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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The Personal is Political

You may have wondered why I wrote about the end of Daylight Savings Time and the coming of Thanksgiving last week, instead of joining my male colleagues in commentary on this traumatic election. It was because I knew in advance that Hubby and I would be driving home from Georgia on Election Day, November 8, as my nephew’s funeral was scheduled for Monday, November 7. I write my columns on Mondays, so I sent in a re-worked column from November of 2013 before we left. During the days since that devastating Tuesday, I’ve dreaded the thought of writing about our national turn towards fascism.

But I’ve always believed in family first, and I also believe that the personal is political, so I’m going to write about my special nephew. I hope you won’t think this is self-indulgent, but my e-mails from readers indicate that you don’t want me to be another pundit who speaks in a third-person voice. I’ve spent a lifetime writing history books in that style, and one of the reasons I like doing this column (aside from the peanuts in pay) is that I can use first-person to share my current concerns -- and then put them in the context of our society as a whole.

So let me talk about David. I first met him before he was born, when I was 12 and my sister was 22. She also had a one-year-old boy, and I spent the summer babysitting him. My brother-in-law re-entered the Army, and we lived in an old-fashioned rooming house in Washington, DC that was run by an older woman who later retired to Sun City. She and my sister were part of the phenomenon of “government girls” – young women who were recruited to Washington from the Midwest (Minnesota and Michigan in this case) – because the public schools there promoted solid educations and good work habits. Sis worked for the Navy and Bergetta for the National Academy of Science, both then on Constitution Avenue in downtown DC. They set models for me that I otherwise would not have had. Except for some who plucked chickens, none of the mothers of my friends were employed.

So David was born at famed Walter Reed Hospital, and I’m going to quote from my sister’s obituary in Georgia’s Columbus Ledger about his later life. It appeared on Sunday, and even before the Monday funeral, the newspaper and funeral home received several appreciative e-mails from people who didn’t know David. She wrote: “As a young boy, we learned that he would be a ‘little slow.’ He attended several special schools and tried valiantly to learn to read and write, but was unable to… He was a happy fellow and loved riding bikes, watching football, playing music, watching the stars at night with his telescope, and when he was younger, trying to fly with a towel for a Superman cape… He was employed by Goodwill Industries for eleven years… until gran mal seizures began...”

Despite good psychiatric and medical care, he deteriorated over the years. David was hospitalized from September 29 to October 31, his grandmother’s birthday, when his parents made the painful decision to cut off life support. His last conscious day was his birthday, October 22 -- and no small thing that I’ve ever done in my life feels as important as the time I spent working with the hospital and online floral companies to get balloons delivered to ICU that day.

The New American Military Family

In my eulogy, I emphasized that ours is a military family, with three generations in David’s own family of men who made their careers in the US Army. With various cousins, nephews, and uncles (including Hubby), I counted ten family members who were there and who had served in the Army or Air Force. Yet although we have a strong military tradition, we are not in any way militaristic. No one behaves like a drill sergeant; no one ever orders others around or bullies or “teases” in a mean-spirited way. Without intending to, David probably did a lot to teach that. Hubby and I have spent lots of time with David over the years, and even when the children were young, we never saw any of his five siblings display the least embarrassment about their brother. They always treated him as an equally loved member of the tribe.

I thought of that love and equality during the weekend, when I spent my most enjoyable time with the four children there who are under age four. Fathers and uncles were engaged as much as mothers and aunts in changing diapers and otherwise caring for them, and everyone from age 84 downwards doted on the three-week old baby. The house (thankfully big, with two large entertainment rooms and a comfortable gazebo by the pool) was full, with 31 family members from eleven states, as far away as Colorado. It also was full of hope for the future, especially with caring behavior that included men doing more than their share in the kitchen – something I never saw in my own youth.

