Memorial Day is for remembering

cemetery by Bruce Stambaugh

By Bruce Stambaugh

Memorial Day is for remembering.

Originally, the day was set aside to remember those who had lost their lives in military service. Most research points to the American Civil War as the primary reason for Memorial Day. Graves of confederate and Union soldiers alike were decorated with flowers.

New York was the first state to officially observe a Memorial Day in 1873, with the rest of the northern states quickly joining in. The South, however, held its own day, separate from the date observed up north.

After World War I, that all changed. Memorial Day, then called Decoration Day, was established to remember all who had died serving the country in conflict. That’s how I remember the day growing up. Parades with bands, fire trucks, flags, and veterans marched by.

In 1971, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday of May to create another three-day weekend. With that, the emphasis switched again. It was a time to remember all those who had gone before.

Yet Memorial Day became more of a celebrative affair that lasted the entire weekend than a singular time of showing respect. Picnics, softball tournaments, fireworks, and family gatherings overshadowed a time of reflection on the sacrifices and horrors of war.

When my parents built their beloved cottage in southeast Ohio in 1975, they always invited the entire family down for a Memorial Day picnic. We went fishing, boating, played games, and generally enjoyed each other’s company.

With the kids grown and gone, my wife and I began celebrating Memorial Day at our favorite vacation spot, Lakeside, Ohio. We enjoyed the company of Flag and bunting by Bruce Stambaughfriends, along with food and games. Patriotic events were staged, too, but my preference leaned more toward remembering in silent contemplation than engaging in nationalistic revelry.

As a young boy, I remembered spending hours sorting through the hundreds of black and white photographs that my father had taken during his stint in World War II. I was fascinated with the exotic South Pacific images I saw depicted in those old photos. Water buffalo, island natives selling goods, and intended to be silly equator-crossing ceremonies all intrigued me.

Dad, like his father before him, never wanted to talk much about the war. They each only shared briefly about their individual involvement. I came away from those limited discussions with the impression that both Dad and Grandpa Merle had abhorred their wartime experiences. They wouldn’t give details, but I concluded that it was the fearsomeness of it all from which they wanted to protect me.

Grandpa had served in the trenches in France during World War I, and was hit with mustard gas. He was only treated at a field hospital, and since they had no record of his injury, he suffered with chronic coughing the rest of his life.

Dad, on the other hand, chose a rosier route, avoiding the negatives. He bragged about being on the first ship into Tokyo Bay and how movies were traded from ship to ship via pulley and cable systems. In his retirement years, Dad enjoyed periodic reunions with his U.S.S. San Diego shipmates.

Neither my father nor my grandfather celebrated Memorial Day in grandiose, red, white and blue style. Rather, they chose to personally remember the horrific effects of war silently, privately. All the while, they relished in being surrounded by family and friends, enjoying the precious moments at hand.

This Memorial Day, I plan to do the same.

A long answer to a simple question

Garden pond by Bruce Stambaugh
The little garden pond in our backyard.

By Bruce Stambaugh

During his last visit to Ohio, my Virginian grandson, Davis, asked me a simple yet rather analytical question, befitting the inquisitive four-year-old, left-handed boy.

Davis and I were outside filling birdfeeders near the little garden pond positioned a few feet away from the back porch and just outside our kitchen window. Davis approached the pond’s edge, lined with mostly flat rocks scavenged from the neighbor’s farm fields.

“Poppy,” Davis queried, “Why do you have a pond?”

The bluntness of the simple question gave me pause. I straightened up, and thought long and hard before I answered him. The tone and intensity of his uncomplicated question told me that Davis really wanted to know.

As I contemplated my answer, Davis waited patiently, searching for the resident frogs and trying to count the darting goldfish. His long, strawberry blonde curls bounced with even the slightest move.

I was impressed with his youthful inquisitiveness. His question piqued my own consciousness regarding the purpose of the pond. I gave Davis the long answer.

