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May 27, 2008

Reflecting on the veterans in our family

As part of the tradition I hope will become a regular event throughout my children’s lives, we once again visited the cemeteries of our ancestors who fought in wars and who are buried here in Whitley County. Each year, the American Legion places flags near the entrance of the cemeteries and families are encouraged to place the flags on their loved ones’ graves.

Following yesterday’s American Legion Memorial Day Parade in downtown Columbia City, we set out about our mission: placing flags on the graves of three Civil War soldiers. Only two of the three are our ancestors and last year we “adopted” a Civil War soldier named Elza Roberts and now will place a flag on his grave as well. I think in the future we need to adopt one more because there was some “disagreement” among the two children about who should have the honor of placing the third flag. After rationalizing that last year Jamee got to place the extra flag, he allowed his sister to have the honor this year.

We will have to place a virtual flag for our closest relative and most recent to die in a war – my great uncle Pfc. Emmett Richard Zartman (shown in the photo at right). His natural skill at riflery and marksmanship put him in a dangerous position and he was selected for the 82nd Airborne Division’s Company G 325th Glider Infantry Regiment. Yesterday, in the afternoon, I listened to a recording of a veteran talking about his experience with the glider regiment and it made me quite emotional, knowing just a little more than I did before about what someone in my own family experienced so many years ago.

The veteran recounted that the night before Normandy they were called together for a briefing and told, basically, that their individual lives were expendable – but that the mission played an integral role in making sure the US staked its position there. Hearing him speak, my eyes welled up with tears. He said they were told their main responsibility, regardless of what happened to their equipment or to their lives, was to get the gliders and paratroopers into the designated area at Normandy so that they would be there slightly before the soldiers arrived on the beaches of Normandy.

I can’t begin to imagine how terrifying it was to ride in a glider swooping down into enemy territory and then having to fight as soon as you’ve landed. This is interesting because those involved in the glider regiment’s men were both airmen, flying dangerous one-way missions into enemy territory, and then also infantrymen for their ground combat role once they’d landed. I read quite a bit about the glider infantry yesterday and it bothers me enough knowing that the mortality rate for the regiment was already estimated at 70-80% -- but the government felt it was an important enough mission, and regardless of success with similar missions in the past, decided to go forward.

After listening to the veteran’s recording about the glider infantry yesterday, I couldn’t help but think of my great uncle’s face. Dark hair, sharply arched eyebrows and he looked a lot like my brother does today. He fought for his country and though more than 70 years have passed, he is still missed. His life wasn’t merely expendable. He is still remembered even though my grandfather, now in his eighties, is one of the few living people who knew him.

Earlier this year, my grandparents entrusted most of the family photographs to me and in looking through some of them, I’ve found quite a few of Emmett. Quite a few are of him proudly dressed in uniform or before he’d graduated from South Side High School. It’s the “seeing the before” and “knowing the after” that makes these photos hard to look at. These photographs show his personality and hit home, even more, how much of a tragedy it was that he died fighting for his country. When he died on July 3, 1944, he left behind a young wife to carry on without him, parents and a brother who became an only child. A lot of dreams died with Emmett. Were he alive today, with a family of his own, cousins to us, I wonder if life would have been different?

Though much of what we do on Memorial Day involves remembering the dead, it also stands as a reminder, that families are still experiencing the loss of their sons and daughters in war. Memorial Day and everyday should be a day for remembering our veterans, living and dead, for what they’ve given us – freedom and their lives.

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May 22, 2008

Time for some 'Mouth Management 101'

I am convinced that somewhere, between the lips and the brain, lies a little button. That button serves to mute our mouths, pause and delete what we are about to spew forth, unedited, from our minds.

Some people have mastered that button, remaining mum on certain subjects or, at a minimum filtering what they really wanted to say with something more appropriate. They are careful not to offend and offer, instead, words of comfort.

Others are seemingly born without that button and say whatever thought pops into their mind – not thinking through the consequences of their words or the impact those words might have on someone else.

Driving down SR 109 Monday, I passed a sign reading, “Mouth Management 101” on the marquee of a local church and it got me thinking about talking and the damage words can do. What might seem like a joke or inconsequential to one person, may not be perceived that way by someone else.

Before I go any further with this, I do want to say that I am human. I have said things I shouldn’t have. I have probably unknowingly offended people with things I have said, but I don’t intentionally set out to hurt people with my words and I hope, in some small way, I can help people with my words. After all, there are a lot of words on this site and I think most of them represent good, positive concepts.

I want to say this, however: there are people we encounter on a frequent basis who both lack that button of decency in their head that prevents them from saying ridiculous things and that hurt people, businesses and organizations with the things they say. Whether this is intentional or not is unclear. Unfortunately, I am relatively certain that the person(s) that should take this message to heart probably either won’t read it or won’t realize I’m talking about them.

