Paterna

There are days when I would love to be able to sit down with my grandfathers and talk to them about their lives.

My grandmothers have enabled me to know where I come from. We talk about their past, my parents as children, their lives before my grandfathers, the choices they’ve made throughout their lives. The women in my family are kind of fantastic; they are strong, willful, witty, colorful people, and my reality has been heavily informed by who they are.

Unfortunately, my maternal grandfather, Grandpa – the definition of the word “firecracker” – lived 400 miles away and died when I was 18; by the time I got to the age when I was able and interested in what he had to say, he was gone. My paternal grandfather, Papa, suffered a massive stroke only days after retirement, leaving him unable to walk without a cane or speak clearly, and he, too, died when I was too young to fully appreciate where he had been and what he had been through. They both served in World War II.

Grandpa went to war as a married man. When he returned, his wife had left him. He then met and married my grandmother, whisked her away to a small Texas town to run a restaurant, and in the ensuing years, had three daughters, the oldest of whom is my mother. I wish I could ask him what these things were like. What it was like for a full-blooded German, only two generations away from Germany, to fight in a war against Hitler? What was it like to return home after one of the most traumatic experiences of the 20th century to a wife who decided she didn’t want to be married to him anymore? What was it like to settle into small-town Texas town with his new wife after all that happened? What was it like to hire and work closely with black people in those times when so many people wouldn’t?

Papa married Mimi as a young man and was immediately whisked off to WWII as a pilot. I’ve seen the old black and white photos of him and his friends in his uniform – Papa was a handsome man! I would give anything to be able to ask him what it was like to fly over a Nazi-occupied Paris, to walk through those cobblestone streets after all that had happened there. I want to ask what it was like to tend a thriving garden that helped feed his family (including an asparagus bed!), what it was like to grow up on a farm, what it was like to lose an infant child, what is was like to be so suddenly and severely handicapped just when he and Mimi envisioned moving to a lakeside home to enjoy their retirement, what it was like as Parkinson’s later began to rob him of his motor skills. I dreamed a few year ago that I was flying with him in a small plane over yellow fields of wheat while we talked about his life; I wish I could have done that.

These men, I know, witnessed great joys and tragedies in their lives. They were in the prime of their lives during one of the most fascinating, pivotal decades the world has seen. They both chose to marry two of the strongest ladies I’ve ever known, rather than docile, shrinking violets. They both held together life-long marriages, leaving a legacy of happy, whole, functional families in their wake. I wish I could ask them these questions I have and hear what they witnessed. My friend Frank recently got to interview his grandmother for StoryCorps, and I love that her story will be preserved for her descendants. I have pictures, and I have my parents’ memories, and I even have my grandmothers’ accounts. But I will never be able to ask them myself, and as I sit alone with a cup of coffee, I find myself wishing they were sitting across the table.

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