ARLINGTON, Va. – It's a busy spring morning in the curved pavilion of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial outside the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery: There's a retirement ceremony under way, school groups tour the exhibits, and a woman in Air Force blues burps a newborn on her shoulder.
But for me, the outside noise disappears when a picture pops up on a computer screen in an alcove. It's my mother.
Proud in her Army nurse's uniform, 2nd Lt. Margaret Taylor of Quincy, Mass., 23 years old at the time, smiles for some long-forgotten photographer. The screen says she joined the Army in April 1945 and served with the 229th General Hospital in occupied Nagoya, Japan, after spending a month in the Philippines. Campaign and victory medals she won are listed.
Then the screen points out another consequence of war for the smiling nurse in the photo: Sometime during her 10 months in the Pacific she caught tuberculosis. And 19 years later, it killed her.
She left a 7-year-old son, born during a brief period of relatively good health, who for a long time didn't comprehend the immensity of her sacrifice.
On and off over the years I've wondered what I could do to erect my own memorial to my mother. I don't mean a statue or naming a building after her, just some way to tell the generations to come about her.
I've considered getting a marker from the Department of Veterans Affairs to place in front of her grave not far from Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vt., where we lived when she died. That way, someone who wanders the cemetery a century from now might pause and consider the former Army nurse who died on Jan. 8, 1965, at age 42.
But as clear as day I remember when I, as a 5- or 6-year-old boy fascinated by the miniature American flags that fluttered in a cemetery we passed, asked her if she wanted a flag on her grave.
No, she told me, she didn't want that.
It was less than a year after my mother died when my father remarried. Clearly, he'd started grieving for my mother years before she died. He told me long afterward he and the woman he married, a widow, were drawn to each other by their shared grief.
I was lucky. My new mother (we never used the term stepmother) embraced me as her own, and in an instant I was given three sisters and a brother; my father and new mother later had two more children and then adopted another. It's a family I came to love as though we'd spent our entire lives together.
My mother's memory remained alive in my questions about her to my father and our visits to her grave. But my curiosity didn't draw me to the details of what she did until years after my father had passed away.
That's when I sent away to the National Archives for my mother's military records and to the Department of Veterans Affairs for her claim file.
A copy of her commission and a list of her decorations came back, but a form letter told me her Army file had been destroyed in a fire. The VA sent me a two-inch pile of documents. It is mostly those records and conversations with her brother and sister — my uncle and aunt — that let me put her past together.
Later I got the unit history of the 229th General Hospital from the National Archives. And I found on the Internet the history of the ship that, I think, carried my mother to the Pacific.
My aunt provided a handful of old photographs and tattered, kitschy souvenirs that I bet came from the Philippines.
In the spring of 1945 the Army was finishing an effort to recruit 10,000 new nurses (altogether, 57,000 would serve during the war). While the conflict in Europe was almost over, the invasion of Japan loomed, and military planners were expecting the war to last well into 1946 or even beyond.
Margaret Taylor joined up six months after her graduation from the Quincy City Hospital nursing school in October 1944. Her parents supported her decision to enlist, even though my grandmother feared for her health because of childhood rheumatic fever, says my aunt, Ann Lind of East Bridgewater, Mass.
The 229th General Hospital was sent to France in early 1945, but when fighting ended there, it was shipped direct to the Pacific, says Dr. Murray Dworetzky, a retired physician from New York City who didn't know my mother but served with the hospital in France and Japan.
While I can find no orders tracking my mother's voyage to the Pacific, family memories follow, to some degree, that of the "USS Gen. D.E. Aultman," the Coast Guard transport that carried the 229th from France, through the Panama Canal, to New Guinea and then to the Philippines.
Less than a year before, the Philippines had been liberated after Japanese occupation. When American doctors arrived, they found many cases of malaria, dengue, pneumonia, leprosy and tuberculosis.
The 229th, a full-service Army hospital capable of treating 1,000 patients, didn't set up in the Philippines, where it arrived in mid-September 1945. But some of the staff did spend time in the countryside treating liberated prisoners of war, says Dr. Joseph Kirsner, now 97.
After a month in the Philippines, the members of the 229th boarded a smaller ship for the voyage to Japan.
Dworetzky, now 89, recalls how welcoming the Japanese were to the 50,000 troops who landed in the Nagoya area in October 1945, just two months after war ended.
The hospital set up in an undamaged industrial building, Kirsner says. The rest of the city had been razed by allied bombing.
