What Kind of Person Flies the Flag on Their Front Porch?
No, it's not a political act.
It didn't feel like a political act. In fact, as I surveyed my work, I was surprised and moved by the sense of satisfaction that came from reclaiming the flag from partisanship. It wasn't about a vote, or an issue, or a candidate. It was pure and simple: a reminder of a loved one at war, and the reasons behind his service.
I reflected on the generations of military spouses, parents, and children who had surely flown the flag in the same state of mind while their soldier or sailor was far away. But since I grew up in a nonmilitary family and had no friends, relatives, or neighbors who served, I never before felt a connection with this mythic population, even though I've lived in and around military posts and communities for several years. As our flag clicked into the base, that shared connection clicked, too. It took seeing the Stars and Stripes waving in front of our door to realize that no one party owns the flag. We do.
At the risk of sounding trivial: The flag looked great, too. After the photographer had left, I kept it up. First one day, then two days, then a week. I liked coming home to it. After my husband's departure, it comforted me, because we had stood under it together, holding each other. In the early, difficult days of the deployment, it started to seem like a talisman, enveloping and protecting our two kids and me.
Then, one day, the heavens poured. I looked out from my bedroom window and saw the flag, soaked and heavy, drooping in the rain. I felt disrespectful, even guilty, as if I had left a prayerbook outside. I wanted to take the flag down, but I didn't want to get wet myself. And I didn't want to give in to what was surely superstition. Feeling bad that the flag was being rained on seemed just plain silly, as if I were anthropomorphizing fabric. In fact, as I later found out, the federal Flag Code states that if the flag is being used at a public or private estate, it should not be hung during rain or violent weather.
Still, it's not about the fabric. It's taken me a lifetime to understand the idea that honoring the flag is a near-spiritual gesture. As with many other things, the military tutored me in this, gently but firmly. It began the first time I went to a movie theater on a military base, days after I was married. The lights dimmed and the room quieted. But instead of previews, an American flag materialized on-screen, waving amid palm trees in an idealized, tropical summer breeze. It was an old reel (a reel!), sepia at the sides and skipping a bit. Presented in that manner, the image seemed pure kitsch. But all conversation ceased, and the entire audience stood as one. I remained frozen in my seat until my husband Scott nudged me to my feet. In those immediate post-9/11 days, and in that crowd, to remain seated would have marked me as one apart.
In our house in the non-Navy Maryland suburbs, waving the Stars and Stripes is a different kind of rebellion. Nonetheless, I have become the kind of person who flies the flag on holidays—like Memorial Day, marked this year on May 31. It's still big and unwieldy, but I'm not self-conscious about it anymore; in fact, it feels like something I've been doing my whole life.
Alison Buckholtz is the author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin 2009), which will be released in paperback this spring with a new afterword and reader's guide.
Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Photograph of the author and her children by Matt Mendelsohn Photography.