It's a love story, mostly- a tribute to what love can be and what it can endure, and it is a love letter to the two people who loved and parented me as no one else ever did.
I only got to keep him until I was eleven; she lived until I was thirty three. Every day was a blessing, and I miss them.
Please thank a Vet (and their families) for their service and sacrifice every chance you get...and have a safe weekend.
My Grandfather's Harmonica
If you're stateside I don't have to tell you that today is Memorial Day.
If you're from a military family, I also don't have to tell you that the day is about more than beer and hot dogs.
I hate to admit that I wasn't raised with a proper appreciation for Memorial Day- because my family raised me in a faith that taught that it's perfectly proper to take advantage of religious freedom bought and paid for with the blood of others but a sin against God to fight for it yourself.
My own views on war and religion aside (and believe me, I am putting them aside here as I'd sooner discuss my sex life in public than either of those topics- and I don't discuss that) I have developed a greater appreciation for what Memorial Day is supposed to be about since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started and, waking up from the world I was raised in to the real one, I realized for the first time in my life just what sacrifice truly is.
Too many days I've seen the flags flying at half-staff and too many times I've realized that my very existence is a lucky coincidence- based purely upon the fact that when my Grandfather was serving during WWII there was an incident where his platoon was shipped out while he was on leave and all of his buddies were killed. If he'd been with them, he would have died too.
My Grandfather never spoke to me about the war.
He died when I was eleven, and we discussed a great many things in the years I was lucky enough to have him in my life but not the war. He was the father to me that mine could not be- as my Grandmother mothered me in ways my own mother simply was incapable of and still, to this day, is.
Given my youth it's no surprise to me that he didn't talk about it but the truth is that he never talked about it with anyone.
The most I remember hearing was that once in a great while, he'd hear a certain old song or see a certain old movie and he'd get tears in his eyes, but he never spoke about it.
He was drafted as a very young married man and left as a new father- my mother was only three weeks old when he left for basic training and he wouldn't see her until she was nearly four years old, except in pictures.
He wrote to my Grandmother faithfully.
Hundreds upon hundreds of letters, I'm told- none of which she saved after the war.
She wouldn't say why but if I had to guess I'd say it was because it was just too difficult to look back on the time apart. My Grandmother was a 'hold down the fort' sort of woman and an inspiration in her own right. She went to work in a factory as soon as my Grandfather left because the pay was better than the job she had managing a Sanders ice cream shop.
One day the factory manager came down onto the floor seeking someone who had secretarial skills- which she had in spades- but she told him she couldn't afford to take a pay cut by leaving the line. He took her quietly aside and promised her the same pay as she'd get on the line if she did the job well.
She did the job very well.
She got approved for a mortgage because her ethnic name was mistaken for a man's name on the application- and she moved her sister and her brother in law and their kids into that house with her and my mother (the brother in law was not physically fit to serve) and her sister cared for the children while my Grandmother worked to support them all.
She never complained.
So many miles away from the life he'd left behind, it quickly became evident that my Grandfather couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with a gun. He was, however, brilliant with numbers and could keep an accounting of anything- this led to him becoming the chief supply clerk at a busy hospital in what was then called British Guyana.
He saw a lot- but he never complained about it either.
How do I know this, you ask?
Because about seven years ago, in what would turn out to be the final year of my Grandmother's life, we got one hell of a surprise.
The family who had purchased my great-grandparent's home was renovating the attic, and under the floorboards they found a stack of letters.
Those letters were from my Grandfather to my Grandmother, and they were dated between late 1943 and early 1944. Someone (likely one of my Grandmother's many sisters and I have a good idea as to which one) hid them under there at some point, probably to stop my Grandmother from destroying them all.
The new owners tracked my Grandmother down through a neighbor and returned these letters to her.
At first, she didn't want to let anyone see them and I can understand why. She was a very private person, and not the sentimental type really but these whispers from the past, from a husband she had buried so young (he was only sixty when he died) almost two decades before had to be heartbreaking enough.
But she decided to let my mother see them, and knowing my lifelong love of letters in addition to my eternal love for my grandparents, she told me about them.
I begged, and I do mean pleaded, with my Grandmother to let me see those letters.
The paper was so fragile, the writing so faded you could barely make them out. I told her that I'd be happy to take them to Kinkos, if she trusted me with them, and that I'd darken the text and make copies she could handle and read without worrying about tearing them.
She debated for a long moment, then she made me promise I wouldn't let them out of my sight. She nervously watched as I left the house with them, and only seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when I returned with them hours later, copies in hand.
Then she did something I never expected. She said "You can keep a set of the copies."
I thanked her- I read them, and then I put them away. In some ways it was too difficult to read how the separation had been so difficult on them, in others it just made me miss him far too much to bear it.
The older I get though, the more I appreciate these few precious pages of the hundreds of letters he wrote that have long since vanished, for the true gift that they are.
My Mother told me that she would sometimes hear my Grandmother crying at night, right after those letters arrived, and that she'd see them out on the top of her dresser the next morning and know she'd been rereading them.
Today, on this storming Memorial Day, I took my copies out after not being able to see to read them for a very long time, and I read them again.