"It was miserable," says Gertrude Hilson, a former nurse who served with the 229th. She didn't know my mother, either. "There was a lot of damage in Nagoya... We weren't allowed out much."
Somewhere during those nine months in the Pacific my mother inhaled the tuberculosis bacilli. Her medical records suggest it was in Japan, but it could be she caught it treating liberated POWs in the Philippines or somewhere else.
TB, long considered a scourge, often struck people, like my mother, who were young and otherwise healthy, but whose lungs would be slowly destroyed. It wasn't until after World War II that the disease became readily controllable: Antibiotics were found that could effectively kill the bacteria.
While still in Japan, my mother spent eight weeks in a hospital bed, her mystified physicians describing a "fever of undetermined origin."
But she got better, returned to duty and finished her tour. She was discharged from the Army when she returned home in July 1946.
My parents had met at Quincy City Hospital, where my father, a medical student at Tufts University, was training. In his last year of medical school, he was an Army private being trained to go to the Pacific, but then came the Japanese surrender.
Just six months after they were married, in 1947, a chest X-ray found tuberculosis in her left lung.
She stayed in a series of hospitals for seven years.
VA records chronicling my mother's illness are alternately routine and wrenching. Entries from 1949, for instance, detail the operation to remove her left lung then note with clinical efficiency the first time the disease was found in her right lung. She was eventually sent to a TB sanitarium in Ithaca, N.Y.
Finally, in 1955, a brief period of good health began, and my parents moved to Burlington.
The following year, the medical records note: "Mrs. Ring gives some evidence of being pregnant."
My aunt told me recently: "She was told not to get pregnant but she wanted to so badly she took the chance and was so happy to have had you. The doctors told her she would break down again."
And she did. During the healthy period, her file includes a note saying the lesions in her remaining lung were "healed and stable," and a VA form letter gives a schedule to phase out disability payments over time. But in October 1957, when I was 7 months old, my mother wrote the VA.
The disease had returned, she said, adding: "In light of this unfortunate state of affairs, a revaluation of my claim for disability seems to be warranted."
Growing up, I was known as that spoiled Ring boy. But my mother, knowing I was going to be her only child, made no apologies for showering me with whatever I wanted, my aunt says.
Once, when I was about 4, I remember walking into our living room and finding my mother crying. When I asked her what was wrong she told me, "Sometimes mothers just cry."
Of course, I don't know what was wrong, but now my imagination tells me she was crying for the life she had given to her country and then for me.
I remember the oxygen tanks, the afternoon naps, and yet I don't remember her as sickly until late in her illness, when the hospital stays became more frequent.
My parents had an active circle of friends and she was well enough so we could all spend a year living in Sweden where my father studied.
I do remember once waiting on a hospital lawn and speaking with my mother when she appeared in her window above. Kids couldn't visit in those days.
The last time I saw her was about three weeks before she died. She smiled at me while sitting on her bed as I headed out the door for 2nd grade. I even remember seeing the ambulance go by the window of my classroom that morning, not knowing who was in it.
At my mother's funeral on a snowless January day, there was no flag over her casket, no honor guard and nobody playing taps in the distance, but that's what she wanted.
It only recently occurred to me that what happened to my mother was something special, that her sacrifice was comparable to that of someone who died of battle wounds.
There were 215 nurses who died during their World War II service, 16 of them killed in combat. The VA doesn't know how many women brought home from the war chronic illnesses that eventually killed them.
When my mother died, World War II veterans were still keeping their experiences to themselves, and the service of women was largely ignored. Now, WWII veterans have begun telling their stories.
If my mother were still alive and willing, she would probably be featured in Memorial Day or Veterans Day observances. She'd be held up as an example of great things done by the female members of her generation.
The Women's Memorial in Arlington is designed to honor the service of all women who served, whether or not they died. But for me it was fitting that it stands outside the gates to Arlington National Cemetery.
There are exhibits about women in the military from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the heart of the memorial is the computer system registering individuals' service. Some entries carry patriotic notes, others just list dates and the military branch.
Most of the 250,000 or so entries were provided by the women themselves, though some by staff or by relatives like me.
It was earlier this year — I don't know why I didn't do it earlier — that I filled out an online form and e-mailed a picture.
In its way, it's a fitting memorial. The computer entry gives more information than a headstone could. My mother's name and her photo will stay there forever, marking the service of a woman who gave her life for her country.
I don't know if that's all I'll do. I still haven't decided whether to put a flag on my mother's grave. I remain torn between her legacy, which I now grasp, and her words, spoken to me so long ago.