The Last Good Question

October 4, 2007 at 4:40 pm (in my head, past, the fam)

I admit, I have been sucked into Ken Burns’s The War. And the more time I spend with the personal experiences of strangers, the more I wonder about the personal experiences of my non-strangers. My paternal grandparents were adults during the war, in fact, my grandmother was my age when the war ended. My grandfather enlisted in the army, my grandmother went to Teacher’s College and waited. He never fired a weapon and never went to Basic Training. Instead, the Army sent him straight to their basketball team, where he stayed, and played, throughout the war. But she fired a weapon, I’ve seen the pictures. In a 1944 news clipping my grandmother stands alongside a classmate in a skirt and heels, rifles pointed into the air, ready to “protect the homeland from invasion.” Her brother was a bombardier, a “war hero” she used to say. I have the pictures he took in Italy of children reaching into the air to catch chocolate, of burned out planes on a beach, of other B-25s mid-flight. These days I don’t even know if my grandmother remembers that she once had a brother, or if she realizes that my grandfather is gone. We lost him in 2001 within a couple of weeks of losing my maternal grandmother. And now I wonder how many stories I never got to hear because they were modest people and I never asked.

The second to last time my grandmother got on a plane, she came to visit my parents and I over Parents’ Weekend during my senior year of college. It was barely a month after September 11th and I was disturbed by the new brand of patriotism I saw plastered on car bumpers. It seemed false, retaliatory instead of reverent, nationalistic during a time that called out for healing and cool heads. The hawks were calling it the Pearl Harbor of our generation, but I didn’t buy it. We’d gone down to Hyannis for the day and found seats near the sea wall. I asked her, my own piece of living history, what it was like after Pearl Harbor. Were people just as eager to hate? She said it was different, the patriotism was cleaner, clearer, more pure. No one projected it just so their neighbors would see. Mothers and wives understood what it meant and accepted the commitment they were about to make. Men didn’t write songs about putting a boot in anyone’s ass…they enlisted. “It was different,” she said, “it was authentic.”

It is a cruel fact of this life that we don’t realize who we have until they’re gone. By the time we become interested in their stories, they are fading, their memories gone the way of their independence and mobility. And we have a thousand questions that simply can’t be answered by someone else’s grandparents in a documentary.


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