"I grieve to leave it." ~ Jane Eyre
I sip coffee on my end of the line and I hear my grandmother sipping hers on her end.
I am perched on the couch, staring at the blue sky and clutching a cup from Panera. I am still in white sweats and a blue t-shirt, not yet changed from the time I woke up. It is about noon. I was up hours ago, but my grandmother has just awoke. I tell her that she shouldn't feel guilty about sleeping so late. At 86 years of age, she has a right to be a little more tired than the rest of us. I am hearing her voice and feeling comforted a bit; the coffee helps comfort me, too. We are talking about my grandfather, among other things.
Hours before I thumbed through the letters that my grandfather sent her during World War II. She marked them Some, Not All. There were hundreds. Not just written letters, but V-Mail as well. I think I have about twenty five or so. My grandmother gave them to me after he died; I referred to them in the eulogy I delivered at his wake a few years ago in this month.
My grandfather served in the Fifth Army in Italy in the Signal Core, a branch that no longer exists. He was drafted in 1942 from his home in Astoria, did his basic training at Camp Blanding in Florida, and then headed to the European Theatre soon after. He was under General Patton, first in North Africa and then eventually in Italy. In addition to the letters, there are photos he took which fascinate me to this day. One of the most classic photos is one he took of Mussolini hanging. There is also Nazi paraphenalia he saved; the signal core was often involved in battle since they were right behind the infantry. He never spoke about the war to anyone.
Except for me.
On an afternoon in my home growing up, he sat on the recliner and I was able to ask him questions about it. I was in eighth grade and studying American History with Mrs. Vogt. His answers to my questions were monosyllabic, and I know that he felt pressed, but he answered anyway. I think he knew it was important for me to know, and that I could learn from his stories. I found out that the soldiers had no idea about the Holocaust. I learned that he fired a gun often, and when I asked if he killed anyone, there was silence. I know he lost friends. I know that he was always worried about his younger brother, Steve, who was also fighting in the army. I learned about the close calls with the Luftwaffe, and I learned about the post traumatic stress disorder he had after the war ended and before he came home. He literally arrived to his home via the subway from Manhattan without any pomp or circumstance until a neighbor recognized him on the subway car. I don't know much more; the only inferences I have are the photos. In between destroyed villages in Italy and mass burials for the dead are photos of him in jeeps, sunburnt and smiling.
I know my grandmother's love and the love from his family and friends kept him going. You will know that, too, since I am reprinting some of the lines from his letters. Some, not all. My grandfather was a very private man, and I don't want to infringe on his privacy by reprinting them all.
As I sat listening to my grandmother sip her coffee on that Sunday afternoon, I stared out the window of my apartment and decided to ask her about her experience during the war. I have never really done this before. I knew about her life during the war, but I knew nothing of her own survival when it came to dealing with my grandfather's absence and imminent danger.
"Grandma," I practically whispered, "How did you cope with him being gone?"
She visited his parents often. My great-grandfather, Sarkis, always had a huge map of Europe and marked where his sons where after a letter arrived. "Johnny is here, Stephen is there! They are making progress. They are winning." These were his constant words to my grandmother. I suppose marking the map made him feel safer knowing he had an idea of where his sons were. My grandmother survived almost four years in this fashion. Without email, without phones. She told me that above all else, she and his loved ones remained positive. She had a support system in place.
And I never thought at 28 years of age in my lifetime I would have to have one in place, too.
In some ways I am like my grandfather. I find myself quite unable to elaborate on the details leading up to this post. When I am ready, I shall. Until then, here are some lines from my grandfather's letters...
September 4th, 1944 from Italy:
"Hello sweets. Just a few lines to let you know that I am ok. Hope this postcard finds you the same. Would you care to wine and dine with me Italian style?"
April 3, 1943 from Africa:
"Darling, I know that my letters to you aren't too long. Its hard to write anything of interest due to the censorship! "
"Well sweets, I have some laundry to wash so I guess I shall sign off again for a while. Yes hon, we have to do our own laundry most of the time. And you know what I wash it in? MY HELMET! I use that to wash myself and shave and everything else!"
"Take care of yourself and please don't worry about me! I am fine!"
December 12, 1944 from Italy:
"So you wrote Steve before you did to me? Ahhhhh. Well why bother even writing to me? After all he seems to get your Easter before me. Xmas fruit cake, and now the letter. (I'm only joking darling so please don't get angry)"
"PS Hope you had a great Xmas dinner. Hope and pray to be with you next year. So long, kid!"
October 6, 1944 from Italy:
"But regardless of how long it takes, please have patience. And as you say, we will all be repaid with happiness for our lasting patience."
Tonight I go to sleep trying to exercise patience.
Reader, welcome to my life.
- Name: ThursdayNext
- Location: New York, United States