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Living Up to Our Inner Hero

May 2, 2019

2010-07-27 23.55.01 A couple of days ago – on May 1st to be exact – my mother ambled over to me and eased  herself down onto our living room sofa, where I sat reading.

“It’s my anniversary,” she said.

Knowing that she and my late dad had been married in November, not May, it was clear she didn’t mean that anniversary.

“May 1st is when I celebrate going to jail,” she clarified.

In 1958, when my mother was nearly sixteen, she was caught trying to escape Communist Czechoslovakia and imprisoned. My grandfather, who had snuck back into his former homeland to retrieve his daughter, was roughed up, handcuffed and dragged into custody. In fact, he was hauled into the same cinder-block interrogation facility where my mother was locked up.

They’d been separated for ten years already at that point. My grandparents, who were viewed unfavorably by the new Czech regime (not only because they were considered capitalists, but because they had participated in subversive activities during the war, like hiding Jews) fled Czechoslovakia in 1948, after being tipped off about their pending arrest on trumped up charges. But they’d left behind their three young girls – naive in their hope that the Red Cross could negotiate the children’s release.

For my mother, that was ten years of persecution and fear. For her parents, it was a purgatory of anguish and regret.

mom on bike

My mom looks so lonely in this photo

Desperate to get their girls back, my grandparents, who lived in Chicago during the 1950s, had, through a network of political refugees like them, been put into contact with a Czech Catholic priest, the Cold War’s version of Harriet Tubman. From Vienna, this man launched daring rescue operations that sent willing family members like my grandfather, and former military officers, like the men who accompanied him, behind the Iron Curtain in order to retrieve and free people who were being oppressed and held against their will. People like my mother.

Only things had gone terribly wrong, obviously.

But the Czech government was willing to be reasonable, they said. If my mom would only furnish the name of the priest in question, all would be forgiven. My grandfather could then lead Czech agents to the rogue priest so that they, in turn, could kidnap him from his home in Vienna and imprison him in Prague. Perhaps conduct a show trial. My mom, and subsequently her sisters, would be set free and allowed to leave the Soviet Union. My grandparents would have their girls back. Everyone would get what they wanted.

“I said no,” my mom said, curling her hands into tight, white-knuckled fists. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

It was a heroic act. For both her and her parents. But it came with a steep price as most heroics do. It cost my mom another ten years of hardship behind the Iron Curtain and my grandparents another ten of heartache on the other side of it. Yet they chose to spare the life of a man they hardly knew – my mother had actually never even met the priest – over considerable self-interest.

Catholic priest

This is not a photo of the priest in question. His identity remains a secret.

I think about heroism a lot.

My own comfortable American life has presented me with few genuine tests of my convictions. My sense of honor and indelible notion of right and wrong are still largely theoretical, as I’ve never been presented with the quandary of having to choose between my beliefs and my life, for instance. Or even my beliefs and my career for that matter. My reputation and community standing has ever been seriously threatened because of something I’ve said or done, simply because I believed in it.

The closest I have come to wrestling between my moral convictions and my peace of mind, has had to do with my son.

My seventeen year-old son has dreamed of being a Marine Corps officer since he was a child. So focused has he been on this path that there are few Halloweens where he was not dressed up as some sort of soldier. After dressing in the same Marine costume year after year, I actually said to him around sixth grade, “Don’t you want to try something else? Maybe Spiderman?”

“Sure,” he said in his usual affable tone.

That Halloween he came downstairs – candy bag in hand – dressed as a Zombie Marine.

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The infamous zombie Marine costume

Still, all of this seemed very far away. I was proud that he was drawn toward the noble and heroic and have always objected on principal to parents who think the military is just great as long as it’s not their kid who’s signing up for active duty. I certainly never thought of myself as that kind of person.

But I don’t know. Maybe I am.

As my son prepares to apply to military colleges (including the United States Naval Academy – his first choice), I find myself getting anxious and staring up at my ceiling late into the night. Watching “The Battle of Winterfell” on Game of Thrones this week took on a whole new meaning for me.

I saw my son in every character who was fighting those damned White Walkers. In the ones who triumphed – leaving a bloody trail of undead “corpses” in their wake. And in the ones who didn’t.

game-of-thrones-battle-of-winterfell-1556547986

Jon Snow kicking some White Walker ass

I’ve never shared my fears with my son. I know his dreams are not about playing war – some live action equivalent of Call of Duty – and that military service offers far, far more than the potential for fighting on a battlefield. Nor are his ambitions to be trifled with. I’ve watched many a parent step between their child and an innate passion and live to regret it.

