Fall 2018, Volume 25

Nonfiction by Dennis Vannatta

Memorial Circles

In the Memorial Circle, on the Boulevard between Beach 120th and 121st Streets in Rockaway Park, Queens, New York, the names of World War II dead are inscribed on small square cenotaphs in the greenswards circumscribed by the sidewalks.  Over each flies a tiny American flag.  On my visits to my in-laws over the decades of my married life, I’d followed the Boulevard straight through the circle many times without so much as glancing down.  This time, though, I did look, then followed the cenotaphs around the circle, feeling more moved than this jaded, crotchety seventy-year-old thought possible. 

  OCTOBER 22, 1943

MAY 3, 1942

I was moved aesthetically, too, for the rhythms of that ghastly repetition—died in action . . . died in action . . . died in action—formed a sort of poetry, didn’t it?

I was brought up short in my musings, however, by an outburst from an old woman, so fat she occupied nearly the entirety of the concrete bench in the middle of the hemisphere across the Boulevard.  Her arms were down to her sides, her palms pressing against the bench, her head thrown back.  She reminded me of a roller coaster rider making that first terrifying drop.  She was not screaming exactly, but, face raised toward God, or an immense nothingness, she lifted her voice in a great lament, or blaspheme.  Or perhaps it was a full-voiced hymn of praise and thanks.  She was a woman who’d evidently enjoyed her food, after all.


Whoever she was, whatever she was doing, I felt she belonged in that memorial circle more than I did.  She lived here; I was just passing through.  Routed, I retreated back to my in-laws’ house.

I knew I wouldn’t find much comfort back there even if I did think of it as home.  I say “home” because even though I’m a native Midwesterner and have lived for the past nearly forty years in the South, for even longer than that I’ve been coming to Rockaway with my wife and children summers and the Christmas holidays, so that now, if a sense of identity can be said to be inextricable from a sense of place, I count myself a stepson if not a son of Rockaway.

But it’s not the old Rockaway.  The pleasant little seaside community—the house is in Belle Harbor, actually, the next village over from Rockaway Park, but we always just call the whole area “Rockaway”—has been through the wars.  First  came 9/11; there were funerals day after day, a tragically disproportionate number of firemen and Canter Fitzgerald stockbrokers living in these few square blocks.  Then two months later death came from the skies once more when American Airlines Flight 487 nose-dived onto Beach 131st Street, a block and a half from my in-laws’ house.  One engine fell onto the Texaco gas station lot on 129th Street.  On our Christmas visit that year, we walked past it and then on down Newport to 131st Street where the air still reeked of wet ash, houses now piles of char.  The big crater lay behind wooden barricades, square holes cut for viewers to stand and gawk like tourists staring down from the bluffs above Omaha Beach. 

Although it involved less loss of life, the third blow I think was the most nearly fatal to the community:  Hurricane Sandy.  The streets drifted knee-deep in sand.  The beautifully manicured lawns, shrubbery, trees, poisoned by the sea salt, withered and died.  In the cruelest irony, in the very midst of the flooding whole blocks burned to the ground.  To be sure, trees have been replanted and some houses rebuilt, but it’s not the same.  The trees are nondescript things that you could find in Dubuque or Little Rock, not the adorable ones whose name I never knew but my children called “phony trees” because of their paper-like bark.  The houses now being built are not the shingled and awninged homes that proclaim “seaside” but monstrous brick fortresses, walls to cower behind.  No, it’s not my old Rockaway.

It’s not the same at “home,” either.  My father-in-law died a year ago.  And my mother-in-law is locked in a fight to the death with an inexorable foe, Alzheimer’s Disease.  It was forty-three years ago that I drove halfway across the continent to meet them for the first time.  On that frigid January night I pulled up in front of the big house on Beach 134th Street and then sat, my hands frozen to the steering wheel not from cold but fear.  This dirt-poor Baptist from the hinterlands of Missouri had come, after all, to take their Irish Catholic daughter away, forever.  It was Marie, my mother-in-law, who met me at the door and welcomed me, not with courtesy but with warmth.  I never from that moment felt less than welcome in her house.  I was home.

But now that gallant, generous lady forgets that she has a great-grandchild living not seven blocks away.  I’d always heard that Alzheimer’s sufferers see more clearly the distant past, but I’m skeptical of such assurances.  Just yesterday Marie spoke of her brother-in-law Bob’s blond hair and bushy mustache.  Let the record show that Bob had black hair and, a career Navy man, would never have tolerated facial hair on himself or his sons.  No, Alzheimer’s attacks on all fronts and eventually leaves its victims with nothing.

