The pictures changed things for me.
I saw my grandmother, smiling, vibrant and proud, in her crisp Army uniform, standing in front of various bases across the country.
I saw the pictures during my infamous “rooting” expeditions in her damp, cobweb-laced basement and empty bedrooms filled with various trunks and gadgets a pack rat seems to hoard.
Mary Ann Nark was about 70 when I was born and my first clear memory of her is having to thank her — loudly, on account of hearing loss — for the warm, almost corrosive, bottles of Pepsi she would give me when I visited.
Conversations, especially with a little boy itching to explore, were few, but other memories were made. I recall the sound of her charm bracelets, the smell of her spearmint gum, and the cuckoo clock my Uncle Jack bought her while stationed in Germany. While my dad fought her small, jungle-like back yard with an assortment of lawn weapons, I found pieces of her extraordinary life tucked away in her Gloucester City rowhome.
My grandmother, a registered nurse, entered the U.S Army in 1930 and served at military bases and hospitals across the country, caring for men who were injured during World War II.
In 1948, she resigned her commission as a major in the U.S. Army Nurses Corps to marry my grandfather, Dr. John A. Nark, and settled in Philadelphia. She had my father when she was 42 and went on to have two daughters before my grandfather died in 1957.
My grandmother never remarried and raised her three, young children in Gloucester City. She was a nurse at the Catholic high school where my parents, two aunts and an uncle, various cousins, and both my sister and I attended.
By the time my interest matured from my grandmother’s stuff to my grandmother herself, she was sitting in a veterans nursing home in Vineland from the effects of a stroke. I felt uncomfortable going there and wasn’t mature enough to put that aside. When I did go, I often sat outside on a bench and smoked cigarettes.
There was no bugler or rifle shots at her funeral, but my Uncle Jack, a retired Army lieutenant colonel with two Bronze Stars, presented a tightly folded flag to my dad with a sharp salute.
I’m not sure if my dad saluted his brother back, but I remember how large and vivid the flag looked in his arms amid the dead grass at the cemetery. It was a small tribute, but my grandmother was proud to honor her country. Those black and white smiles are proof.