(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.
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.