They are truly sweet, and romantic, and it's clearly evident how much he loved her. He stressed at the end of every single one that he remained true: and he was that for the remainder of his life as well, I have no doubt that he always was.
Never once in those letters did he complain about what he was going through or what he saw.
He tried to give her happy things to think about, reassuring her of his safety, begging her to take care of herself and the baby and telling her at almost the end of every single paragraph that he loved her.
He'd tell her what he had for breakfast, ask her how her parents were. He told her once to give her little brothers and sisters (and there were almost a dozen) some gum and Tell them it's from Steve's pocket as they were used to running to meet him as he'd whistle, walking up the long driveway and ask if he had any gum in his pockets. He always had something for them.
Mostly in those letters he promised, always, that he loved her, that they were going to do so much together when he came home, and that he was going to spoil her for all the work she'd had to do while he was gone.
Of course she never really did submit to that spoiling- she worked hard until the final days of her life. But they had many years of loving each other, and loving us by extension. Especially me.
They loved me so much I am only now at the age of nearly forty beginning to understand it.
Grandma has been gone for almost six years now and I miss her more every day but I know I was lucky to have her for as many years as I did.
She and I missed my Grandfather in a very unique way- and we shared that grief in a way that no one else in the world did. It did not alter with the years, our love for him never diminished with the passage of time.
Now, thinking of him I think so much about the families left behind when someone goes off to war. I think so much about the ones who never come home.
Today more than any other and for the first time, I feel it's appropriate to share with the world, in the words of my Grandfather, what a soldier might long for when he's so far from home.
I miss you terribly...I love you so much that I'll never be able to do enough to show it. No matter how much I do, you are worth 100 million times that. So when I come home I'm going to spoil you and baby you to make up for the time we have lost. I feel lost without you, especially when I go to the show. When I see pictures that we saw together is when it hurts the most. I just love you and baby more than anything in the world...
...Whenever you're out shopping and you see something cute in the way of household things buy it because I know it'll make you happy to have it and I want you to have them. Then when I come home we'll buy all the big things right away. We'll buy a refrigerator, electric sewing machine, carpet sweeper, living room set, POOL TABLE (note- this was also underlined. Eleven times) and all type of recreations and all the trimming that go with a house...oh yes you can have all type of Chinaware that you wish, anything your little heart may desire will be gotten too. That's a pretty big bill but we'll get them. We'll have a good time too.
There's more, he speaks of sending her his pay as soon as he gets it and signs it the same way he signed them all. I'll forever remain your faithful, true and clean husband.
When my Grandmother passed away, the entire family said that I should have the first look at her modest belongings to take what I wanted, as everyone knew of all the grandchildren she had we were closest.
I chose the things that no one else would've asked for, anyway. Things no one else could know the significance of.
I chose the hideous little green vinyl train case she took on all our vacations when I was a child.
Into it I put my favorite of her aprons, a few of her prickly plastic hair curlers and pins. An empty compact that still smelled of her makeup and a scarf that still smells of her perfume. I was amazed, when looking through the things she kept after she sold her house and moved into a small bedroom at my parents, that she'd kept so many pictures of me as a child.
My mother added some things to the lot- things of my Grandfather's knowing I'd want them if I'd knew they existed- among them, his Good Conduct Medal and letters of commendation from his commanding officers.
His Hohner harmonica.
My Grandfather loved to sing and did so frequently and happily but bless him, he couldn't carry a tune. But he loved his harmonica and I know he had a similar one, if not this one, during the war.
He used to play it for the local children when he could, they were fascinated by it. When I was little, he'd play Oh Susannah on it and tell me to sing louder, 'no, louder!' from the time I was very tiny.
The following are the lyrics to a song he used to sing to me, and I'll share with you on this Memorial Day, along with a few other selected lines of his letters and I hope, if she's watching somehow, Grandma won't mind too much.
I do so with great affection for them both- and with thoughts going out to everyone who is waiting for the one they love to come home to them.
Wherever my Grandparents may be now, I hope that they're together again. When there was some question among relatives where my Grandmother's ashes should be buried I said immediately "Where else, in Grandpa's grave." and so they were. The last thing you'll see on this post is one of those kisses he promised to give her, being given once he finally came home.
If I close my eyes, I can still hear them singing this song to me- sweetly, brightly, and just a little bit off key.
It was absolute perfection.
May all those fighting come home safely.
You are my sunshine,
my only sunshine...
you make me happy, when skies are grey
Your letters were really swell, honey. I'll be so glad when I come home to my queen and little princess.
You'll never know Dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away.
I got all the love you sent me, darling, and the kisses too. I love you more than anything in the world.
The other night dear, as I lay sleeping,
I dreamed I held you in my arms,
but when I woke Dear, I was mistaken
and I hung my head down and cried.
I miss you a million. Whenever I don't get any mail I feel blue. But tomorrow when I get all the mail I'll be so happy.
You are my sunshine,
my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are grey:
You'll never know, Dear,
How much I love you-
Please don't take my sunshine away.
I love you...I just adore you...kiss baby a million times for me and here's a special kiss for you too. I love you. Your faithful husband, Stephen."
~May 2010, February Grace