A Gold Star Memory for Veterans Day

by M.C. Antil on November 11, 2015

Gold Star monumentI was just 14 years old. It was August 1969, and I was working at one of the first jobs I would ever have, as a busboy at Norm’s Restaurant during the ten-day run of the New York State Fair. Norm’s was not one of those tiny food booths that popped up like mushrooms during Fair week and then disappeared for a year, but a sprawling sit-down cafeteria-style restaurant on the far south end of the aging Horticultural Building.

Anyway, we staffers (most of them, like me, school-aged kids) were told by Ada Rothschild, Norm’s wife (who pretty much ran the place), that at 10 AM we were going to be serving some 50 or so Gold Star mothers. I had no idea what Gold Star Mother was. So I just went with it.

And, sure enough, at 10 o’clock those mothers came parading in to eat whatever it was we had agreed to serve them. To my 14-year old eyes all the ladies looked ancient; every one well over 60, and maybe even 70, all with gray hair and, more often than not, with thick, cat’s eyes glasses. They were also all dressed in something that appeared to be a nurse’s uniform, with every last one also sporting a little white hat featuring, as their name suggests, a tiny gold star on one side.

Gold Star MomsAs I was going about my business, cleaning dishes, piling up trays and wiping tables, I noticed one of the Gold Star Mothers watching me closely. Every time I looked over I caught her stealing glances my way. And unlike the others, she was not seated in a group. Instead, she sat all alone, her small plate of food in front of her.  And she didn’t wear glasses, but had the icy blue eyes of a far younger woman.

Eventually, as I was walking by she smiled and said a soft, “Hello.”  I did the same. Then shortly thereafter, as I was wiping down a table adjacent to her, she asked me if I’d like to join her. I told her I really couldn’t. I said I had a job to do. But even as I was saying that, I found myself pulling out the chair across from her and sitting down.

It was though her eyes and their inherent warmth and tenderness had beckoned me toward her, and I was almost powerless to do a thing about it. And those eyes, even at probably 70 years old, were mesmerizing. They were both beautiful and full of sparkle, and they communicated a depth of character that was so real and so palpable, I swear, I felt I could almost touch it.

As she stared at me, smiling warmly, in a very soft and tender voice she started asking me about myself. What was my name? Where did I go to school? What grade was I in? What did I like to do with my spare time? Did I have lots of friends?  Did I like baseball? And the whole time this was going on, I kept looking directly into those blue eyes of hers, which continued to look back at me with a love that even my own mother would probably have a hard time generating.

Gold Star ArlingtonFinally, I apologized and said I had to get back to work. I said it was nice talking to her and I hoped she’d have fun at the Fair, but I really had to run. Her eyes glistened a goodbye, and she smiled at me one last time. And that was the last I ever thought of her.

Until the following year.

I was back at Norm’s. The Gold Star Mothers were again headed our way at 10 AM. And once again we were told to be on our toes. But this time I asked Ada something I should have thought to ask her 12 months prior. “What,” I inquired, “is a Gold Star Mother?”

Ada looked at me as if I had carrots growing out my ears, and said, “You’ve never heard of the Gold Star Mothers? Those are mothers who’ve had a son killed in war.”

I stood there dumbstruck, the realization hitting me like a 2×4 to my thick skull. The woman wasn’t staring at me because I was a nice guy, or especially cute, or happened to clean tables well enough to merit a cover story on a national magazine. She was staring at me because something about me apparently reminded her of her son who’d been killed.

Gold Star MomsI was stunned. I couldn’t talk. And for a moment I felt I couldn’t move. All I knew that was when I eventually turned away from Ada, who had returned to doing whatever it was she’d been doing, my eyes were brimming with tears.

Because even though I had never answered my doorbell during wartime, had never been handed a little brownish yellow telegram addressed to me from the War Department, and had never been forced to slowly read that telegram, including its words “regret to inform you…”, I’d come as close as I would ever want to.

I had stared into the eyes of a woman who’d actually gotten one of those telegrams, and who’d actually read it. And I, for the briefest of moments, beheld in all its power and majesty the very thing that almost killed that woman and yet at the same time allowed her to somehow persevere.

