Memorial Day Musing
Insomnia plagued my childhood. My mother was a refugee from Nazi Europe, who never spoke outright about what had happened back there. Eavesdropping on the muffled conversations she had in clandestine German with her sisters and parents, however, I felt the anguish wrought by the dismal truths they shared. I inferred that some dark force was out there, still looking for us. When I closed my eyes, I pictured evil monsters, and I could not sleep.
In those days, my father was rarely home. He traveled around the country, representing, depending on the year, surgical supply or pharmaceutical firms. He repaired machinery, consulted with physicians, sold his products, and was often absent for weeks at a time. When he was at home, he was the center of my universe. In his presence, I felt safe. We had animated, prolonged family dinners. There were Sunday afternoon restaurant meals and bedtime stories that extinguished the nightmares.
Mom was not one to wait bedside until I drifted off to sleep, but Dad reveled in the opportunity to display his performance repertoire. It was a rich one that included Biblical episodes delivered with dramatic flourish, Chaucerian tales recited in crisp, Middle High English, a medley of Protestant hymns sung in a sonorous baritone, and, my personal favorite, tales of his grandfather’s Civil War exploits.
Hiram H. Terwilliger was my father’s maternal grandfather and the god of his idolatry. A gentleman farmer in the Catskills, Hiram was descended from a line of Dutchmen who had emigrated from the Netherlands early in the second decade of the 17th Century. By the time of the American Revolution, in which Hiram’s own great-grandfather had distinguished himself as a warrior patriot, they had begun to intermarry with English landowners and had taken their place in the highest echelons of Knickerbocker society. Dad’s narration of this family lore always had a pointed purpose: Terwilligers take heritage seriously. It defines how they are to live their lives..
A lay preacher in the Dutch Reformed Church, my great-grandfather was a rabid abolitionist. He and his sister Sarah were conductors on the Underground Railroad, and the family farm was a relay station. Though passionately pacifist, when the purveyors of human beings refused to end their vile trade, Hiram enlisted in the Union Army, in 1861. He was wounded and sent home mere months after he joined. As soon as he was healthy again, he re-enlisted, this time elevated to the rank of Corporal and subsequently to Sargent.
In 1862, at the second Battle of Bull Run, Hiram was shot nine times, sustaining at least three wounds that should have killed him. He refused to fall. After retrieving the Union flag from the ambushed color guard, Hiram kept moving, leading his battalion into the fray. I can still hear my father’s tear-stained voice whispering, “He said he would not rest so long as all Americans were not free.”
Recovery from the wounds and from the subsequent surgeries was long and painful. Summoned to the hospital in Fredricksburg, where Hiram had been taken from the field, Sarah, who volunteered with the corps of battlefield nurses, cared for him until he was well enough to travel. She accompanied him back to the family homestead, where she dutifully nursed him for over a year.
Though they both married and lived separate lives, brother and sister remained to committed to the cause that nearly killed him.
Sarah, who lived to age 100, was a popular local heroine, known in Ulster County as Auntie Warren, her married name. She became a suffragette. Hiram marched with her. He preached universal suffrage from his pulpit and took his message to conferences and convocations around New York and New England. Toward the end of his life, Hiram suffered paralysis from his waist down but continued to preach from his wheelchair. Whenever he heard of discriminatory practices enacted against any of his neighbors, Hiram was there to preach equality. He had a special affinity for Native Americans and was a continual thorn in government’s side, writing letters and making sermons admonishing the powerful hypocrites, who betrayed the People with broken promises and violated treaties.
Dad would finish Hiram’s story with a grand flourish as he looked into my sleepy eyes with a singularly intimidating look. “And so,” he would whisper, “now you understand your responsibility.”
“My grandfather nearly died,” Daddy would whisper as he left the room. “So that what happened to Mommy’s family in Europe will never happen to people here”
Since Mommy had clearly suffered from whatever it was that befell her beloved home, I embraced his assertion. She had escaped the Nazis and had come to America because here she could be safe, and her children would be protected from discrimination.
Every year of my growing up brought new awareness of America’s salient truths. People were not safe here. Discrimination was rampant. My father’s best friend was a physician, who was forced to take maintenance jobs in order to feed his family he finally found a hospital willing to grant him admitting privileges. I spent a weekend billeted with a Mohawk family on the St. Regis reservation, and I was appalled to come face to face with what my white forebears had done to this proud, generous people. By the time I graduated from high school, I deeply understood the hypocrisy of the opening words of the Declaration of Independence, grasped the depth of the evil perpetrated on villages in Korea and Viet Nam in the name of American democracy. My great-grandfather’s story became my reassurance, my inspiration.
I attended Malcom X lectures, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., explored the beliefs of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, et al. I studied languages and traveled abroad so that I could obtain a deeper understanding of the world around me I believed that it was possible to be an American, and to uphold the rights of humankind, to extol the virtues of immigration, to embrace multiculturalism. I struggle now — a struggle exacerbated daily by new events, such as this week’s brutal murder of George Floyd and the idiocy of Christian Cooper’s encounter with a white woman’s performative fear in Central Park — to suspend my disbelief.
I miss the days when I bought into the myth of America. Once a year, I force myself to make a valiant effort to retrieve my faith.
Every Memorial Day, I doff my cynicism and think about old Hiram Hauslander Terwilliger and his sister Sarah Elizabeth Warren. While many of the principles they espoused are still unwon, their story reminds me that we can do better. Men and women before and since have given their lives to the belief that we will do better.
The future of this country demands that we must do better.