The Flag is on Display so That Children May Play
The Flag is Freedom for a Child
In the neighborhood where I grew up, riding a bike was the symbol of childhood freedom. Dad, big into tinkering, fixed up the single-speed bike and gave it a new paint job, slick in red, white and blue. And I wheeled around the block in its oiled glory, cranking past Capes, racing by split-levels and ranches with lawns cut and sewn together, a community of stitched verdant patches heralding porches, birdbaths, swings and flower-edged hedges. Sailing past mailboxes like buoys, the wind in my hair, and each plot pinned, as if American life itself were claimed by each family within, with the planting of a single, solitary flagpole.
This pinnacle of freedom, revered by my dad, who served in the Korean War, was the antenna of our lives, unfurling by day and resting by night, all for a way of life that taught hard work paid off, especially when you were willing to make the sacrifice.
Yet that deeper message was too weighty for a girl who looked forward to cartoons on Saturday, liked reading a good book, or listening to music with her friends.
Lowering the flag after dinner with Dad simply meant getting out of doing the dishes with my sisters and brother. Escaping outside to take care of the flag meant I’d get to be with Dad, who seemed to understand that freedom meant having a choice. Yet I had no idea what it meant for those who made the choice to serve their country so that one little kid could ride a bike wherever she wanted. At the time, the meaning of being free was lost on a selfish need to be free from the things I was supposed to be bound to, like household chores, that tended to keep a person relegated to the small indoors.
Freedom had little to do with what it really means to be free. Freedom to live in a place whose fundamental belief is built on the ideals of liberty, the choice to express ideas and choose your own path, being free to travel and learn and work, was a gift to be had and there was a price to be paid.
As a child, I was eager to learn and so I followed Dad out the eagle-crested front door, down the cement steps, past the birdhouses he’d made, across the yard to the foot of the aluminum flagpole crowned with a brass finial that Dad found at the dump, and stood beneath the flag soaring above us. Dad would pause with purpose, his eyes traveling upward and then back down to the bundled hump of line, then he’d get to work undoing the mass, performing a swift criss-cross of reverse figure-eights, revealing more of the stainless-steel cleats with each pass until the line that held the flag fast grew slack. I’d watch him work as rope twanged and the pulley clanged, as the lines traveled in tandem, albeit in opposite directions, simultaneously moving upward while downward to the work of my Dad’s callused hands, freeing the flag altogether from its man-made tether. Another brief pause as he held the loose folds of lowered fabric. Then he’d move a step closer to present two corners of the rectangle of cloth as if it were an artifact of gold. And then we’d stretch the fabric long and taut and begin the process of even folds, compressing the flag’s width and then a series of short corner folds, triangle upon triangle, until Dad tucked the last corner and I let go. He would carry the flag inside for safekeeping until the next morning when the whole ritual was reversed.
And each time we went through this simple but special exercise of patriotism, one that seems quaint and so distant to me now, I never questioned what it meant to be a little girl in an American family in 1970. I never once thought about what it might be like not to have that kind of marvelous freedom. I just wanted to be outside in the yard with Dad, on Memorial Day, on every day of the year. To be able to play freely, learn and think freely and work by Dad’s side freely was a gift, but I didn’t think past that familial community to the larger one in which I got to live.
I could not know all of those heroes who had stood under the banner of the American flag and pledged their lives, made the sacrifices, sworn that no matter what would befall them, to give one little girl they hadn’t even met the kind of freedom that meant standing on soil where a flag could wave in the wind freely and a child could help her father raise it to the edge of the sun.
As I grew older, I began to see that the stoic material stitched together in Stars and Stripes standing out in every instance of weather was a symbol of duty for my father that went beyond patriotism or even sacrifice. Its existence defined my father to his core, and the flag was a promise that a person, like my dad, would promise to do the right thing no matter what it cost, even if it meant the ultimate sacrifice.
And growing up in the United States of America, the nation that waves the American flag one day and burns it the next, is the luckiest lot I could’ve drawn in this life, because I was born into a place that upholds the ideals of what it means to be free.
At the very least, we all see that Memorial Day is a holiday to get together with family and friends as summer approaches in New England, and we must never forget what the buntings and the banners and the flags stand for as we clean up the patio furniture, share a drink and light the grill. We serve ourselves and our families because so many have served this country.
The flag stands for all those lives given for freedom and family and country, and the kind of can-do spirit that my father daily instilled in us, even in the face of adversity. I am here because my dad came home. So many could not.
Politics aside, please take a moment to honor, in your own small way, that ultimate gift of life from so many who served this country.
It has been almost a decade since he raised his beloved flag and let it unfurl. I still see him holding the flag as it captures the light of the morning, keeping the promise of the day.
This weekend, when the parades march and the speeches praise and the guns salutes, raise a flag to the memory of all those souls who went forward and served and who gave their lives for one little kid in your life to ride freely with the wind in his hair.
Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, and writes about writing, learning and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey . Learn more at www.parentforward. blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com .