“I don’t want to go away to school just to party,” my son told me. “I want to do something that matters.”

He wants to lead men and women, serve his country, maybe go into politics one day. I get it.  It’s a helluva lot more than I wanted out of life when I was his age.

“But I’m scared,” I told my husband. It was just after we’d watched Arya Stark kill the Night King with her dagger made of dragon glass.

“We know parents who’ve lost their kids to drugs and suicide,” my husband noted. “Would you rather have him believe in nothing?”

Of course, I wouldn’t. I know we can’t mitigate every risk for our children and that trying to do so is a fool’s errand. I’m glad – for our son’s own emotional well-being – that he wants to do something that feeds both his heart and mind, instilling in him a sense of value and purpose. There are many ways to do that, certainly, but this is the way he’s chosen, or the way that’s chosen him, and I respect it.

And if he changes his mind, I’ll respect and support him in that decision, too. I’ll even put on a look of banal detachment and try not to look happy about it.

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My son and I on our trip to Prague a few years ago. Here we are on a movie set.

In the meantime, I’m going to take a note from my mother’s playbook. While yes, there are a lot of things she and I disagree on (don’t get me started on child-rearing philosophies or the correct way to wash a casserole dish or do a load of laundry, to name a few) I will always defer to her when it comes to innate acts of heroism.

She and my grandparents gave up a lot for faith in a higher ideal. Even after my mom risked everything to escape her native country, and finally arrived on the American soil she’d always of dreamed of, she refused sit back and let herself off the hook. Announce to the world that she was done and it was somebody else’s turn. In fact, my mom actually made my older brother do ROTC to give back to the nation that had taken her in. She’d already lost one son to the flu when he was just a child, and even that didn’t stop her from asking her surviving boy to serve.

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My mom and my son

As a teenager, I thought she was crazy and swore I would never do that to my own kid. My brother was not too keen on the prospect of military service and I thought it was wrong for her to force her convictions on him. And I guess I still do think it was wrong, even if I admire her commitment to civic duty.

That’s why, as my son works toward becoming an Eagle Scout this summer and gets himself in “fighting” shape, works like hell to get all of his ducks in a row for a coveted  spot at the United States’ premier service academy, I’m going to swallow my fears, blot the night sweats off my brow and try to live up to the ideals that seem to come to him and my mother so effortlessly.

Eamon in uniform

My kid at about age 12 – dressed in his paternal grandfather’s World War II Marine Corps uniform

 

From → faith, family

16 Comments
  1. Recently read ‘Burying the Typewritter: Childhood under the Eye of the Secret Police’ by Carmen Bugan. It is about Romania, but during the same time period, and you and your brace mother might find it of interest.

    • Thank you. I’d love to read it. I find Romania during the Cold War fascinating and couldn’t resist writing about it in one of my thrillers :). Such a rich, complicated and tragic story.

  2. Reblogged this on T. W. Dittmer and commented:
    Victoria Dougherty is one of those classy people that make me want to be a better person. If you take a look at her work, I think you’ll agree.

  3. Reblogged this on I choose how I will spend the rest of my life and commented:
    I can’t help wondering how I would react if put to the same test as Victoria’s mother. And now she is facing her own dilemma, This is well worth reading.

  4. I’ve reblogged this on Growingyoungereachday. Great post Victoria.

    • I too am 81 and have been a widow for 21 years and a November wedding anniversary, but that’s where the similarity with your mother’s life ends. I grew up during the was in England but as we weren’t invaded, i didn’t have the fear of being imprisoned. Kudos to your mother for her faithful steadfastness. I’m so glad I found your blog.

  5. Brilliant post. I am a pacifist and avoided any encouragement of anything military, but did wonder if my son found a desire on his own… would I have any right to oppose? I am so glad I was never faced with that. Your family history is so rich and admirable.

  6. Thanks, Catalina. Being a parent is a strange ride. I’m still scratching my head how two writers spawned a warrior. A philosopher warrior, but a warrior nonetheless.

  7. Judy Caywood permalink

    Hi Victoria, When I saw the photo of your mom on her bike, I thought she looks so lonely and sad, and then I paged and saw your comment below the photo. She is a beautiful lady then and today. Your stories are meaningful and inspiring. I always send your e-mails off to my husband and two of my friends and my sister. I too would let my son go the direction he felt led but would also be the one staring at the ceiling at night with those same thoughts and worries. Take care, Judy

  8. Thank you, Judy.

  9. I would love to write about the events, if am been given the chance to, keep up dear

  10. Brilliant, honest writing about intensely personal subjects: family, honor, and choices made or yet to be made. I highly recommend following Victoria Dougherty.

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