It also is true that the well-equipped kitchen and other comforts of this home largely were paid for with Army retirement checks. And it is true that no one said the least word about the costs of that lengthy hospitalization because military families long have taken for granted that the government would cover the major share of health needs. So now I mourn for Obamacare as well, because despite a military history that goes back to the 1950s, no one in our family presently serves. The last was Sis’ grandson, and he left after Iraq. Daniel’s personality can be seen in that he made the “Today” show when he did the paperwork to bring home an abandoned dog.

Although we now have no one in the military, both Daniel and several others work for military contractors. I’m not sure if any conclusions can be drawn from this – except that being a civilian contractor is both safer and better paid. And private contractors have a strong corps of lobbyists, especially now that the business-types will run everything in Washington. Let’s just hope that no one will actually use the weaponry they develop. A niece is a contractor with NASA, and I’ll happily support a transfer of military money to science. I’ll wish for money for the National Institutes of Health, but probably in vain. Unless someone in the Trump family develops clearer signs of mental illness.

Putting Things in Perspective

A couple more observations on the American way of death. The eulogy that I gave, along with a male cousin and a nephew, was in the fellowship hall of the Lutheran church that David attended. His father is Catholic, but his mother’s Lutheran church had more appeal for him. Like Lutherans elsewhere, the ladies of the church provided a home-cooked meal after the funeral for anyone who wanted to attend. About a hundred people did. This is an expected tradition in the Midwest, along with bringing food to a family’s home after a death.

The first time I experienced the death of a close friend here in Florida was in 1980. I remember the date because Pat Dilkes, an active Democrat, died soon after Jimmy Carter lost his re-election. I brought a casserole to her home, and her husband, a history professor, said, “How quaint.” Except for Judge Don Castor, a Lutheran, none of the funerals or memorial services I’ve attended recently (and they are increasingly frequent) has included a meal prepared by volunteers. Most are catered, whether they are in a church or synagogue or home. Some are in restaurants or clubs or other places that were meaningful to the deceased. Such professionally prepared meals are both an indication of the liberation of women, who are no longer expected to undertake still another unpaid task – and a sign that we are losing communal connections, as bereaved families facing other costs now also are expected to cover reception food.

Another change: David was the first in his family to be cremated. Not so long ago, that was a sin in the Catholic faith and extremely rare in the Lutheran, but his parents made the decision to do so. I was surprised when I heard about it, but as they explained, “We want to bring him home. We’ll put him on the mantle over the fireplace, and he can watch television with us.” I think we all were relieved not to have to face that mournful time when our beloved is lowered into the ground, and although I really relish visiting cemeteries for their perspective on a culture, I may rethink cremation.

My sister made another funeral innovation that I thought was absolutely brilliant. As expected, we sang our father’s favorite hymn, “Be Still My Soul,” which is set to the beautiful tune of Sibelius’ Finlandia – but for the last hymn, she chose “Joy to the World.” Christmas is coming and it was David’s favorite season, but more than that, despite his mental illness, he lived a generally joyful life. I am hugely disappointed that we have not elected a president who will invest in psychiatry – and even worse, publicly mocked the disabled – but maybe I’ll figure out a way to find a bright side to that later on. Meanwhile, “Be Still My Soul” and “Joy to the World” run through my head as I seek mental therapy by pulling weeds. Our very rainy and hot summer means there are a lot of them.

Well, I’ve managed to write a long column without directly focusing on the election. Death puts things in perspective. Just one more word, though. My brother, an Arkansas Air Force veteran, was prevented from going to the funeral because of recently diagnosed epilepsy. Although we usually avoid politics in our phone conversations, he volunteered his view on the Republican victory. His granddaughter, a very smart and sweet girl, has a Mexican mother. Elena was born here and thus is a citizen, but a classmate told her that now that Trump had won, she would have to move to Mexico. My brother asked, “Who would say that to a first grader?” I have to respond that many people would; this kid picked it up from his elders. Now they are in charge, and I’m free to pull weeds. I really do feel that I have been released.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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