Tuesday, May 26, 2009

5/26/09 Grandfathers

Julian, in one of those classic childhood innocent moments of poignancy, said to me today, "Mommy, some grandparents live in California." A stab went through my heart. He equates grandparents with far-away distant relatives that you get to see once or twice a year.

Like me, he'll grow up without any extended family in the area who you see on holidays, at parties, and random weekend afternoons. My kids have aunts and uncles and cousins and yes, grandparents, and they certainly know that they're special in their lives, but they don't get to see them on a regular basis.

I never knew any of my grandparents. My grandmothers died before and soon after I was born. I did meet one of my grandfathers, but by the time I was 14, he was succumbing to dementia to the extent that he confused me with my mother and was losing his English. And he lived in a nursing home in France, so it's not like we could pop over easily for a visit.

With my recent immersion in WWII history, I remember now that both my grandfathers were in WWII. That's actually odd when you do the time math -- being born in 1963, I'm actually on the old side to have a grandfather who served in WWII, as most of those were kids in their late teens drafted in the early 1940s. Both my grandfathers were in their 40s during WWII.

The grandfather I did meet was also in WWI -- my mother says that her father joked that he was the youngest corporal in WWI and the oldest lieutenant in WWII (in the French Army that is).

My father's father was career military, in the Army Corps of Engineers, a civil engineer by trade. He fascinates me because of all the old photos I have, that my brother rescued from a decaying box in a barn at my Dad's house, of destroyed bridges and buildings that he took after D-Day. He's smiling in many of the photos I have of him, and my brother also found a newspaper clipping of a story in which he used his gift of gab -- and a smattering of high-school German -- to persuade some Germans to surrender in a small town in France after D-Day. A photo-taker, an engineer, a yakker -- I'd have related to him! And the 5-year-old girl in me wonders if he'd have liked me. That girl only saw that grandfather once, in his casket at his funeral, a sight sufficiently shocking for a 5-year-old that the image is still with me.

My mother's father with my 8-month-old mother (who was the most beautiful baby I have ever seen), 1940.

My father's father, undated photo, probably in the 1930s as he looks to be in his early 30s.

It's funny, an irony of getting older myself, that I feel the loss -- or rather, absence -- of grandparents more now than I did as a kid. That's just the way it was then, I didn't know for normal. I'm grateful that my children will have grandparents in their lives, as I didn't. But my guilt grows that it's a surprise for them discover that some grandparents live closeby.


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