I remember finding my Grandfather Gerry mysterious as a child. He was my mother's father. He argued vehemently about politics and had a special interest in his lineage. He was a tall man, one who slicked his hair back with some sort of pomade. It was only after I was a teen that I discovered he had also been a soldier in World War II. Once, romanticizing this war as many young Americans did, those who perceived it as the last conflict with a morally uplifting reason to enter the fray, I wanted to do a research project on his involvement. I learned a bit much that day, the day I sat in his living room, a few years after my grandmother Dolly died of lung cancer. I learned, for example, that he had been quite a ladies man.
"Grandpa, how did you meet Grandma?" I asked.
I wanted to hear some story about a countryside or a perfect meeting of eyes across a crowded dance floor. I think, if I remember correctly now, he was dating her room-mate. When things went south, he then took to dating my grandma. He must have seen the crushed look on my face, so he promptly said something like, "But when I met Dolly. That was it. I knew she was the one." This part of the story would prove true as they had six children in the years to follow, my mother their oldest. He was an avid reader. Sometimes I would go to his house and dig in the boxes up in his garage, before he remarried late in life. History books and science fiction books were mainly what he had, many many books about World War II. I had seen the pictures--he, sauve, thin, tall, with dark hair, a real dreamboat. My grandmother, short, with a mess of curls and her wide engaging smile.
"Grandpa, what did you do in World War II," I asked. He was older then, had gray hair, sat in his rocker.
"I was a machine gun runner and a stretcher bearer in Italy."
He talked about the beauty of the Italian countryside. He admitted he had seen men die. What he said about the war was brief. He may have mentioned the beauty of the Italian women. He always had an eye for beauty. In the way that most family stories are both told and corrupted, I remember I didn't learn much about World War II, or how it affected him, until I got my mother talking about it one day. "Say, grandpa was in the war. Did he say much about that?"
"He was devastated when he came home from the war," my mother said. "A different person. He took up growing roses for therapy."
This may not mean much to some people, but if you had ever visited my grandfather's house, ever been to his backyard, you would know that this was not a hobby that took up one garden plot. It was a fairy land. Always, as a child, I remember walking into that yard and finding an exquisite pillow of scent on the afternoon air. There were red roses and orange roses and yellow roses and purple roses and every variation you could think of. There was an absence of mildew and disease. He knew how to nurture them and make them thrive, passing this skill on to my Uncle Bruce and Aunt Cathy, who are both talented gardeners.
"He took up growing roses for therapy," I thought. In a way, this was the most revealing thing my mother ever said about my grandfather, who has now passed, Scottish bagpipes at his funeral, for I have the distinct honor and humor of being both Scottish and Irish in heritage, not to mention German. But his roses were not just apparent outside. The memories I had of my grandmother were connected to these roses too. Cut blooms in vases in her house--all the time.
As a child, I just thought my grandfather was a really good husband and loved my grandmother so much that he wanted to make sure she always had flowers in the house, even when they could not afford them. After my mother's revelation, I realized that the effects of seeing what he'd seen, on a sensitive man, on a thinking man prone to alcoholism later in life, were profound. Like Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," and all the stories in that book, there is an interesting meditation one can have about the depersonalization of war: The soldier is ordered to reach this hillside. The soldier shoots when he sees the enemy. The soldier follows orders. If the soldier does not die, he returns home. He performs a role for his government. Sometimes, he is awarded by medals or other embodiments of his courage. Sometimes, a car drives up to his widow's house and delivers the most heartbreaking piece of paper a military wife can receive. Oh, sure, war. War, in general. Crisp uniforms to make the barbarism seem officious. But the fact is, as O'Brien's work brought home to me years after the discussion with my grandfather, war means real people are dying, individuals are dying in service to their countries, but sometimes in undignified, demoralizing ways--and they are not "brutes" or soldier types necessarily. This. But also that those who return home "unscathed," are never really unscathed in the mental landscape of their own recall--where events were specific and they took their homelands with them, their families, their habits, their memories, and went with the shield of patriotism to commit acts that would be labeled heroic if their country knew their sacrifice or their courage. My grandfather was proud to have served. I knew this.
