A sweet, hunched-over old lady pushed her cart slowly and deliberately through the aisles of the commissary. I had been stuck behind her in several aisles and I confess I was getting slightly annoyed at the fact that she appeared to be in no particular hurry. Rolling my eyes and searching for the perfect moment to maneuver my cart around hers, I stared at her intently. At the end of the aisle, a man dressed in a freshly-pressed Navy uniform rounded the corner and began walking toward us. “Great,” I thought, “looks like I’m stuck again…” As he got closer to us, the lady stopped. She left her cart in the middle of my path and began hobbling toward him. Just as I was about to lose my patience, I saw her do the most incredible thing. She reached out and took his arm. She gazed into his eyes and she said, “Sir? I just want to say thank you. Thank you for all your sacrifices, for keeping us safe, and for all you do for us. Thank you for serving.” He smiled down at her; visibly touched by her kind words. He thanked her and offered her his arm to help her back to her cart. I stood there, in the middle of the frozen vegetable aisle, blinking furiously and swallowing hard as tears welled up in my eyes and plopped onto my shopping list.
I followed her at a distance for the next several minutes; virtually ignoring my daughters as they chatted and giggled and pretended to sneak Lucky Charms and fruit snacks into our shopping cart. Mesmerized by this woman, I observed as she stopped at the sight of every uniformed person, abandoned her cart full of groceries, and offered her sincerest thanks. She touched each one gently on the arm and looked into directly their eyes. In the moments that I followed her I counted five in all: 2 men in flight suits, one man in Navy BDUs, one woman in crisp Navy summer whites, and one teenage-looking Airman with all of two stripes on his arm. It was as if she had nowhere more important to go and nothing more important to do on a Friday morning than to stop and acknowledge each and every one of these complete strangers.
Those of you who know me, know that it doesn’t take much to bring me to tears. And I’ll be the first to admit that the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks has had me feeling a little sensitive and vulnerable all week. Just a few short months ago, I stood at Ground Zero for the very first time and stared at all the names etched on the walls of the reflecting pools. I felt my throat tighten as I traced the names of complete strangers with my fingers. I rode the elevator to the top of Freedom Tower and watched from One World Observatory as the sun set on the same skyline that was engulfed in smoke, flames, and fear 15 years ago. I felt the sickness in my gut give way to pride once more as I beheld the brilliant reds and blues of our flag draped against the stunning white floors and walls of the architectural marvel known as The Oculus of The World Trade Center Transportation Hub.
Perhaps my sensitivity that morning was also compounded by the anger and disgust I am harboring at the sight of all these strong, able-bodied young athletes choosing to kneel rather than stand for the raising of our flag and the singing of our National Anthem. It’s not so much the protest that bothers me, it’s the method of protest that just doesn’t sit right in my military-wife soul. Despite my careful listening to their point of view, I fail to see how refusing to honor the flag that so many have marched under (and, in many cases, given their very lives for) will have any constructive impact whatsoever on the social injustice that they claim to be so concerned about. I hear them continually reminding the media that they are highly-educated and socially aware. Yet the method of protest they have chosen seems a misguided and ineffective way to battle systematic racism and injustice. Moreover, their talent, notoriety, and obscene bank accounts have afforded them something that Rosa Parks could have only dreamed of–a perfect platform. I just wish all their education could have led them to discover a more constructive way to utilize it.
So you see how the juxtaposition of towering, steel buildings and powerful, professional athletes with this solitary, frail, elderly woman sufficiently tipped my Scale of Very Big Feelings on Friday morning. The result? My tear-stained grocery list.
No matter how hard I try, I just can’t get that little old lady out of my head. Because of her, I left the commissary with something that wasn’t on my list: Hope. Her humility and gratitude renewed my hope that despite the shortcomings and sins of our nation, kindness still exists. The men and women she thanked for answering the call to serve embody the kind of selflessness and sacrifice that has made our Nation unlike any other. And the flag on their uniform represents the best part of us—the united part.
In the eloquent words penned by University of Texas Systems Chancellor William McRaven:
Those that believe the flag represents oppression should remember all the Americans who fought to eliminate bigotry, racism, sexism, imperialism, communism, and terrorism The flag rode with the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th, 10th, 24th and 25th Calvary and Infantry Regiments. It was carried by the suffragists down the streets of New York City. It flew with the Tuskegee Airmen of WWII. It was planted in the fields where Cesar Chavez spoke. It marched with Martin Luther King Jr. It rocketed into space on the shoulder patches of women, gays, Hispanic, Asian and African American astronauts. Today it waves high over the White House. It is a flag for everyone, of every color, of every race, of every creed, and of every orientation, but the privilege of living under this flag does not come without cost. Nor should it come without respect.
The nation and everything it strives for is embodied in the American flag. We strive to be more inclusive. We strive to be more understanding. We strive to fix the problems that plague our society. But in striving to do so, we must have a common bond; some symbol that reminds us of our past struggles and propels us to a brighter, more enlightened future. That symbol is the American flag.
photo credit: <ahref=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/127446714@N05/27332207620″>Inside the oculus – Westfield World Trade Center</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a>