“I hate school. I don’t know why I have to go,” she pouted, sitting in the passenger seat next to her mother and looking out the window.”
Anne bit her tongue and kept her eyes on the road. They had this conversation at least once a week since Eliza flunked out of her freshman year at the state university and transferred to the local community college. She had been a good high school student but it was the extracurricular activities that she loved. Eliza served on the monthly dance committee and swim team and on a whim tried out for the golf team because it looked fun, never having held a club until the week before tryouts. She cheered for the baseball and basketball teams and had a wide circle of friends. Overall, she was a happy, well-behaved teenager but had no idea what she wanted to do beyond high school.
“Eliza, we have this talk every week. You need an education for your future. This is your time to learn and decide what you want to do with the rest of your life,” her mother answered, feeling like a parrot.
“Or, you can always go into the military,” Anne continued, the postnote she always made after the school comment.
“Maybe I will,” Eliza said, turning to look at her mother.
“What?” Anne said, surprised at a different answer than the usual “I’m not like you.”
“I think I want to join the Coast Guard,” Eliza stated.
“Seriously? I thought you didn’t want to be like me,” Anne countered.
“Well, maybe I changed my mind. If you did it, why can’t I? I like the water,” Eliza challenged.
“Okaaaay,” Anne answered slowly. “We can make an appointment to see a recruiter. But boot camp isn’t easy.”
“I know the stories. I’m tough,” Eliza countered.
This made Anne laugh. “Oh, Princess, you have a beautiful soul and I know you can do anything that you set your heart on, but there’s no makeup or curling irons allowed in boot camp and you have to get up early and do lots of pushups, just for starters.”
“So you don’t think I can do it?” Eliza challenged.
“It’s not that, Eliza. It’s a serious commitment, not a whim,” her mother answered.
“I want to try. Can we talk to someone?” Eliza said.
Anne picked up her cell phone and called the local Coast Guard recruiter. They could see Eliza now. Anne got off at the next exit, turned around and drove straight to the recruiter’s office.
One month later, Anne stood by as Eliza raised her right hand and took the oath of enlistment. Anne held her breath, not believing that this was really happening and also quite worried that her princess wouldn’t be able to maneuver the military. Or that the military was ready for Eliza.
Anne wrote every day, sending news from home and words of encouragement. The first phone call home was a week into boot camp and filled with tears.
“It’s horrible, Mom. They told me that I am weak, stupid and ugly. Mom, I am NOT ugly.”
“You’ve got this, Princess,” Anne said with a laugh in her voice.
“Oh, they can’t make me quit. I’m better than that. But the uniforms are ugly and the food is gross,” Eliza said.
“Other than ugly clothes and bad food, how’s the physical part of it,” Anne asked.
“It’s hard, but I’m the best swimmer in the company and I’m not a fast runner, but I’m faster than some of the guys,” Eliza answered. “And, Mom, the Company Commander assigned me to be the Yeoman.”
Anne’s eyes teared up. She had been her company’s Yeoman decades before her daughter. This was a position that served as the coordinator for the company and came with a few perks such as time out of the recruit bay to do office work, a wonderful respite from the tedious military schedule. It was an honor reserved for a recruit that was excelling in their studies and physical tasks.
Eight weeks dragged by for Anne. Eliza had thrived with the challenges of boot camp, becoming a good shot with the rifle, mastering the obstacle course and making friends with her fellow recruits. Finally, graduation day came.
Anne flew across the country and rented a car to take her to the Training Center in New Jersey in the dead of winter. So many memories flooded back as she parked and walked across the same fields that she had marched on as a young woman twenty years ago. She recognized the mess hall and the barracks and remembered her own trials and blisters.
As she approached the ceremonial hall, Anne saw a group of recruits marching in their winter dress uniforms. She searched the group, all in perfect step, faces straight ahead. And then she saw her. Her baby girl. Her Princess. Her heart swelled with pride. And just at that moment, Eliza turned her head briefly and their eyes met. Eliza snapped her head back forward with tears trickling down her cheeks. Anne smiled with matching tears streaming down her face.
Inside the hall, friends and family took seats on the bleachers and the recruits stood in formation. After remarks from the base Commanding Officer and the Company Commander, they called out several recruits, one being Eliza. Eliza marched smartly to the Company Commander and accepted the Leadership Award for serving as a motivator and inspiration to her fellow recruits. The company was soon certified as official members of the United States Coast Guard and released from recruit duty.
Eliza walked with military bearing over to her mother. It took everything in Anne’s being not to rush towards her and take her daughter in her arms. This was no longer a Princess. This was a military woman. Their eyes met and they both burst into tears and a long, close hug.
“I did it, Mommy. I’m just like you,” Eliza whispered.
“No, Princess, you are just like you,” Anne whispered back.
Written February 2017; Read at To Live & Write in Alameda’s Story Slam, March 2017. Based on the true story of my daughter, Meghan, joining the US Coast Guard Reserve.