The Joys of Brotherhood: Saying Goodbye
A few months ago, I shared a letter that I wrote to my father. It expresses the power of playing Taps for his burial service. The very day I posted that blog, I learned of the death of my Uncle Milton.
Milton was one of my father's older brothers, and he lived well into his nineties. He was an exceptional man.
We were similar in that we were not the center of attention at family gatherings. We had a lot in common, but until recently, I did not realize how much.
It was a little over a decade ago when I came to know my uncle well. It did not happen here in the north country, where we are both from. More than once, I visited him and his wife in Florida. They lived there in their senior years, and I used to winter on the Gulf.
Without the usual buzz from the crowd, we discovered our shared love for history, namely our ancestral lineage. My uncle was a keeper of stories and wisdom. He shared many rich accounts of my grandparents, his siblings, and my beloved great-grandmother, Nellie. They weren't well acquainted, nor did he see her but only once or twice, but he knew about her.
My Uncle Milton filled in the blanks, which, regarding my grandmother, was especially important. My perception of her was faulty. She had a reputation of being unapproachable. I know so much more now than I did in the early days. I think this is true for all. By the time she became a grandmother, she had endured more than most and, as a result, appeared cold and reticent. I understand now that she, like many individuals, was operating from her wounds. I sought to find a way to comprehend who she was, but it didn't happen in her lifetime. But thanks to my Uncle Milton, I learned to love her. It’s never too late.
My father—the baby of the family—was a very different man. He preferred to keep the conversation light. He addressed issues that required attention and moved on, and he cracked jokes around the clock. He didn't seem to be drawn to weighty subjects, at least not in a pouring-your-heart-out kind of way. For the most part, he kept his profound thoughts to himself. I must add that he did show up when we needed him. It wasn't his favorite thing, but he was the voice of reason when necessary. But as far as talking about the intensity of what he and his family endured wasn't something that he believed he needed to share. So now, I conclude that he could not deal with his mother's hardships or his own—better left back there.
For some, it's enough to take it for what it is and move on. This is more common within the social structure of his generation. Unless it was unavoidable, he looked at the bright side of things. If a bright side did not show itself, he told us that it (whatever it happened to be) builds character. In response, I told him often that my character was the size of Texas. That was then. It is immeasurable now.
One year, my father gave all of his daughters a sign with the words, "Be Thankful it is No Worse." It was charming with its floral design embellishing the edges, painted on a granite slate. Unfortunately, after so many moves, I cannot find mine. But I am indeed thankful that it is no worse.
What did I learn about my grandmother, Sarah Abbie Wood? Before she met my grandfather, she was a governess for the captain's children aboard a coal schooner that traveled between Boston and the Chesapeake Bay. She enjoyed having tea in pretty porcelain teacups with her sisters, maybe her mother; I don't know, I threw that in.
I knew about the tea because we went to her early family home in Acton, MA, and later Campton, NH, and enjoyed these tea parties when I was a young girl. We often had toast with peanut butter and extra sharp cheese. My sisters and I used to say as fast as we could, almost as if it were one word: “Let's have tea, toast, peanut butter, and cheese.”
My grandmother loved poetry, literature, and music. She had a voice like a songbird (my father did tell us that), and in fact, Milton was named after the great English poet.
I cherished the stories that Uncle Milton shared with me. I longed to know more, and when he and his wife moved back to NH, I thought that I would visit him and hear more. However, other than one visit, this was not meant to be. The dreaded pandemic crushed the opportunity for me to see him. And sadly, his wife passed away a few months ago, neither died due to the virus.
He was on my mind a lot. Like my father, some cousins, and one of my sons, Uncle Milton talked very fast—auctioneer fast, well, almost. There is an art to hearing their words. When I am not in their presence, I sort of lose my edge. I have to practice listening to them again. I knew that trying to communicate with my uncle all masked up would be a challenge. So, sadly, I put it off. I thought, after eased restrictions, I'd be able to visit him and continue the dialogue about our family history. But, in my heart, I feared that we would not make it to the finish line. My intuition was correct. Our conversation will not continue in this lifetime. I am ever so grateful for what he did share with me.
Uncle Milton served in the Marine Corps during WWII. His brother, my Uncle Edward, also served during WWII. My father was in the Army in Occupied Japan. Upon learning of the passing of Uncle Milton, I did what came next. I got out my trusted nineteenth-century cornet, polished it, and started to practice.
