This is the first year I've owned a big American flag, and it came to my house almost by accident. A military-oriented magazine I wrote for last summer asked for a family photo, and the editor was very specific about the setting: front porch, flag fluttering in breeze. Sunset would be a plus.
I understood and intended to comply. But when the photographer arrived, I still hadn't had time to buy a flag. As we said goodbye to him after the initial shoot, he asked to come back the following week for more pictures, so we could get the shot with the colors. I ventured out to Home Depot, and, by the time he returned, the flag waved from one of the columns in front of our house—just the way it looks in postcards.
I have no problem with the Stars and Stripes, in the abstract or the specific. A tiny flag dangles from my charm bracelet. My son's framed drawing of Old Glory hangs prominently on our walls. I love visiting the tattered remnant at the National Museum of American History that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner."
But flying a flag outside our front door? It never seemed necessary. My husband is a career Naval officer, and at the time of the photo shoot, we were heading into a yearlong deployment. Flags are supposed to symbolize patriotism and loyalty to country, but as a military spouse, I live those ideals inside and don't feel compelled to display them on the outside.
Like many people I know, I had come to believe that installing Old Glory on one's porch was sometimes more a display of partisanship than a display of feeling—something akin to placing a candidate's sign in the yard. In the years since I had awakened into political consciousness (think Reagan Revolution), right-wing activists have sought to make flying the flag, wearing it, or even talking about it affectionately synonymous with fidelity to their cause. This reached its peak three years ago when then-candidate Obama was accused of disloyalty to the country for not wearing an American flag lapel pin. He explained in 2007 that he had stopped wearing it because it had become a substitute for "true patriotism" since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, noting later that,"I'm less concerned about what you're wearing on your lapel than what's in your heart." This struck me as a sensible position.
Nonetheless, flag bullying continues. "I fervently believe the glorious Star-Spangled Banner should wave over our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guard heros [sic]. President Obama wants to raise the rainbow flag of the homosexual rights movement over them," read a recent fundraising letter from the conservative Family Research Council. I don't want to be associated with people who fly the flag, metaphorically or otherwise, to telegraph their cause; the Stars and Stripes has become so freighted with assumptions that it seemed almost safer to me to avoid dealing with it altogether. There was nothing I felt I needed to prove, to friends, neighbors, or anyone else.
But I put it up. The flag was big and unwieldy, so I was a little self-conscious as I tried to screw it into the base. Despite this, it felt familiar, almost as if I'd been doing it my whole life and was merely trying to recall the best method.
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.