She lives now in an archipelago of the mind, momentary islands of awareness isolated from recently visited islands of awareness by a dense fog of forgetfulness.  Sometimes, though, she’s plagued by strange obsessions that provide bizarre causeways of sorts between those islands, bringing no comfort to her and maddening to her loved ones.  On our last visit it was the round dining room table that her son was going to bring her to replace her old rectangular one.  Again and again and again for two straight days, rarely a minute passed without her starting up again:  “When is Fred bringing my round table?  Will the old chairs stay, or will I get new ones?  Will there be enough room for it, do you think?”  Fred, when we told him about it on his return from a blessed weekend away from his mother:  “What new dining room table?  I never said anything about getting her a new table.”

It wasn’t until this summer’s visit that, thinking back on it, an explanation for the round-table obsession occurred to me.  Many years ago before their children and grandchildren were scattered across American, when Marie’s sister and her family still lived within walking distance, Christmas dinners were big affairs.  Big.  Fred and his brother John would go down into the basement and return hefting two huge hemispheres of plywood, which they’d affix to the top of the rectangular table.  Cover it with a table cloth as big as a sail.  Ring it with place settings.  Voila: a round table big enough to seat over twenty Kimballs and Keltners and Vannattas squeezed elbow to elbow, excess children banished to the “peon table” in the kitchen.  Food would be piled high and consumed in outrageous quantities.  The wine would flow.  After dessert the liquor bottles would come out.  “Buca!  Buca!” Cousin Bill would demand, and the Sambuca would be passed to him.  Kahlúa, I believe it was, for his brother Bob.  The older generation favored Irish coffee.  I ate and drank my fill, too, but what I found most nourishing was the conversation, the anecdotes and reminiscences, the jokes repeated so often I’d catch myself about to say, “Remember when . . .” as if the memory were my own.  Well, by then it was.  I don’t believe I was ever happier; I’m not sure any of us were.  All in the past now, of course.  Too many of them dead, most of the rest of us getting old, even the children approaching middle age.  (My baby girl, Christine, forty next year!)


The intent of the big round table was pure functionality:  to seat as many people in one space as possible.  But it was a fortuitous functionality, a perfect vehicle for a hospitable breaking of bread, all equally a part of the circle.  Well, up to a point.  None of us was ever in any doubt that, round or not, the table had a head.  The head of the table was wherever Big John Kimball happened to be sitting.           

From the beginning I felt I’d been welcomed into the family unreservedly by my mother-in-law.  It took a bit longer before I was sure about my father-in-law.  Oh, say, twenty years or so. 

Not that he was ever less than courteous to me; he was too much a gentleman for that.  But I was acutely aware that we occupied different worlds.  If not wealthy, he was “comfortably” well off, owning a construction company, two condos in Florida, and two apartment houses in Queens.  I was an English major with years of student loans and a Volkswagen with a heater that didn’t work.  How could I ever support his daughter, he must have asked himself.  I asked myself the same thing.

I must not have looked like much, either, that January night I appeared on his doorstep, a skinny bookworm with long hair parted down the middle, muttonchop sideburns, and Fu Manchu mustache.  Big John, on the other hand was big, six-five by I don’t know how many pounds; he looked like he could play tight end in the NFL.

Then there was the religious issue, vastly more important to him than me.  I was a Southern Baptist who never took it very seriously while he was a Catholic of the old school, a true believer who did his best to let his life reflect his deep faith.  He was an extraordinary minister who went to mass at 6:00 every morning, and when he crossed himself he didn’t make a slapdash fluttering of the fingers like so many but pressed his fingertips into his flesh as if he were conjuring Christ receiving the nails.

