By Harriet P. Gross
Tomorrow is Pearl Harbor Day. As it moves farther and farther back into history, our country has become extra-conscious of remembering its veterans, who are now dying at a rate of well more than 1,000 per day.
But I, like they, can remember the day itself, although from a completely different perspective. For my five uncles, it meant that they would soon leave home to serve. For me …
It was early afternoon on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. On the second floor of a popular Jewish banquet hall in Pittsburgh, friends and family were gathered to honor a man who would be recognized by his lodge, the Knights of Pythias, for many years of leadership and service. Spaghetti was served; a little girl, dressed up for her grandpa’s special occasion in maroon taffeta, dribbled sauce on her frock.
Her mother had no time to wipe it off before shouting broke out on the street below: Newsboys crying “Extra! Extra!” A Japanese attack had upended America.
In the banquet hall, the honoree had just been presented with a gold pocket watch, his name and the date engraved on its back. After the attendees quieted down, he began to speak. But first, he held up the pages of his carefully prepared speech, ripped them in half, then in half again.
He looked around the large room, locating his five sons, extending an arm toward each of them in turn. “You will all be going now,” was all he said, with tears running down his old, worn face. The little girl had never seen her Zeyde cry before.
The next day, five young men left home for the first time ever, destined for service in the U.S. Army, the Air Corps and the Merchant Marine. But they made one last stop before saying goodbye to their father: They took his new gold pocket watch to a jeweler, who added “Remember Pearl Harbor” to the inscription on the back of its gold case.
Fast forward almost 43 years, to an autumn afternoon in September 1984. A woman says goodbye to her husband in Dallas and flies back to Pittsburgh, her old hometown, to the house of her childhood, to go through the personal belongings of her recently deceased mother.
She does not cry as she opens drawers, piles jewelry, hosiery, nightgowns and underwear neatly on a bed, sorting them for distribution to relatives and charities. She goes through a cabinet of dressy pumps and sturdy oxfords, removing one of each pair and consigning these singles to a large plastic bag for immediate disposal: No one would ever be able to walk again, literally, in her mother’s shoes. Then she opens the main closet and brings out the cotton housedresses, the woolen suits, the fancy printed silks …
One last item lurks in the very darkest corner. It is a little girl’s dress of maroon taffeta, further darkened by age. Covering a spot where something foreign had dried and hardened — perhaps spaghetti sauce? — a note was pinned. Its once-white paper had also aged, to a soft yellow, the inked-on words faded but still legible: “Remember Pearl Harbor,” it said. Only then did I cry.
A little girl of 7 didn’t often get to wear such a dressy dress. I soon outgrew the maroon taffeta, never wore it again, never even saw it again, until I found it in my mother’s closet. It was her personal souvenir of that incredible day.
I have my own precious souvenir that I will wear on a gold chain around my neck tomorrow, as I do now on every Pearl Harbor Day: My grandfather’s gold pocket watch. By the grace of God, all my uncles returned whole from their service in China, in Africa, in Italy, in Germany, to work once again with their father in the family business.
In the years since, four of them have joined their father, and my mother, in the old family cemetery. After all his brothers were gone, my last living uncle gave it to me — the oldest daughter of his beloved first-born oldest sister.
We all have our “Where were you when …?” days: 9/11. The space shuttle disasters. The first man walking on the moon. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But my special day memories go back even father, as far back as to the day on which President Franklin Roosevelt died. And even before that, to Dec. 7, 1941. As long as I live, I will never forget. I will always Remember Pearl Harbor.