This is my grandmother’s American flag. It has 48 stars, before Alaska and Hawaii became states. I remember my father telling me that this flag was the very first thing she purchased when she came to the United States over 100 years ago (1906) from Kamenets Podolsky in the Ukraine– the very first thing she purchased once she and her family had settled in Toledo Ohio. He shared that story with me (I was maybe 11 or 12) because he was trying to convey to me how thrilled and blessed she felt to be here in this country. Actually I think he was really telling me how proud he was to be a citizen of this country. He fought in World War II in the Pacific and was filled with the democratic idealism of this country, as was his mom.
The flag sits on a shelf on a wall in our house along with lots of other pieces of collections and items accumulated over a lifetime. And today, for some reason, it caught my eye. I just stopped and stared at it. Strange. I am not even sure how I ended up with this 114 year old flag. I think my father stored it in an old trunk in the basement.
I take it down and unfold it. There are a few holes (bug holes?) in the weave. A small tear here and there. The white color has browned with age. The blue and red are still bold but with a thin veneer of the fogginess of a century of time, especially along the top border over the field of stars. The top metal grommet is missing but someone, probably my grandmother, has stitched around the hole to keep it from unravelling. Clearly this flag was used, hung, displayed. I imagine my grandmother purchasing this flag and carrying it home. I imagine her hanging it on her front porch, perhaps for her very first July 4th. I imagine her repairing it. I hold the flag and imagine her holding it.
I think of how my grandmother Kate and my father would react to what is happening in our country right now. How the meaning of this flag has somehow been distorted from when she first purchased it. Or even from when my father fought for it. The democratic values they were so proud to embrace and support are now struggling for survival. My grandmother and father would never believe what has happened to this country, especially around the fundamental issue of the right to vote. I’m glad they are not here to see how quickly this democracy has cracked, how very vulnerable this democracy apparently has always been.
I want to believe we can set things right, but a lot is broken and has been broken for a very, very long time, from way before my grandmother and grandfather found their way here. Right now I am feeling great grief. It is grief about the loss of my own innocence —the belief that democratic institutions were pretty solid and that there were these universal values of inclusion and equity embedded there that most of us agreed with and were continually working on. It is grief at the loss of the naive belief that goodness is right and will win in the end against evil and greed, because it is, well, good. I hold this flag and now find I am holding something much more complicated. I am holding both hope as well as deep despair that things may not work out for the better. I am holding both the energy needed to keep working for justice as well as a much more realistic understanding of the power of the obstructions, distractions, and illusions on this uncharted journey. I am holding both the dream and the nightmare.
I hold the flag and imagine my grandmother Kate holding it too. So that it will not unravel, my responsibility is its repair.