Gold Star families have been in the news recently. You may not have heard that term before so here’s a bit of Gold Star history as seen through a personal lens, that of my own family. Richmond Views shares images and stories from the Richmond of my great-grandfather’s lifetime. Harry Stilson drove a streetcar and his camera rode beside him every day. His photographs are an amazing collection of ordinary and extraordinary events and people. My books and presentations share those priceless images but some of the photographs included were actually taken by Harry’s son, Leon. Both of the Stilson sons followed their father into streetcar work but Leon’s career ended when he was called to military service in WWI. Harry & Leon pose in their streetcar uniforms below.HHS and Leon streetcar uniform My upcoming book, From Richmond to France, focuses on the young men who left Richmond to fight in the World War but it’s also about Gold Star Mothers, including my great-grandmother, Mary Stilson. Her son, Leon, did not come home from France. Leon departure                                              Richmond recruits heading off to boot camp

Blue Star families have a relative serving in the military. The term Gold Star families refers to those who have lost a son or husband in battle and comes from the tradition of hanging a gold star in a window or on a door to indicate a loss. The organization Gold Star Mothers was created as a support system for women devastated by the death of a son and Mary Stilson was active in the Richmond chapter. After WWI, there was a movement lobbying  Congress to arrange passage for women to visit their sons’ graves. My great-grandmother made a Gold Star Mother Pilgrimage to France on the President Harding. Ironically, her trip included a stay in New York at the Hotel Commodore, now a Trump Hotel.

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Harry taught his wife to take photographs (her first attempt is noted on an envelope of negatives) and she kept EVERYTHING, from passport to ship menus, from a bag of French soil to the vase presented to her by the mayor of Verdun where Leon is buried. A shell converted to a vase, it now sits on my shelf, just one reminder among hundreds of the sons who died for our freedom. 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War I and  we need reminding of that war’s sacrifices by so many young men, both black and white.

083 soldier & mom

When Richmond was determined to build a monument to those killed in what they called the Great War, the Gold Star mothers were right there. The Carillon was dedicated in October 1932 and the Stilsons were there. I believe Harry took the picture used in the Gold Star fundraiser pins sold at the dedication. My father helped his grandmother with sales. Next time you are at Dogwood Dell, look for the Gold Star emblem on the Carillon. I’ll share more of its history at my Veteran’s Day presentation at the Carillon next fall.

076 Dedication of Carrillon                                                         Carillon Dedication, October 1932

The loss of a son or daughter, husband or brother, in war is heart-wrenching and not soon healed. Harry worked through his grief by meeting returning soldiers, photographing them, asking questions. He found a Petersburg man who was with Leon when he was shot and corresponded with him and his father. I have those letters and they’re hard to read even now. I never knew Leon. He died nearly a century ago but my heart hurts to read how that young Petersburg man covered Leon with his own greatcoat when Leon said he was cold. Harry’s healing came from learning details and documenting the return of other men’s sons. Leon’s mother turned to other mothers who had lost sons and found comfort in their shared experience. Peace was found only after traveling across an ocean to stand by her son’s grave. Gold Star Mothers embraced each other and offered each other comfort as they stood by stark graves on foreign ground.

077 MPS at LHS grave

Mary Stilson by her son’s grave at Verdun, France

Today Gold Star Mothers still support families in the loss of a son, daughter, husband, wife, brother, sister. Their sacrifice is unthinkable. My heart aches to even hear them speak of their loved ones and I stand in awe of families who sacrifice their family’s future for America’s future. I hope to honor them in a small way with From Richmond to France. It’s customary to thank those in uniform for their service. Perhaps learning what a Gold Star family has suffered will lead to a new custom. Suppose we start saying to members of Gold Star families, “Thank you for your sacrifice.” A small gesture and perhaps a century overdue.

 

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