Just in case you missed it, yesterday, September 13, was the 200th anniversary of the National Anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's something of a miracle that the actual flag Francis Scott Key was waiting desperately to see in "the dawn's early light" is displayed today in the Smithsonian Museum, but it is. It's not in good shape--as you can see--but it's lovingly protected, I'm sure.
One star is missing because the descendants of the family of Major George Armistead, the Commander at Ft. McHenry, the place Key was watching so closely all night long, owned it for 120 years. Things fall apart. During that time, one of the relatives cut out one of the stars and sold it. Other parts were snipped off for whatever reason. This is what remains (see above).
But of course, we have the anthem, sung thousands of times every day and night.
When I hear the name Francis Scott Key, I don't think about the anthem, I think instead of Mrs. Key, a squat woman who wore her long black hair, as I remember, pulled back tight and stiff. She had a round face and almost unkind eyes. In truth, I was afraid of her. She was a school teacher in town, the quintessential schoolmarm.
It may have been a lean time in my parents' life, the money simply not there. After the war, my father had built our house with his own hands, drawn it up, oddly enough, with what appeared to be two front doors. I don't doubt--although I don't know it's true--that the intent was to build a one-room apartment for my grandfather, who was retired-and-getting- old (a phrase I use far more meaningfully than I used to, btw).
Grandpa Schaap lived in that room for a time, then died, in 1954, when I was starting kindergarten. When he was no longer with us, my parents found renters, this stark, heavy-set schoolmarm and her white-haired son, Christopher, who was younger than I was and somewhat precocious.
The images of both of them are as ragged the Ft. McHenry flag. I can't say I see either mom or son clearly, although the images survive--a woman who did almost everything militarily and her little boy, precocious and, well, unmanly. Funny how we judge, even at an early age.
How it was she'd become a single mom, I don't know. I was far too young and sinless to wonder about such things.
I don't know if the two of them would even have a place in the museum of my memory if it weren't for one incident, an incident related by needle-and-thread, oddly enough, to the star-spangled banner that became "The Star-Spangled Banner."
'Twas a beautiful Sunday morning, and I had a brand new sport coat to wear for church for the very first time. It hung in the living room closet, I remember, and I was thrilled to get myself bedecked for church. No one else was up, so I took that new jacket from its hanger, grabbed a scissors from the top drawer of the built-in dining room buffet, and proceeded, on my own and without parental consent, to cut off the tags.
I couldn't wait. I was anxious for church. I told you, I was too young for iniquity.
One of the tags was sewn into the material. No matter. I scissored it anyway, and when I did I took out a patch of material at the bottom of the back of the sport coat. I was eight years old maybe--that's all. You could hardly call it a sin.
I got scolded, but not hard. That too I remember.
Hard as it is to believe, while Christopher and Mrs. Key prepared their meals, mostly, on a hot plate in Grandpa's old room, they shared a bathroom with us and thus became aware (you might say) of family foibles my two older sisters may have created. I honestly don't know if my mother knew Mrs. Key was a seamstress, or whether our "boarder" simply came out of the room at the commotion created by my eager scissors, but I do remember she volunteered to mend the sport coat, saying something akin to "You just get ready and let me handle this."
So we did and she did. And I walked off to church just as proud of my new Sunday togs and maybe a bit humbled.
Mrs. Key, who was a descendant of Francis Scott, saved the day and the Schaap Sabbath.
Mrs. Key and Christopher, who lived just off the kitchen of our little house, didn't go to church that morning, nor any morning. That too I remember.
I was, at best eight or nine years old so my attitude toward "spiritual things," as my mother might have said, was definitively elementary. What I remember about that morning--what comes back to me, even today--is an irony I must have felt even though I wasn't old enough to handle a scissors: how strange it was, after all, that a woman who never went to church had come to our aid in our hour of need and somehow miraculously mended this brand new sport coat, patched it up perfectly, so that we could go to Sunday worship. She was a kind of savior, even though she was something of a heathen, a woman who lived right in our house.
All of that was fascinating to me, but please take the whole story with heavy dose of skepticism because all of it comes back to me through a haze that's not far afield from "the twilight's last gleaming."
I don't know whether Christopher and Mrs. Key ever went to church that year they lived in our house, but my memory is that they didn't, which meant, in my mind, that they weren't real Christians. But then, somehow she had saved the day, the Sabbath. To me, something about that made no sense.
You may disagree, but I think there's something broadly American about that story, a sweet mix of cultures, people having to adjust to neighbors who weren't like themselves, something broadly American and, good Samaritan that she was, something Christian too, I something loving, something remarkably good.
And that's what I'll always remember whenever I hear the name of Francis Scott Key.