A Gold Star Memory

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, like me, school-aged kids) were told by Ada Rothschild, Norm’s wife (who pretty much ran the joint), that at 10 AM we were going to be serving 50 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 the heck,” 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. She was staring at me because something about me apparently reminded her of her son who’d been killed defending his country — my country.

Gold Star MomsI was stunned. I couldn’t talk. And for a moment 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 from the War Department, and had never been forced to slowly read it, including the chilling 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, 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 somehow allowed her to soldier on.

I saw and felt the enormity of her love. It was just a tiny sliver of it, but that was more than enough. Because I saw in her a love she would always carry in her heart, a love that had once allowed her to get up each morning and face the day, even after learning the boy she’d once cradled in her arms and sung to sleep at night as a baby 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, yes, bus tables.

plaqueIt’s late on Veterans Day, 2015. I was getting ready for bed a moment 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 Veterans Day for the past 45 years. My Gold Star Memory.  As I was putting on the fitted sheet, there she was; that beautiful, loving, selfless woman seated at a 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 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 morning so many years 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, a woman 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 the bed sits unmade. I figured it was time to finally commit my Veterans Day memory to print, and to honor a remarkable woman and her heroic 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 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.

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