We live in a very small community. In a restaurant or other setting, it is not uncommon to overhear conversations. It is also common to hear people chit chat during a meeting or after one. It doesn’t take long, usually, to put two and two together to realize you know who or what is being talked about. This happens frequently. Too often we hear things in this way that we shouldn’t hear. We’re not eavesdropping…they’re saying it and we’re listening whether we want to or not. A lot of what we hear is best left unsaid in the first place.

I have to say this – I just have to: if you don’t know what you’re talking about and if you’re not personally involved in something – do the people, businesses and organizations who are involved a big favor – SHUT YOUR MOUTH. Zip it. Lock it. Throw away the key. You are only harming your own credibility by commenting on something you know absolutely nothing about.

When we contribute to sharing false information, we double the workload of those who are actively working to make our community a better place. Do we really want to burn those people out? Is it really fair of us to work counterproductively against them? Do you really want to be looked at as the person who spreads lies, gossip and negativity? If you don’t, don’t participate. I’m sure we can all find plenty going on within our own lives to talk about and our own work to comment on.

Perhaps spreading negativity is a means of covering one’s own inadequacy – and in case you aren’t aware, that’s pretty transparent to the listener too.

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May 20, 2008

The Dark Times

About five months ago now, an economist spoke in Columbia City about the economic state and how while we might not have a recession, things were bad and going to get worse. He said we shouldn’t panic, we shouldn’t feel obligated to trust the “sky is falling” media reports we would eventually hear.

I wasn’t particularly worried then. I felt a sense of optimism having grown up in some of the best economic times we’ve seen in some time. Sure, within my own family, we experienced some bleak times. For much of junior high and high school, we did not have health insurance in our family. Dad worked for the defense industry and as they faced cuts, he lost his job. As a single income household, with Mom staying home to care for us kids, that was a heavy blow to the household finances. As a kid, I was too aware of how financially strapped we were and it was a weight that rarely left my awareness. I knew how stressed my Mom was attempting to balance the household budget and provide for a family of five. As I got older, though, I became more in control of my personal finances and largely, my coming of age was during a great time in our economy.

A lot has changed, however. In a short period of time today, the gravity of our situation as a community became apparent to me. As I’ve heard others say locally, “People are hurting.”

On Sunday, we drove up to the lake to pick up our lawn chairs enroute to an afternoon event outdoors with extended family. We passed by the home of a neighbor whose house will be foreclosed, we’re told, in a matter of days. Their livelihood was tied to the building trade – and we’ve seen where that has gone. Lately, this has become a fairly common story as foreclosures are happening constantly. But, where do you go when you lose your home? when you don’t have a job to get another one? when your credit is damaged? when you can’t get a job because there aren’t many good jobs to be had? It’s a vicious circle.

Those thoughts were on my mind for a good part of the trip as we continued on to our family reunion at Sylvan Lake in Noble County. Earlier in the week, when discussing the get-together with a cousin in Columbia City, she remarked that because of gas prices, she just couldn’t justify driving from Columbia City and Rome City when she needed to buy food for herself and small child. “I have to make the choice between gas and groceries,” she said. Driving northward for a family reunion, unfortunately, was something she could not afford. Unfortunately, her choice was the wisest decision she could make in the matter.

As we drove along US 33, we passed by Johnson’s Farm. As a child, we went there in the winter to select a fresh Christmas tree and on hot summer days, we would go there to pick berries. I remember eating more berries than I actually picked. I had been looking forward to taking my own children there for the first time this summer to pick berries now that I feel they’re old enough for that sort of activity. Sadly, my hopes were dashed when I read a large, plain, painted sign that read they had closed due to high gas prices and the cost of labor. How disappointing that such a longstanding tradition, a local family business has been forced to shut their doors because of such bleak economic times?

On the way, we passed through Merriam where I saw an elderly man with a heavily lined face, white hair and soiled clothes standing near a puddle with a sign that read, “Will work for food.” I looked at him and my heart ached. I didn’t know the man or his circumstances, but to think of a person standing on the side of a highway in the small village of Merriam, hoping for a meal was too much to see. He could have been anyone’s father or grandfather standing their along the side of the road. It is even sadder that because of the times we live in, how strangers can be dangerous, we didn’t stop. I don’t know if I should feel better that later, when we passed by that spot on the way home, the man wasn’t standing there anymore. It is my hope that someone in a position to help this man was able to do so.

Whenever I see and hear so many related things in a short period of time, such as I did Sunday, I take it as a sign from God. I’m not sure what he’s telling me at this point and I don’t know what I should do. I just have to keep listening and hoping He’ll point me in the right direction. Maybe the answer is that while our economic situation is not likely to improve in the immediate future, while gas is going to continue to get more and more expensive, maybe the best thing we can do is pull together as a community.