I saw and felt the enormity of her love. I was given just a tiny piece of it, but that was enough. Because I saw in her a love she would always carry in her heart for her son, a love that had once allowed her to soldier on, even after learning the young boy she’d once cradled in her arms and sung to sleep at night had given his life so that his fellow Upstate New Yorkers, including knuckleheads like yours truly, could continue to go to State Fairs, play baseball, shoot off fireworks, and even bus tables.

plaqueIt’s late on Veterans Day, 2015. I was getting ready for bed a few moments ago. But as I was brushing my teeth and putting a fresh set of sheets on the bed, she came to me again, just as she’s done every one of the last 45 Veterans Days. My Gold Star Memory.  As I was putting on the fitted sheet, there she was; that beautiful, loving, selfless woman seated at her table in my mind’s eye, smiling at me once again, sitting across from me, and looking deep into my eyes for a trace of her lost son.

And I had to sit down right there on the bed as she visited me yet again. And for a few moments I remembered one more time that day so long ago when I got to sit at arm’s length and look into the soul of a courageous mother, a gentle warrior, and a true American hero who, as Abraham Lincoln might have written, had laid so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom.

ArlingtonThat’s why I’m writing this now, while my bed sits in the other room still unmade. I figured it was time to finally commit my annual Veterans Day memory to print, and to honor that remarkable woman and her hero of a son, a guy I only got to know as a reflection in his mother’s eye, but a guy with whom I’m sure I would have loved to have had a chance to go a ballgame, share a joke, or knock back a beer.

Here’s to our freedoms, my friends. Here’s to our remarkable Gold Star Mothers. And here’s to all those from coast to coast who have paid so dearly on a debt we all owe.

Happy Veterans Day.


In Praise of Moose and Squirrel

October 7, 2015

The generation before us had the Loony Tunes, the one behind us, The Simpsons; two thick-beneath-the-surface animated icebergs that taught kids to laugh at the very world that threatened to destroy them; a patchwork quilt of warring cultures, isms and ideologies whose dead-serious leaders often looked, talked and acted, well, cartoonish. Any while my generation didn’t have a Hitler […]

Read the full article →

Empire Records: Upstate New York’s 25 All-Time Greatest Local Hits

August 31, 2015

Tom Friedman is right. The world is flat. We have slowly but surely homogenized just about everything consumable to the point that there is, sadly (at least in those areas that add texture and color to life, like food and music) little left in the way of local or regional flavor. Corporate radio, food chains […]

Read the full article →

Musical DNA — Nick Frenay and the College of Musical Knowledge

May 28, 2015

The following is the third in a series of profiles of sons and daughters of friends who have decided, at least for the time being, to follow their hearts and try to play music professionally — a decision that, I’d like to think, had at least a little to do with their parents’ (and my generation’s) inherent love of […]

Read the full article →

Musical DNA: The Balkun Brothers — At Pray at the Altar of the Blues

March 23, 2015

The following is the second in a series of profiles of sons and daughters of friends of mine who have decided, at least for the time being, to follow their hearts and try to play music professionally — a decision that, I’d like to think, had at least a little to do with their parents’ (and my generation’s) inherent […]

Read the full article →

Orestes “Minnie” Minoso: A Reflection

March 13, 2015

We were driving back to Comiskey Park. It was 1980; April to be exact. I was roughly a year into the first real job of my life, as a low-level ticket-hawker, gofer and all-purpose grunt for the Bill Veeck-era Chicago White Sox. And on that day Minnie Minoso and I were seated in the front seat of […]

Read the full article →

R.I.P. — Jimmy Greenspoon

March 12, 2015

There’s no chance in hell you know the guy’s name.  But you know his deft touch and his lilting sense of melody.  Keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon of Three Dog Night died this week after a brave battle with melanoma. I won’t drill down too deep on this one.  Let me, instead, simply leave you with the one […]

Read the full article →

Musical DNA: Triathalon Exploring Unlit Beach Roads

February 28, 2015

The following is the first in a series of profiles on the sons and daughters of friends of mine who have decided, at least for the time being, to follow their hearts and try to play music professionally — a decision that, I’d like to think, had at least a little to do with their parents’ (and […]

Read the full article →

Winning the Offseason: Or How the Dodgers Kicked the Padres A**

February 19, 2015

It’s Day One. Pitchers and catchers have reported. And throughout the land people like yours truly are celebrating one of the most eagerly anticipated days of the year. With the opening of camps in many otherwise sleepy little communities across Florida and Arizona, not only can we once again see the light at the end […]

Read the full article →

Lesley Gore — An Appreciation

February 17, 2015

The T.A.M.I Show, the concert film pieced together from a two-night parade of pop stars at a Santa Monica theater in 1964, could be viewed as a metaphor for Lesley Gore’s life and career. Acting as bookends of the now-legendary film are three dark and edgy titans of rock, pop and soul, Chuck Berry at the […]

Read the full article →