birth and war – a day to remember

(I posted this last year. It’s still true.)

It would have been his birthday today, my grandfather. For three years, I lived just one small town away, and I suspect – based on all I know of him – that for those three years, I spent much of my life draped comfortably over his arm (where babies were most content), held gently on his lap (where toddlers were most relaxed), or settled happily alongside him at ‘work’ (where children were most eager to be).

When my family plucked itself up from the Nebraska soil and migrated east to the suburban cement, the distance between me and my grandfather might as well have been from here to the moon. Holiday and summer visits, whether 10 hours in a stuffy car or 14 hours on the click-clacking Zephyr, were much too far apart. A child can’t possibly wait a whole year to see again that tall figure, measured gait, broad grin, and leathery hands, all carefully sheltered from the glaring sun by a hat that set my grandfather apart from all other grandfathers in my suburban desert. Cowboy. Farmer. Man of the land. That he was. I was proud he was mine.

Photo: CKIrgiss – ‘Working’ with Grandpa

In the 1940s, while my grandfather was working the land (to feed the people), his brother – a United States Lieutenant Colonel – was stationed in Europe (to free the people). I knew this brother, my great-uncle, but not well. He looked like my grandfather. Smiled like him. Spoke like him. Strangers could have pegged them for brothers with nothing more than a passing glance.

A long while ago, I was back at the farm for my grandfather’s funeral … the man I’d always lived too far away from and missed too much. In search of a quiet, alone, crying place, I climbed the creaking stairs of a battered shed into the upper storage rafters that were empty but for some stacks of crumbling newspapers, piles of rotting rags, and a neatly bundled, carefully saved packet of handwritten letters. Real letters. From my great-uncle to his parents during World War II … people he was too far away from and missed too much.

For the next two hours, while I cried for the grandfather I’d lost, I read those letters. All of them. Every word. And then I cried for this other man, who I’d never known well enough, who’d lived through hell on earth, and who’d been much too far away from the place he loved and the people he adored. I was sad for all he’d lost, all he’d seen, all he’d experienced, all he’d known. Sad that I’d never thought to thank him for what he’d done. Sad that I’d never realized my great-uncle was set apart from so many other great-uncles across the land. Soldier. Veteran. Defender of freedom. That he was. I am proud he was mine.

Photo: CKirgiss

6 thoughts on “birth and war – a day to remember

  1. linda cox November 12, 2012 / 11:31 am

    Thank you Crystal for sharing your memories of these awesome men!

  2. Sue Swanson Schoening, originally from Nebraska, then St. Louis, now Oakland CA November 12, 2012 / 1:22 pm

    Crystal– What a nice tribute to your great-uncle, my dad, John Wendell Swanson.
    WW2 was the pivotal part of Dad’s life, and I think that was true for many veterans of that era. There was political unity at home, the people were willing to sacrifice comforts and (ach!! sons!) to win the war, and the soldiers felt loved and supported by the entire country. Wars are never good, in my opinion, but wars subsequent to WW2 were really hard on our soldiers, because of all the homeland politics.

    • ckirgiss November 12, 2012 / 2:10 pm

      Sue,
      Thank you for this note. I really do wish I’d known your dad better. We always visited him and Ellen when we were at the farm, but I was too young to understand how to have a meaningful conversation and how to listen carefully to everything the grown-ups were saying. As is so often true, by the time I truly understood and appreciated your dad’s history, it was too late to ask questions and listen to stories. His dedication to writing his parents was just beautiful – what a wonderful gift for them. There is a certain aura about that generation and its many difficult sacrifices that I doubt we will see repeated anytime soon. I’m glad my grandfather and your dad left us the legacy they did.

  3. Gloria Swanson November 14, 2012 / 12:15 am

    Crystal,
    What a touching essay. It’s so interesting that I went through a similar emotional journey regarding your great uncle (my dad) just a few years ago after reading, “The Longest Day.” The book opened my eyes to the significance of dad’s (and all WWII veterans’) involvement in such a monumental war. I came to lament my dismissal of his experience in Europe while he was alive. An unbearable sadness came over me for not listening to what he had to say about the war. I suppose growing up in the Vietnam era had tainted my view of the military, but that’s no excuse. Fortunately, all is forgiven. When he is in my dreams, he is a silent, kind, loving presence, and when I think of him, I feel a calm connection.

    Your dad was my favorite uncle. It’s so true that he loved babies and children. I was one of them.

    Gloria

    • ckirgiss November 14, 2012 / 7:26 am

      Gloria – your comment is beautiful. My eyes are misty thinking about both men…their quiet strength, unspoken fears (one didn’t seem to speak quite so much and so openly back then), depth of experience. I suppose our regrets of not listening enough, not asking enough, and simply not getting it are repeated in their own way with each succeeding generation. I surely do miss my grandpa.

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