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January 15, 2015
This is Not a Stone
When Momma Went to War
by Hannah Bird

In the picture, she is smiling. Her head is thrown back and she alone, in a sea of polite grins, smiles so big it shines. I think I can see her bright blue eyes. The picture is black and white. But I have looked at my motherís eyes too many times not see the blue even in the shades of gray.

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Mom is 7th from the left in the center row. She has long dark hair and her head is tipped back. Dad is standing behind her. The guy seated next to her is one of her friends that was killed.

I know what she doesnít. She will marry the man standing by her in the picture. Their wedding will be in a monsoon a world away from her parentsí homestead. They will have seven children. Her youngest daughter will have the same blue eyes.

I also know what she will see. She is on her way to Laos. She will go halfway around the world looking for adventure and a chance to help in The International Volunteer Services. They need her help, for reasons that she does not yet know. They are embroiled in a war that will be labeled ďsecretĒ for 30 years after her smiling picture. She will be the tissue-thin premise others hide behind.

I know that there are people in the picture who wonít come back. Her big Quaker friend will die, a casualty of his own good conscience and war that no one anywhere ever fought. I know she will drive to his funeral through a jungle and a jaguar will run beside her for a time. My father will hide in the jungle when communists come for him. Not everyone will be so lucky. She will see all of this.

She will see the CIA everywhere. It is always a secret. They will cause her trouble and then save her first son by flying her to a city where she can get prenatal care. I know her son will be born in a hospital without a toilet. When her milk comes slowly she is looked after by the Australian rancher who gives dry sheep extra Guinness.

She homesteaded in a bleak land. Her parents, book-trained farmers, made the sagebrush wastes of Wyoming feed sheep and a family. She knew hard. She knew how to work. They got electricity while she was in high school on the honor roll. She went to college and then, around the world.

But hard is different than bad. Carrying water in Cody, Wyoming, is different from carrying water in Laos when your friends are dying. Losing sheep to wolves was different from communists carrying guns.

I also know that this picture will be the last one where she looks this way. Her smile will stay bright but less so. She will stand up straight and look composed. The difference between the two worlds is part of her now. She will look different too.

Then she came home. She and my father made a little life. They had more fat babies. They went on.

I grew up in two worlds. There was one world where we were a normal large Quaker and then Mormon family. There was another world where my mother was different ó quieter but fiercer too. In that world we had Lao refugees living in our house and a trunk full of things Momma had woven or been given in Laos.

My mother knew how to do things other mothers didnít.

The war was still a secret. I heard only the most innocuous stories about Laos growing up. I knew about the jaguar running with her jeep. I did not know it was because her friend had been murdered. I knew about the Australian rancher but not the CIA. I was much older when I found all that out, one tiny drop at a time.

My parents spoke Laotian at the table when they didnít want us to hear. It all sounded like songs to me.

Some of the stories are wonderful. My father, who knew his history, thwarted the communists by sending coveted supplies through the jungle on elephants while staging a false convoy on the roads. My parents planted rice in deep water. The stilted huts shook at night when water buffalo used them to scratch.

I heard these stories and it didnít explain why my mother was different. It didnít explain the tight center of her. She wore nice blouses with sweater vests and floppy bows just like the other moms. She kept house. She read to her kids. She cooked.

But she never really found her place in a tidy suburban world where people didnít go to war and friends didnít die. She never lost the wide-eyed look of one scanning the landscape for distant lands and the geckos that sang her to sleep.

She was in the suburbs. But never of the suburbs.

There is a monument now to commemorate The Secret War and those who served in it. Even in naming it, the war remains unidentified. But there is a monument at Arlington Cemetery; a piece of granite validation.

She didnít stay in the suburbs. My parents divorced. She moved to an island. She taught in universities. She wandered the world. She retired and has wandered farther. She moved to the Middle East. She is headed for Asia next. She teaches in distant universities. She will always wander. She found her way.

My mother is not the only person who has been in a secret war. Some are announced years later. Some are never seen. We see each other living quiet lives and smiling quiet smiles and assume that this is everything this person has ever been. We see people not quite fit but we donít see them scanning the horizon for dangers and wonders unknown to us.

We see people who are quiet or distant but we donít see the ache in the center they have wrapped themselves around. We donít see the children they didnít get to raise or the lonely battles they are fighting.

Ian Maclaren said ďBe kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battleĒ (although it gets erroneously attributed to Plato). This is true. We should be kind. But it is also true that in a world where we yearn for heroes and greatness, we often miss it.

We do not store our heroes the way movies and books do. They do not live apart. There arenít secret lairs. They live in the suburbs next to you. They sit on the church bench down from you. They mow their lawns and buy milk.

They save us. Then they become part of us. If we let them.

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