I told him that when I retired as a principal, the staff and students at one of my schools gave me a gift certificate to build a garden pond. Apparently, I had let it slip that the pond was one thing I wanted to create once my school days were completed.

Of course, all that was probably too much information for Davis to process. Perhaps it mimicked a politician’s answer to a reporter’s intrusive direct question. Davis looked at me with his big blue eyes and repeated, “But why?”

I changed tactics. I gave him the words I figured he knew and that I loved.

Red-bellied Woodpecker by Bruce Stambaugh
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker enjoyed a sip from the little waterfalls on a cold December day.

I told Davis that the pond attracts life. I itemized a quick catalog of what I meant. The birds I enjoy watching, squirrels, rabbits, deer.

“Deer?” Davis quizzed long and slow, head tilted, hands thrown into the air.

I explained that although I had never actually seen deer drink there, I had found their hoof marks in the mud and snow around the oblong pool. We stepped away, and soon a chipping sparrow flitted to the gurgling little waterfall for a refreshing sip.

Grandson by Bruce Stambaugh
Davis, my inquisitive grandson.

I could almost see Davis’ gears churning beneath those flowing locks. I knew the inquisition would continue.

“Why do you have goldfish?” Davis asked next.

I lovingly touched his curly head and simply said, “So you and your brother can feed them.” Davis looked up at me and smiled, as if he sensed the patronization.

“The fish help keep the pond clean,” I continued. “They eat things that float in the water.” I prayed he didn’t ask for their scientific names.

My grandson’s pointed question helped me step back and appreciate my little garden pond all the more. I enjoy its abundant life, the alluring sound, the attractive and useful greenery in and around the pond, along with the attraction of fur and feathered wildlife year-round.

Those intrinsic pleasures more than compensate for the necessary regular maintenance required to keep the pond in a habitable state. Now, whenever I clean the pump filters, watch birds revel in the water and hear the frogs croak late at night, I’ll remember Davis’ clear question, too.

I know why I have a little pond with a miniature waterfall, brilliant orange goldfish and complementary water plants. “Because I like it,” which is what I should have told Davis in the first place.

My journey with cancer so far

By Bruce Stambaugh

On the morning of Dec. 14, 2010 I got the call I had dreaded. My preliminary test for prostate cancer was positive. A follow up biopsy confirmed the results. My journey with cancer had begun.

My immediate reaction was more of disappointment than surprise. My father had died of prostate cancer, and my older brother had had his cancerous prostate removed a year and a half earlier.

I saw the miseries my father had been through, and I knew what inconveniences my brother dealt with. Still, it was that immediate family history that resulted in my early diagnosis, for which I was most thankful. My doctors tested my PSA level twice a year.

Nevertheless, my initial emotions resembled the steepest, most winding roller coaster at any amusement park. Only, this turn of events wasn’t amusing. It was sad, frustrating, discouraging, lonesome, unacceptable, and agonizing all rolled into one.

At the same time, I knew that with the early diagnosis that I likely would have many more options than other cancer patients with much worse prognosis. And yet, this cancer was in my body and I was not happy about it.

I had been close to cancer before. Besides my father and my older brother, other close relatives and friends had had cancer. Too many acquaintances, former students and friends have either had cancer, are currently in their own battle with cancer, or have died because of it.

Each of their experiences touched me. Still, when the doctor tells you that you have cancer, everything changes.

Yes, it had been detected early. Yes, it likely could be removed or radiated. But it was still cancer. There is no good cancer. Cancer is cancer. Any action to counter the disgusting disease had the potential for unwelcome and unwanted physical, mental and emotional consequences.

Even so, I have found both friends and renewed friendships so far along this rocky path. I have been proactive in asking questions, and others have reached out to me.

Blues Brothers by Bruce Stambaugh
Kim Kellogg, Millersburg, OH, Randy Murray, Orrville, OH and I have formed our own prostate cancer support group. We meet about once a month at a local restaurant.

