Jackson Browne once typified a musician’s life as “running on empty.” I’m not an avid listener of his music, though occasionally I will visit it as being a Midwesterner I’ve a soft spot for heartland rock even if it is far from my favorite genre. I also relate to Browne’s biography as we have a land of common birth for similar reasons. Browne was born in Heidelberg while his father was on assignment for Stars and Stripes and I was born in Munchweiler as my father served in the Signal Corps. Thanks to the collapse of fascism and the subsequent Cold War, a remarkable number of Americans were born in Germany.
I’ve reflected on the matter a lot. When I was young I did not think of the peculiarity of being an army brat, but as today is Mother’s Day, I think of all those times when in the absence of my father, his dependents felt like they were “running on empty” and how it was often the army wives who had to create the illusion that life was full. And in spite of feeling poured out and being an empty vessel, the life of a dependent is always full. It was the mothers who made it that way.
My mother was a navigator on a road of empty spaces en route to undiscovered places. My father was clearly the driver, but it was my mother who held the maps as he navigated the peaks and valleys of literal roads and also the road of American policy with all of its triumphs and setbacks with the knowledge that others, including our own, could be scathing to us yet never fail to cry to us when another injustice was visited on a people in a faraway land.
Things have changed, but not really. Today there are many dads who have to be the bearers of the empty vessel that must be made full to children of distant parents. In my life, I have chosen a far different path than my father, though in some ways it is as much about being the fierce protector of the vulnerable as his was. But I’ve also had to be like my mother and learn how to make an empty vessel full.
The other night I wrote of cradle Europe and mother America, but mother America, always good to me, could only be as good as a girl from Kentucky. That my land and family could hold me in the strongest and gentlest of ways comes first from her.
Image: My mother in New Mexico 1965