My grandmother grew up in Scotland during World War II. They were constantly bombed, rationed and had very, very little. Her mother, Sarah, a single mother of three children, also cared for an ailing sister and several other elderly extended family members in what would amount to a very small apartment. She worked odd jobs – laundering clothes, cleaning and working in a café – and provided the only income for her large household. Despite not having much of anything, she managed to provide meals for her even more impoverished neighbors. I’m told she made the most wonderful soups from nothing more than bones from the butcher shop nearby. The shopkeepers knew of her giving heart and would try to help her in her endeavors when they could, giving her a little bit more than they had to. She welcomed starving soldiers into her home and fed them, saying if her boy were wandering through a far off village, she hoped he would be fed. She gave and she gave, though she had what seemed like nothing.

I believe that what Sarah did could be an example to how we should strive to live during these difficult times. We can’t fix the economy by ourselves, but we can support our neighbors. We can buy our food from local farms and businesses, we can share rides to conserve gas and we can make do with less. We have to work hard to look beyond our own duress to find ways to help our neighbors, as Sarah did. But, I think it is this that will bring us optimism in dark times and make the road ahead that much easier to walk…for we will not walk it alone.

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May 16, 2008

Twice blessed

In my college sorority, whenever someone had really big news and they wanted to surprise everyone with it all at once, we had something called a “candle passing.”

You got in a circle, sang a song and passed the candle from person to person. As it went around, the more times it went around, frankly, the bigger the news somebody had to share. What you didn’t know was who had the news or the real nature of the news, but you counted the times the candle went past you and your excitement level grew. Was it the sister standing next to you? Were your suspicions correct? What could the news be?

There were a certain number of times the candle went by for a lavalier (a symbolic gesture of affection from a fraternity boy), an engagement and from returning alumni, a baby, perhaps.

Yesterday, had my sister, Sarah, and I been in the same sorority – we might have had a candle passing and with her news – I don’t know how many times that candle might have gone around! Yes, friends, there is BIG news in our family – bigger news than Sarah’s already BIG belly.

I was at CVS printing photographs yesterday when she called to tell me about her ultrasound appointment. I thought she was going to tell me that she changed her mind and decided to find out the sex of the baby due in October. I said, “You’re having a boy this time aren’t you?”

She was quiet.


Then, I had to sit down for what came next.

“It could be a boy, or boys, or a boy and a girl or girls,” she said.

What? Did I hear that correctly? Twins? Two babies? In your belly? We don’t have twins in our family!

“Are you joking,” I asked…this is the second time I thought she was joking. The first time I thought she was joking was when she told me she was pregnant in the first place, but I digress.


I could not function for the rest of the day. It was my first waking thought this morning when I got up. TWINS! I'm still thinking about it. Gotta go make dinner...twins....time to update the website...TWINS?....Where are my car keys?....t-w-i-n-s.

So, in a matter of hours, everyone’s attention has turned to these two little babies. The process of finding duplicate items has already begun and the consideration about what might be needed has begun as well: a bigger house, another crib (or two), etc. If you begin to think of all the ways twins can impact your life, it’s mind-boggling and I’m not even the one having them!

Without our mom, Sarah and I have each other…and I’m going to need to step up to help her because she’s going to have three little babies. This is uncharted territory – I’ve had two babies, but not at the same time. Plus, Eleanor, the big-sister-to-be, will still be a baby. I realize they could be boys, but I have this funny picture in my mind of three, nearly identical baby girls with curly red hair – Eleanor and her two smaller clones. And, since Eleanor is a clone of Sarah, they’ll be three “Mini Sarahs.”

You know, it is amazing how life spins on a dime. Everything seems to go a certain way until you get one piece of information that puts everything into perspective and your perspective changes. So, yesterday was a real turning point for all of us really as we begin preparing for the next few months and the many changes ahead.


(Please keep Sarah, her husband, Adam, and the babies in your prayers over the next weeks and months.)

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May 04, 2008

Today was 'The Day'

There is a day in early springtime when it seems that most of the trees, in unison, seem to pop their leaves and go from buds to foliage.

It’s an amazing sight and every year, I try to find the day – the tipping point where there are more trees with leaves than without. I think today was that day.

On a walk through Fox Island County Park in Fort Wayne with my children this evening, I marveled at the leaves on the trees, the unfurling of ferns in the woods and the life springing forth and…I smiled.

In other years, today is the day when I would have called my mother to say, “It’s the day! It’s the day!” She knew what I meant because she always watched for “the day” too. It was almost a race to see who would call the other one first to announce the official, without a doubt arrival of spring.

She didn’t call today.

In fact, today marks the fourth year that I couldn’t expect a phone call from her. I can’t believe we lost her four years ago this evening. So much has happened in that time since she left us – how life has changed.

And how much, also, life has stayed the same. I still watch for the day and I still think of her when I watch for it. I know it will never come, but I wait for her call. How fitting that today was that day -- a day I should've been so sad and marked the day with tears. But, instead I smiled. 

Maybe she was walking with me in the woods and smiling too.

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