In the years that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Grandma Rose sent off her two sons and son-in-law, all her nephews and the sons of her cousins, along with witnessing the deployment of sons of friends and neighbors. The war was a great equalizer. It captured the sons of Christians, Jews, African, European, Asian, Hispanic and Native Americans. Even though, in those bygone days, ethnic and racial groups were segregated, America sent all its sons, whether the apple of their parents’ eyes or orphaned. The promise that they’d return to a better world was delivered to most returnees at the war’s end. For others, it would take more waiting and for some, the wait would last for generations. Still, while we wait, our futures are brighter than anywhere else on earth.
The house on Thatford Avenue in Brooklyn, where I would be born after the war, like the other semi-attached wood frames, housed the women and old men who waited; the Caccatore’s, across the street, the Bruin's on one corner, the Chin's in the four story walk-up on the other corner and the Goldstein’s, down the block.
By the time I was old enough to eavesdrop when grown-ups whispered, the Goldstein’s were grandparents, but their chronicles were often retold on Memorial Day, which Grandma Rose insisted on calling Decoration Day until her death decades later.
After his high school graduation, the Goldstein’s only son, Samuel, answered the call. He was a young private in the US Army with the dog tags to prove it. Sammy came home on leave before being sent to the European Theater. His father shined his boots, his sister showed off her brother in uniform to her friends and his mother cooked his favorites from dawn till dusk. The neighbors, as they had done for the other sons on leave, shook his hand and patted his back in praise.
And then he was gone; fighting for a Europe his parents were grateful to escape.
On a rainy fall day in 1944, when the sycamore trees dropped their soaked leaves into the sidewalk gutters, Sammy’s parents received a telegram.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goldstein, It is our sad obligation to report…
Sammy, the pride and joy of his family was buried with other loved sons in a large European graveyard that was deemed U.S. hallowed ground. During the traditional mourning (shiva), neighbors, respectful of the family’s faith, brought kosher foods from stores they had never entered before. The Goldstein’s had given their only son with the same unfathomable sadness as the biblical Abraham prepared to do.
Months later, they received the same reprieve. Miraculously, Sammy was found in an Army hospital, badly wounded but very much alive. All of Thatford Avenue joined the celebration. A spontaneous block party filled the street. Neighbors set out wooden table tops on benches, covered them with sheets before weighing them down with ethnic bounty; home-made wines and home-made breads, cakes, ale and too many casseroles to count. The party went long into the night. The Goldstein’s went home to await Sammy’s return.
At the year’s end, another message arrived, this time via an army chaplain at their door. The injured soldier found in the army hospital was a Samuel Goldstein, but not their Sammy. The family mourned again. The children of Thatford Avenue were told to stay indoors that day. No bicycles bells ting-a-linged, no metal skates screeched against the sidewalks in respect for a family that sacrificed so much.
Fewer and fewer war memorials are decorated as when the last Monday in May was called Decoration Day. We mark the day with picnics and clearance sales. Some of us take in a movie and others sleep in. The remembrances are left to those with first hand losses.
My family marks the day at our local park with friends. All come laden with ethnic delights much like the Thatford Avenue neighbors of long ago, except more Korean than kosher, but always, right before the feast, we stop as grateful Americans to thank those who paid our debt.
You’re welcome to join us in remembrance. If you find yourself at a loss for words, think of the Goldstein’s down the block.