Paul Greenberg

I scarcely remember when the war came. In my child's mind, it had always been there. Complete with bond drives and powerful, graphic posters that said Remember Pearl Harbor and ration books and voices on the radio reporting from far-off places in a clear, neutral, standard American pronunciation. That is, midwestern. Robert Trout, for example, and Edward R. Murrow for another. ("This . . . is London.") The enunciation, like the drama, was uniform.

The war suffused all of life on Texas Avenue: There were the khaki uniforms on the street, and the little cards that kids prized with black silhouettes of different warplanes. The aircraft themselves might be spotted heading in and out of Barksdale Air Base across the river, and we competed with one another calling out B-17! B-24! P-51!

Every Saturday, Texas Avenue teemed with black sharecroppers and their families, and with uniforms Saturday nights. There was a saloon up the street that regularly attracted the MPs. A source of welcome excitement for a little boy.

And few storefronts up, in the back of a dry goods store, there was the old lady in black.

As a child I seldom saw her, but knew what had happened. Her boy Bill had been killed in the war, one of the early American casualties -- of so, so many -- in the Pacific.

No one mentioned his name except maybe the grown-ups in hushed tones. I always stepped toward the outside of the sidewalk when passing her store. To a little boy there was something ominous in her silent vigil. Mourning is foreign to a child. Threatening.

Years later, I would bring my own kids back to visit the old neighborhood -- just to show them where this store or that one had been, and where this family or that one had lived, and where we'd gone to get RC Colas, or how you could hide in the alleys to ambush the other kids when you played cowboys-and-Indians....

And there she was, still in black. Only she was sitting at the front of her store today, and motioned me to bring in the kids. She wanted to know their names and how old they were, and insisted on getting them Cokes. She spoke of people who used to live in the neighborhood. The living and dead and just moved away. It was only then that I realized she could smile.

The river of time had ebbed, revealing a new layer under its dark waters. She still wore black, but I no longer saw her through a glass darkly. The grief still hung on in her visage and bearing, as grief must, but the veil had been lifted. She seemed recalled to life. Maybe it was the presence of the children that did it.

One more memory of mine had deepened and broadened, one more connection was made and renewed. One more soul had reached out -- hers? mine? the children's? Bill's, maybe? The forever young, cut down in their youth, never age. They reappear in our thoughts just as they were, unchanged. Even as those who treasure their memory grow older, then elderly, and then they, too, are gone.

The quick and the dead, the young and old, we all seemed of a piece that brief hour, sitting there in her same old store among what seemed the same old stacks of clothes for sale, talking quietly between long pauses, sipping our Cokes, having our own memorial day.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.