I don’t own a flag. Flag waving tends to make me uncomfortable. I love my country and I believe strongly in our constitution, but symbols of such complicated ideas can be easily abused. My wedding ring may be a convenient symbol of my marriage, but it isn’t my marriage. My wedding ring cost six dollars, and I stopped wearing it when it started irritating my finger. Having a ring is nice but it doesn’t matter. Symbols should not be more important than the things they represent.
Ian isn’t a fan of flag waving either and prefers to demonstrate his patriotism through his contributions rather than through displaying symbols on our home. But the military is filled with symbols: ribbons and medals and coins that are earned through time and effort and sacrifice. I think it’s nice he was awarded a bronze star, but I’m proud of him for his actions whether he’d gotten it or not.
(Aden, 4th of July during the last deployment)
I’m not saying symbols don’t have power. On the contrary, I think they have too much. They are often misused and misread. People want to make assumptions about my husband because they have an idea in their minds of what his uniform symbolizes. Sometimes they are right, and sometimes not. The casual manner in which some people use swastikas to add drama to their propaganda turns my stomach, but the fact that we live in a country that tolerates the use of such a notorious symbol as free speech is what I try to focus on and appreciate. Symbols are too often a substitute for critical thinking and that makes me wary.
The one time in recent memory that I wished I owned a flag was September 11th, 2001. I was pregnant with Aden. I could feel her squirming around inside of me as if there were no comfortable spot in which to settle, while I stayed glued to the TV and I cried. Ian was called to the Army Reserve center for the evening as some kind of emergency measure, and watching him put on his uniform and be driven away with other soldiers was frightening. It was my first glimpse of what the consequences of that uniform could mean beyond occasional weekends away from me. I stood on the porch, alone except for the baby in my belly, and watched my neighbor put up his flag. At that moment I wanted one too. My country had been attacked, I felt attacked, and there was something comforting and resilient about those stars and stripes. But the flags of my neighbors were enough. None of the other houses on my block offered up a soldier. Some commitment isn’t adequately summed up by flags.
Currently I live in slight fear of flags. I have recurring nightmares of being handed a folded one in place of my husband. I used to like to buy pretty picture frames at Target, but they have triangular flag frames in that aisle now and they always spark a sick feeling in my stomach when I spot them. I don’t know if they always carried those flag frames and I just hadn’t noticed before, or if I just started seeing them because I’m aware of how much I hope to never need one.
I wish I didn’t have such mixed feelings because I like the American flag. It’s a very attractive flag. I remember asking my dad when I was a child why we didn’t get one to hang outside like some of the neighbors did, but I don’t remember getting a straight answer. I’m enough my father’s daughter that as an adult I think I understand. Children love flags. They are bright and simple and fun to wave. But a child’s eye view of the world is less complex. I think back to visiting the Statue of Liberty the first time and watching the film at the visitors’ center. It talked about what the statue means to so many through lots of little interview clips. The repetitious pride was somewhat forgettable, but James Baldwin saying sadly that for black people the Statue of Liberty was a painful reminder of the freedom they were denied stays with me. It was the first time I’d ever considered another side to all of those patriotic symbols I was surrounded by every day. Our country reflects us, and since we are flawed, it is flawed. But the beauty of our country in my mind is that it is structured in a way that addresses those flaws, and changes are possible if we choose to make them. The fact that when my grandmother was born women couldn’t vote is unfair, but the fact that a few generations later my daughters watched women involved in the last presidential election is the America I believe in.
Several weeks before Ian left he attended a family readiness meeting. I found a lot of pamphlets and folders from it when I was cleaning out the car at some point, and in the pile of mostly redundant information was a deployment flag–one of those little banners with a red border and a white field with blue stars in it to represent how many soldiers from your household are currently deployed. I stared at it a long time, not sure what to do with it. Ian knows me well enough that he understood I would have problems with it, which is why he left it in the trunk. I don’t like having my husband reduced to a single blue star on a banner. I don’t like advertising his absence on my house as if I support the idea of war. But this deployment isn’t only about what I feel. My whole family is involved and everyone’s feelings count.
I gave the flag to Aden. I told her it represented her daddy being gone, and that she could do with it whatever seemed right to her. I figured whether it became a doll blanket or ended up in a drawer, as long as it gave her comfort on some level it was doing its job. For a week or so it traveled. She hung it next to her seat in the minivan when we drove to school and brought it inside to put in her bedroom window at night. That started to get awkward, so I told her if she wanted it up to just pick one spot. It now hangs in our kitchen window next to her seat at the table. I still have mixed emotions when I look at that little banner, and displaying it would not have been my choice, but whatever set of clashing ideas it represents to me, to Aden it simply means one thing. To Aden, it’s all she has right now of daddy. And she may display that with pride anytime she wants.