The one thing that might have saved me from getting pitched out of the house was the fact that I was an Army veteran, having served my country in time of war, if without distinction at least honorably.  That counted for a lot with my father-in-law.  Even here, though, I couldn’t measure up to his standard.  We could hardly swap war stories.  Instead of having to dodge Bouncing Bettys in Vietnam, I got sent to Germany where the greatest danger I faced was acute alcohol poisoning.  Big John’s service in World War II, in contrast, was documented and recorded, there for all the world to see on an A&E special, “The Hooligan Navy.”  Near-sighted and flat-footed, he’d been rejected by all branches of the armed forces except the Coast Guard, where he served on wooden sailing vessels (couldn’t be detected by enemy radar) patrolling for German submarines in the North Atlantic.  He was on lookout one foul, foggy morning when a U-boat surfaced not a hundred yards from his unarmed craft.  The Germans could have blown him and his comrades out of the water with one shot, but, knowing their position was being radioed in at that very moment, they chose to dive instead, and Big John survived to be interviewed by a film crew.  And there he was a half-century later on A&E, a raw-boned, fresh-faced kid several years younger than I was when we first met.  What did I have that could equal that?

It took me years to realize that I didn’t need anything to “equal” Big John because he didn’t think that way, never had.  His standards weren’t nearly so high as I’d imagined—or were high in a different way.  Did I love his daughter?  Would I remain faithful to her?  Would I respect her religion?  Would I pay my own bills?  Once he understood that the answer to all of these was yes (the paying bills part was touch and go at times), all was well.

What I came to understand was that beneath the intimidating exterior Big John was the most generous and loving of men.  I admired him greatly, more, I think, than any man I ever met.  If I could have my son and grandsons pattern themselves after anyone, it certainly wouldn’t be me but Big John Kimball.

How he loved life!  He loved traveling, loved talking, loved dancing, loved drinking and eating.  How he enjoyed his food!  At the head of the big round table, he’d destroy whatever food came within reach.  He’d always have one of the turkey legs, which he’d work at and work at with the concentration of a diamond cutter until not a shred of edible tissue was left on it.  Oh, how he loved living.

Nothing showed his love of life, his great faith and great courage like his dying.  It was a process that took years, not because he clung to life desperately as one might who fears death but because, I think we all sensed, his God had given him the life to be lived, so live it fully and happily he would.  He made it to his mid-nineties.  That many years do not spare anyone pain and indignities, especially at the end.  The arthritis in his back grew so bad that he walked bent into the shape of a question mark.  Later he could not stand at all without the support of a walker.  Finally he could not manage even that, sat in a wheelchair, had not enough strength left even to push himself.  He had trouble breathing.  He’d go into the hospital, and we’d think, this is the end.  But then he’d rally, come home.  It happened again and again.  Finally, my wife’s sister phoned to say that he was in the hospital once more and had been administered the last rites.  We prepared to fly back to New York.  Then my wife received a text:  check your email.  Attached was a video:  Big John in a wheelchair in the hospital, his son and daughter on either side of him, and he was singing “Down by the Riverside.”

          I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield

          Down by the Riverside

          Ain’t gonna study war no more.

He clenched his eyes and pressed a trembling hand to his forehead as he sang—struggling to remember the words, I guess, or maybe in pain because it cost him incredible effort.  Still, he sang.

We laughed.  We cried.  He died three days later, at home.


You’ll think I’ve contrived to bring this reminiscence or whatever it is to a climax of affirmation.  Be of good cheer, my point surely is; have faith and be resolute and you can bear up under anything.  Nonsense.  Anyone who believes that just hasn’t been paying attention.  Big John may have fought the good fight, but through death he abandoned a comrade on the field of battle:  his wife.

In her own way Marie was as brave as her husband, as strong.  But she’s beset by a greater foe that harries her unmercifully and will not even let her die.  Her days are long, her life too often a burden to her.  She forgets much, but she’s never forgotten her husband, never forgotten that he’s gone.  Her loved ones ache for her, and those burdened with her care ache, sometimes, to be free of her.  God help them all.  But right now He seems to be AWOL.


These dark days, when my wife and I return home from our visits, I’ll complain to my children, “Well, it’s not the same place, it’s not our old Rockaway.”  Maybe you could say grief for what is past and passing is itself a sort of affirmation—it shows how much you loved it, or you wouldn’t feel the grief—but I’m not philosopher enough to parse it that subtly.  The loss hurts too much.  How do we go on when we want to go back?


Feeling my three-score-years-and-ten, I sit on a stone bench ringed about by all that I have loved.  I throw my head back and raise my voice to the heavens.  I lament.  I blaspheme.  I sing hymns of praise and thanksgiving.









BIO: Dennis Vannatta has published creative nonfiction in Shadowbox, Antioch Review, River Oak Review, and elsewhere and fiction in Boulevard, River Styxx, Pushcart XV, and many other journals and anthologies.