Usually on Veterans Day I put together a short family history project to share with friends and family on Facebook. I post old letters, photos, and histories of various relatives and their roles in past wars. I haven’t been all that motivated this time. I have quite a few letters and photos of my mother’s parents who were both veterans of WWII. As I was looking back through old projects, I was struck by how much I didn’t know them.
I mean, we all have very different phases in our lives. If I make a timeline of my life, plotting every five years where I was, who I spent time with, what my daily activities were…it’s an eye opener to the way life changes. I have already lived many lives, in many places, and with many different people.
When I knew my grandparents they were in their retirement years, and I was a kid. We couldn’t possibly have known each other that well. My grandpa wasn’t exactly a kid’s best friend. He wasn’t mean, and when I watch old home movies I can see that he was always quite kind to me. There just wasn’t a lot of interaction. I am sure we would connect much better as adults, but he died when I was thirteen years old. There is so much I would like to ask him now.
I have managed to map out his time in the war. I know he was part of the 307th Bombardment Group in the 13th Air Force for most of WWII. He was in the 372nd Squadron. The group was known as “The Long Rangers” because of their long missions over the Pacific. In June 1945 he became part of the 20th Combat Mapping Squadron, taking aerial photos of Japan — before and immediately following the atomic bomb. He never talked about it.
My grandma loved talking about the war. She also understood children. She died when I was eighteen, but she was a large part of my childhood. I read the letters she wrote after joining the Marines in 1944, and I try to reconcile the two versions of her in my mind. I think about the times I stayed at her house, and the things we did together.
I think about the time she stayed up until three in the morning with me and my sister, Amy. How in those early morning hours (the latest I had ever stayed up!) she was showing us how to kick the back of our heads. It’s true. I can imagine it as if it were yesterday; the three of us in the middle of grandma’s living room, swinging our legs back in an effort to reach our heads (successfully, I might add).
The future is never a big enough consideration. Too many what-ifs. Or maybe we don’t want to think about it. That night, for example, I certainly never considered that someday I would want to know more about my grandma beyond her head kicking techniques. I didn’t pay enough attention to her war stories, because I took them for granted. I wasn’t interested in the past yet. I never thought that she wouldn’t be around to tell me again. I never thought that she wouldn’t be around to meet my future husband or children.
I must have known about the possibility in the back of my mind — she was my grandparent, after all. But my dad’s parents are still alive and well today. My grandma is on Facebook. Who saw that coming? You just don’t know, and you hope for the best. I never considered that my sister wouldn’t be alive now. That would have seemed impossible to me.
Because in that time, and especially in my inexperienced youth, those things did feel impossible. My grandma and my sister were both major characters in my daily life, and I never considered a time when my life would be different. Seems obvious, but it never is.
It’s all temporary. A few years from now we may have a new home. I may have a new career. New friends. Who knows? We may not even be here, or one of us could get sick. We may lose people, we may gain people. Some of it is thrilling, and some of it is terrifying. When I am not feeling so content in life, it is an encouragement. But for those of us who feel that life couldn’t possibly be more perfect? It’s troubling at best.
So here I am today thinking of ways to keep my grandparents’ memory alive. I want to share the glimpses of them from a time I didn’t know them at all — when they were young and still excited for all the possibilities of their future. When in an effort to be part of something bigger than themselves, they did become a part of history. And that was just a few short years of their life. They had so many other stories before and after that. And it brought me around to the fact that I don’t know why I get stuck feeling as if I am stuck in one place at times. When has that ever been true? The possibilities in life are endless, and we all live out many different scenarios while we are here.
Today we honor those who choose to risk it all for the rest of us. The lucky ones, like my grandparents, got to have so many more stories after their service that we have to be reminded that this is who they once were. Not everyone is that lucky.
Thank you to all veterans, past and present.