My grandmother turns 96 in June. Last year, at her 95th birthday party, an extraordinary opportunity to tell a great story presented itself. On this Memorial Day, I can think of no better time to kick it off.
My uncles had arranged a celebration for her to take place during a re-enactor’s weekend at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, PA. The event was their huge annual World War II weekend, with collectors from everywhere showing off their gear–everything from uniforms to campsites to fully functioning planes and vehicles. Thousands of people wandered the grounds. There were flights, displays, mock battles, concerts. It was a history buff’s Heaven. My son, who had just turned eight, found it particularly fascinating (as a side note, it was enormously valuable for him to see it all firsthand; he still asks questions).
To one side of the grounds a small quonset hut squats permanently, its interior and small fenced yard decorated as if it had just been dropped in from the 1940’s South Pacific. Everyone gathered there for the party, where my grandmother received a large shadow box containing some of her photos, letters, and other memories from that time that had not been seen in decades.
This was all highly significant.
According to family history, she met my grandfather when they both served in the U.S. Navy during the war. They corresponded frequently, spending most of it in different parts of the world. She left the service at the end of 1944, when they married and settled into my grandfather’s new funeral business (he had actually aspired to journalism in high school) in Philadelphia. My mother arrived a few years later, the first of five children. My grandparents lived and worked together until he passed away in early 1982, when I was 11.
I had always thought it a very interesting story, something to look further into if I could find any records. This chapter of the family’s history was worth telling and preserving.
I had some experience writing about veterans. During a short enlistment, I aspired to journalism myself and worked as a reporter and editor for a paper at a medical center where many of them received care. I heard some amazing stories and met many wonderful, honorable people, such as Jimmie Kanaya, who mailed me handwritten thank-you letters for a piece I once wrote that included him.
Though my time in uniform was limited, I can say with no uncertainty that I left the better for it. Serving and talking with those who had taken part in history themselves was more educational than any experience I ever had in school. I still keep Kanaya’s letters.
As we walked out of the party, a portrait of my lovely young grandmother, in uniform and looking into the camera with the confident grace I have always known of her, brought it all back to me almost immediately. There was definitely a mission for me here, and I could not live with myself if I did not do something.
But what? Where to start?
A couple of months later, my mother and I were looking through some of my grandmother’s records that she had kept for nearly 70 years, poking around for any details about her service. She suddenly asked me to get a box out of the closet; there was something to show me.
High on a shelf sat three large binders full of the letters and telegrams my grandparents had written to each other during the war. She had recently decided to protect them and put them into individual sleeves.
That they should not be relegated to a closet shelf was as obvious as daylight. And there was something else.
In looking for items for the shadow box for my grandmother’s birthday, my uncle found a stack of photo books, most of them falling apart with age, from those years. The irreplaceable black and white images show family, places, friends, and events long forgotten. It was like time travel in a box.
My uncle also discovered that my grandfather, unknown to most of his family until now, had kept a journal during some of his service. The fraying, leather-bound book is not much bigger than a deck of cards, the cream-colored pages jammed with tiny and perfectly legible script. I have no idea what I will find in them, but the journalism bug pparently held on to him for quite a while. It should make good reading.
This priceless window into our family’s history is but one tiny bit, among countless others, of those world-changing times. It is a story that has only been partially passed down. And it could be lost.
Standing there with my mom and the sleeved pages, I could not think of a single reason to not take this open path and find where it leads. We have already forgotten so much about then. We lose more every day. At the least, I could help to preserve this history for us. So for my grandparents, my family, and all of those veterans with stories that will never be told, I pledged that I would do no less than my best work.
Somewhere, my grandfather smiled.