Thursday, May 21, 2009

In My Grandmother's House

My daughter Katherine wrote this about the wartime letters:

In my grandmother's house, past a stone Mexican statue named Harry, up the front stairs and to the right there is a bedroom. In this bedroom there are a pea green carpet, a bed with yellow and orange flowered sheets, and a cracked blue dresser. This dresser, unlike every other bureau and closet in this house, does not contain any seventies-style ties, old scarves, or early feminist t-shirts. Instead every drawer is filled with letters.

Joe lived in Jamaica, Queens, with his parents and six younger sisters and brothers. His college yearbook said of him, "Even his own brilliance could not fathom the enigma that is Joe." Mary lived in Queens Village. She was the second child, and the oldest girl, in a family of seven. Her high school yearbook described her as, "Sincerity coupled with bubbling vivacity, scholastic excellence with literary talents, athletic prowess, sparkling wit." She would not have a college yearbook until many years later, because her father had died without much life insurance when she was seventeen years old. Her father's brother squeezed together the money for her older brother to continue school at St. John's, but Mary was just a girl.

Mary and Joe had met the summer of 1942, on a raft at Loon Lake in the Adirondacks. He was 28, she was 21. A week later, back in Queens, he took her to see Bambi. They saw each other often in the three months after Bambi became Prince of the forest, and before Joe was drafted. He kissed her for the first time on the day he left for the army.

They will get engaged the night before her 22nd birthday in August 1943 and will marry the next March. The wedding will not be fancy, since it was planned in about four days and no one had much money anyway. The reception will be in Mary's backyard. Joe will go off to war in Europe, though his bad vision will ensure that he never faces combat. They will have their first child while he is away. There will be short letters to Baby Mary Jo, my mother, enclosed with the longer ones to Mary. Then in 1946, when Mary Jo is eight months old, Joe will finally come home and the letters will end.

They will have five more children, and the children will have fourteen kids of their own. Joe will die of Alzheimer's disease in May of 1987. Mary will become a lobbyist and counselor for victims of the disease and their families. She will become even more involved with her church,
and even more of a rock for her distressingly heathen children and grandchildren. Mary will die in April 2004 of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy.

My grandparents' generation has been called "The Greatest Generation." They survived the depression, they fought Hitler. Yes, they did, but many of them also contributed to horrible racial inustice, and a few of them dropped the bomb. I suppose that talking about our parents' and grandparents' moral superiority is an improvement over not trusting them because they're over forty, but it's not much of an improvement. It would be far more honest to say that they did some very good things, and some very bad things. They had fewer toys, and certainly they wrote better love letters, but they were more or less just like us.

To put it another way, generation schmeneration. I'm not going to even try to judge. Instead I will sit here and read these letters. I will learn that my mother's mother is more than the grandma who babysat for us almost every week for ten years, and who is always inappropriately freezing things. I will learn that my mother's father was far more than the sick, confused old man I remember.

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