I meet periodically with two friends, both also in the midst of dealing with prostate cancer. Hearing their stories helps me to understand that each situation is different, and requires decisions that are best for each individual. The road to being cured from prostate cancer is different for every patient. Indeed, for some, there is no cure.

My route took me to a new urologist who laid out the best options for me, naming one by one the potential side effects, both short and long-term. None of them were pretty, including incontinency and impotency.

I have chosen robotic surgery as the best way to deal with my cancer. It is the least invasive, least painful, has the least blood loss, and the quickest recovery time, assuming all goes well. Plus, the surgery will remove the cancer from my body.

My particular prognosis for recovery is good, much better than hundreds of thousands of other cancer patients. I don’t find much solace in that, however.

Statistics show that one in six men get prostate cancer, and some of them are as young as 30. Early detection through testing is paramount, especially with a family history of the disease.

Others who have been down this road ahead of me say it’s important to maintain a positive attitude. That is how I am approaching my surgery. With supportive friends and family, I am comforted knowing that I do not have to walk this journey with prostate cancer alone.

Footnote: I especially appreciate the information and support received so far from Gabe Canales and his Blue Cure Foundation, along with all the good folks who post on Gabe’s Journey with Prostate Cancer Facebook page.

My mom, beautiful in so many ways

By Bruce Stambaugh

My four siblings and I were very fortunate to have the mother we did growing up.

The two decades that followed World War II were some of the most eventful yet tumultuous of the 20th century. However, I don’t remember feeling afraid in our modest household. I think Mom helped us stay focused on the positive aspects of life.

Mom, along with Dad, trusted us. Yes, we had rules, but they weren’t suffocating to us energetic, adventuresome youth. They just kept us connected and safe. We were taught to be polite, seek justice fairly, and to always be honest.

Marian Stambaugh by Bruce Stambaugh
Marian Stambaugh

As was the custom in that era, Dad was the breadwinner and Mom the housewife. Right or wrong, few seemed to question that model until my teenage years. It was just the way it was. I think I found a certain comfort in that daily arrangement.

Mom didn’t smother us, but we saw and sensed her love in how she handled every situation. Besides doing all of the housework, and there was a lot of it with five children and a working husband, Mom somehow managed time for each one of us.

She was there to mend both our scrapes and our clothes. We weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination. Mom somehow made do with the meager salary Dad earned.

Busy as she was, Mom would always take time to interact with us personally as much as she could. Once, when no other kids were around, I asked Mom to play pitch and catch with me. She dropped what she was doing, found a glove and threw the ball back and forth with me for several minutes in the summer sun. And Mom didn’t throw like a girl either.

When we were ill, Mom was there to comfort us. When we were bad, she knew how to discipline justly and accordingly. I will confess that I always enjoyed watching my brothers and sisters getting the what for. I never did of course.

As a teenager, I felt my relationship with my mother growing stronger, better, yet different. Mom and I would regularly engage in protracted conversations covering a wide range of topics, including stories from her past that I had never heard before. Those were precious moments indeed.

Mom was as wise as she was talented and beautiful. She was smart enough to give us the space and freedom we each needed to find our own way in the world.

Mom was more than a mother and a wife, however. She had a life, too. She learned to drive at age 40.

Mom bowled with her sisters and mother. She was an accomplished artist. Even though she won awards and sold many of her watercolors, Mom seldom was satisfied with her vibrant renderings. I must have gotten my modesty from Mom.

Watercolor by Bruce Stambaugh
One of the many watercolor landscapes painted by Marian Stambaugh

Those snippets of memories can’t compare though to the love my siblings and I still have for her today. Out of necessity, Mom, who will soon be 90, is now the one receiving kindly care.

She is happy. She is still friendly and polite. And I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard others remark about how beautiful a woman she is. She always was, and still is.

The five of us siblings were fortunate to have such a wonderful mother to guide and nurture us. Today we are fortunate to still be able to thank Mom for the many forms of beauty she modeled for us all.