THE MARKSMANSHIP MEDAL
“I didn’t know my dad knew how to shoot a gun. I have no idea how he would have reacted to winning a marksmanship competition.”
My dad wasn’t one for kid stuff. Even before my mom died of breast cancer, when I was seven, we didn’t go on family outings to the zoo or to the park. He didn’t toss a ball with us in the yard or join us for board games, and he didn’t play sports or have any hobbies.
Dad was at his best socializing with adults, usually over drinks. When I was young, he sold products and equipment to beauty shops, as they were then called, and later he owned a restaurant. Both occupations suited his outgoing personality. At the restaurant, he bonded with many patrons who became friends, and for years former sales clients came in to see him. He could engage just about anyone in conversation, and he thrived on witty banter.
At home, he liked to laugh and tease. He was resilient, and after my mom died he learned to cook and handle housekeeping and the solo care of four kids. But he also had a temper. Predictable triggers included dirty dishes in the sink, bad report cards and tardiness of any kind; random events could also set him off yelling and pounding his fist on the kitchen counter. My dad is wounded, I concluded in adulthood. In addition to losing my mother, he’d also weathered the loss of two infant daughters, the premature birth of my sister and her subsequent blindness, and financial stress later in life.
He lived to be 82, but in the end laughter and resilience failed him. After suffering from Alzheimer’s for more than a decade, something ruptured in his final months and woundedness poured out. On some of my visits to the memory-care facility, he’d shout and throw cookies. Other times he slumped on the bed sobbing.
I discovered the marksmanship medal in his top dresser drawer in 2016, three years after his death, while clearing out the condo where he and my stepmother had lived. I was impressed by its heft and the detail of the ornate rifles, the target, the oak leaves. The front was engraved with the year 1945, when Dad was 14; the back, with a logo of two Fs. Below the logo it said “Senior Champion.”
My father did not come from privilege. He paid his own way through college. His parents never owned a home. As a boy growing up in Cincinnati in the Depression, he never even owned a bicycle. But he spent entire summers at Father Foley’s Camp for Boys—FF—in northern Minnesota, likely paid for by his uncle, a priest, who owned property nearby. I can only guess what those summers must have meant to him. The occasional times he mentioned camp, his soft expression conveyed love.
I didn’t know my dad knew how to shoot a gun. I have no idea how he would have reacted to winning a marksmanship competition. (Whoop in triumph? Silently beam?) I just know it makes me happy to think of him happy. A champion. Not wounded or lacking. Doing kid stuff. Having fun. My dad kept the medal like a treasure for almost 70 years. Now I keep it in one of my own dresser drawers. I take it out sometimes when I’m thinking of him, and feel my face soften with love.
—Peg Morse Conway
Peg Conway is the author of The Art of Reassembly: A Memoir of Early Mother Loss & Aftergrief. She writes and practices energy healing in Cincinnati.