prisoner on the battlefield and died in Korean custody. They had only been married for two years, or 65, depending on whether one asks Mrs. Gantt.

Her dedication to the memory of her late husband was such that she refused to consider him her late husband until this year, when she learned that the government had received remains from North Korea and positively identified them as Sgt. Joseph Gantt. She told reporters that even when she was able to purchase a house for herself in the 1960s, she also hired a gardener to tend it, since she knew he did not like yard work and she wanted him feel free to do whatever he liked when he returned home from the war.

From the Los Angeles Times story: “During the last 63 years, no one else caught Clara Gantt’s fancy as she waited for news of her husband. She told the base officials assigned to check wives’ homes for other men to come by anytime, (as) they’d never catch her with anyone.

“‘I am very, very proud of him. He was a wonderful husband, an understanding man,’ she told reporters at the airport. ‘I always did love my husband, we was two of one kind, we loved each other. And that made our marriage complete.'”

Widow, 94, Receives Remains of Fallen Husband

I learned about that kind of enduring love from my grandparents. Eighteen years ago this month, William Aldrich died, aged 91. Bill and Edith (Pearson) Aldrich were married for 64 years. I asked my grandmother if she could recall how they met. “How did we meet? I don’t think I remember,” she said and looked at her sister-in-law, my great-aunt June, and repeated my question.”What did we do?” she asked. June brightened, “We danced.”

“I guess we danced,” my grandmother nodded and looked at me. The two of them held hands and repeated, “We danced.”

Edith Aldrich had a gift that the widow in Los Angeles did not receive: She saw her husband every day for 64 years. But both love stories are priceless.

As they grew old and then older, my grandparent’s life became that “complete” marriage. In their small Vermont hill town, the mail was delivered twice a day to the country store. My grandfather would march down the hill, cross highway 100 and the bridge over the West River, collect the mail and return. Her eyes would follow him every step.

By age 85, he was living with Alzheimer’s and her watchful care included hiding the car keys and having my uncle (and once, me) conceal the lawnmower behind the barn, lest he act on his foggy desire to fix something, anything, and hurt himself. (When I last saw him, age 89, he was still able to bend at the waist and pluck his hated dandelions out of the ground from a standing position, so he remained physically strong till the end.)

My grandmother outlived her beloved Bill by almost 14 years, dying in June 2009 at age 98. One day, years into her widowhood, she and I went for a walk on her road, the same road as the family cemetery, and she mentioned him.

“I miss your grandfather every day,” she told me, as if this was something she had been thinking about. “I’m not interested in joining him just yet, but I know he’s waiting for me.”