I’m interested in the way Americans learn to be Americans, acutely aware as I age that we are born into (or immigrate to) one America, but must adapt to another. Our country is ever changing.
I learned my earliest lessons in the 1960s, most memorably from my father, a veteran of World War II and the Depression era. He was typical of his generation and expressed his patriotism (a word he never used) through service: canvassing for his candidates for congress and school board levies, volunteering for an arts organization, donating blood: no-nonsense, practical contributions that benefited the community.
My first bedroom was a hacked affair, doubling as Dad’s den. When I was old enough to be afraid of the dark and what I saw in it, I begged him to take down the portrait of the man whose ear grew every night in the dark. I remember Dad explaining that General George C. Marshall was the author of the Marshall Plan. I am sure he said it that way. I will always know the man by his full name, “General George C. Marshall, author of the Marshall Plan.”
My mother weighed in. The portrait came down. I’m charmed by this memory–of a father trying to talk his young daughter into keeping a portrait of his hero on her bedroom wall. But I’m also touched by the example in it, for which I lack a contemporary counterpart.
George C. Marshall (author of the Marshall Plan)’s Left Ear
In childhood in the half light
of my door ajar
the general’s portrait on my bedroom wall glowed
and his left ear grew
by borrowing light from a white stripe
in the American flag behind him
transforming it into a kind of receiver
or spying device
that tapped my dreams.
So I was afraid
but my father hesitated
to take the picture down explaining
it had to do with saving Europe
after the war.
This is what I understood: my fear
budging against my father’s love
for a man who merged at night
with the stars and stripes—
something to do with allegiance
something to do with light and dark.
from Post Romantic (University of Washington Press, 2020)
Guest writer Kathleen Flenniken is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Post Romantic (University of Washington Press, 2020), where the poem “George C. Marshall (author of the Marshall Plan)’s Left Ear” appears. She served as Washington State Poet Laureate 2012-2014.