His pride and retention of his uniform does not change the sheer quantity of rose bushes he felt he needed to plant and tend, for years, in order to replace some beauty or hope lost after his involvement in the war. What is interesting is the ripple effect of silent action on those who come later. All my life, I have thought it normal to plant huge quantities of roses in people's yards.
My mother plants roses. At my house, too, I feel my front yard is incomplete without a wall of roses. I am looking right now for a sterling silver rose, which is a beautiful shade of lavender, because I too must have a rainbow of scent and beauty. Is it strange to believe that that these might protect me somehow from the trauma of life as it continues, or that I have such perfect faith that they will? If I just plant enough bushes, maybe I'll be spared? If they are balanced quite correctly, where each one thrives and amplifies the beauty of those alongside?
I think of the war, World War II, and I think of my grandfather. I think of the roses still there at his old house after he died. I think of the poem I wrote a while back, after both he and my grandmother had passed.
Despite that he remarried, it seemed common knowledge in my family that he needed a woman to take care of him, but that he had always seen my Grandmother as "the one," his truest love, and the one he longed for when he passed. I share it with you here, this poem about my imagining them as reunited, after their deaths:
Love Song Spoken Requiem
At the gathering, the oldest granddaughter
Squints, staring into the kitchen, watching
her mother's face tick backwards
like a clock when, distantly, she hears
her grandfather say, to someone else,
as if from a recording, as if from the yard,
“I'll be home for Christmas, Dolly, seated at
your table, arguing politics, tuning in only
sometimes on the games blaring forth,
wearing my favorite flannel coat, thumping
my silver-tipped walking stick, The haze
of my eyes, inherited from strokes--gone.
Gaze bright, I'll recite war stories or westerns,
be how you knew me before I drank. Before I
drank too much. I'll be charming and so very
witty, you will smile and shake your head
as you always did when I razzed our six children—
and when they razzed back. I hope you always
know I loved you best. It was you I called out for,
Dolly, in the end--and you who made me home.”
It is some time before her grandmother replies, but
voice trembling like dusty strings, “Gerry,” she says,
“I will be home for Christmas, too, wrapping presents
for our children, or the children's children, getting out
fine linens, baking fudge, arranging roses from your
garden and sitting a spell with a coffee or a friend,
discussing our lives. Then I will take out my teeth
to amuse babies, or tell stories, tossing back
rolled brown curls to convulse with laughter—and
touching you like crazy with small, white hands,
which I’ll leave on your shoulders as I pass, smelling
of cocoa lotion and nail polish and
cigarettes and your garden; I will sing when
you are home but also when you're not. I will
return to you with the mix of years I recall, and
this year, I will come to you
at Christmas, if you promise to remember
years ago was only ageless yesterday
to me: Gerry, I have loved you a long time,
and you know, I did not cease.”
But at the gathering, the oldest granddaughter
Can hear them no more, listens as her mother says:
"I miss my parents now, especially with dad gone
these last few months," and in her own thoughts,
escapes to re-imagine the exchange,
heard just seconds before, the forbidden
fruit of an always active mind, this love song,
spoken requiem she creates,
fantastic dream reunion of their ghosts.
As afterword, while it's true that poetry is sometimes connected to war, it more often speaks to love. Still, even here, you see the roses. You see the evocation of his garden in my memory, even in a fantasy like a daydream. World War II, I think. What does it mean to me? Well, it means loosely--a part of my grandparents' love and understanding of each other. My grandfather's quiet losses. The power of using something beautiful to retrieve one's sanity. The six children they had together. My extended family. More flowers. The one who bore me into this quaint place we call the world, my beloved mother. A part of my family's history. And the terrible, tender yet mixed pleasure of beauty and pain and growth.
I miss my Grandpa Gerry today, a lot, and I do not mean the him in his uniform. I miss my grandmother too. I will go out later and clip some flowers. I will put them in vases all over my house. I will channel my grandmother's spirit, still warm to consider even long after she is gone from this physical space.
This is a habit I inherit: As the rest of the crazy world continues to spin, I do not look for horror. I look for solace. Look, the roses are still blooming in that house where he once was. People enjoy them. All of life, it seems, is either a residue or a continuance of some sort of war, even a war for a personal peace, but solace is out there for all of those who seek.
Most days, I know I find it--or find it looks for me.
Causes Heather Fowler Supports
San Diego Family Justice Center