I rarely play brass these days. In trumpet lingo, I needed to get my chops up. Would I be able to play the Hadyn Trumpet Concerto? No. But, coming from my heart, I would play Taps for my Uncle’s graveside service. This ceremony honored both him and his wife, Patricia, but the Taps are for his military service.
When my Uncle Edward died, his son, my cousin John—the one who unknowingly inspired me to be a trumpeter—played Taps for him. He was much younger than me when his father died. But he did it. I always respected him for that, and then it was my turn. Apparently, this is something that we Pettengills do.
It was a pretty summer day when I arrived at the cemetery. I greeted my cousins and then spoke with the funeral director—the guy who handles the affairs of our family’s deaths. He comes from a Plymouth family whose roots are tangled with ours.
I was directed to speak with the two young Marines (about the age of my own sons) standing off to the side. Carrying my small backpack that contained my horn, I approached and identified myself as the one who’d be playing Taps. There was a bit of surprise in their expressions as if their mom had just arrived with cookies, only there were none. I was instructed to start playing when the Marines began folding the flag. This time there was no 21 gun salute. There were many in attendance, and I waited off to the side, near the back. Thoughts raced through my head as I stood warming the cool brass in my hands. The last time I did this was for this man’s baby brother, my dear father. All I knew is that, once again, breathing was essential. They lifted the beautiful flag and looked towards me. For what was probably a fraction of a second, I paused. It felt longer. It was as if all of our lives swirled before my eyes. How could it have been that we are all gathered together to say farewell to the last in my father’s generation?
With humanity in such a state, it was heartbreaking to view the bold colors of our American flag rippling against a perfect blue sky. I stood silently, fighting off tears for so many reasons, they were quick to retreat. One expects such emotions at funerals. However, there was more to it than that. This was not solely about the death of loved ones or their dedicated military service and lives carried out with the highest intentions. The deep ache, sorrow, and longing are the culmination of grief— the death of a dream—what I once believed in as our country and freedom. It echoes what breaks apart, illuminating what must be rebirthed in reclaiming our wholeness. This is not the first time I have experienced this profound sense of deep loss. I recall feeling this once aboard the USS Constitution when my son, a proud sailor in the US Navy, served on it. As a historian with a background in the Civil War, I have literally participated in many Living Histories and Reenactments. I studied the music and social aspects of that war, which is nothing like living it, I know. I did make it my business. I tend to do that. If I become interested in a subject, I go deep. That day I was on the USS Constitution for its annual turnaround voyage, I had the same reaction as I did at my uncle’s memorial service. I looked at the bold colors of our flag against a bright blue sky. There was a moment of great pride followed by sadness. When we were children, we learned about unwavering patriotism. We ran around with our small flags, participating in Memorial Day and July 4th parades. We were so proud to be Americans. We had an idea of who we were. We had each others’ backs.
I look at the flag now and have so many questions. Yes, I mentioned that as a child, when my mother said to me that there were no cookies left, I had to crawl up on the counter and check for myself. That’s me. Now, as we continue to face the unknown, I stood before the grave of my uncle and aunt, holding my cornet. I couldn’t breathe. At least I thought that I couldn’t. The little girl inside nudged me, Come on, you got this.
Yes, yes, I do. I took such a deep breath, I might have even been a little dizzy. But I played Taps, again, like I had never played before—soft, sweet, yet infinitely powerful—carrying across the many rows of gravestones. I sensed the presence of all that I have played for over many years. Along with his brothers, my father was there beside me. (He would have wanted me to play The Alley Cat for one more quick dance.) Thank you, Uncle Milton. Thank you for your service to this country, your family, the community, and for being the exemplary person you turned out to be. And thank you, fellow Americans, for navigating these times, much different from what we knew or thought that we knew. I have never been a fan of blind faith, nor am I now at the time of this writing. However, I will carry a love for the citizens of America. The spark that burns within is an ember, but it burns, gives light and warmth. Politics do not matter. I don’t care which side you are on. I don't do sides. I am a mother, sister, daughter, friend, and know my place in the wild. Our planet, our country, we are wounded. I lay down my beautiful old horn to embrace us all.