Today is Veterans' Day, and in honor of the survivors of World War II, I've written this piece of creative nonfiction about my family's history.
My Grandpa Frank served in the Last Good War.
My husband’s grandfather is a ghost. "His name was Aleksander," said my husband's Grandma Sophie. "He was a Russian guard. They shot him in front of me." Nothing more.
Grandpa Frank's family were Roman Catholic Germans who farmed in Canada.
Grandma Sophie's family were Orthodox Catholics who milked their cows in front of rabbis. They came from the eastern steppes of Russia, where they used to ride reindeer and eat mushrooms and use magical herbs for healing. They were unlucky nomads, always moving to the wrong place.
Grandpa Frank was a gentle boy. He did not want to go and fight in his ancestral homeland. He turned back toward the farms in Canada, but in the end he had to go. The War was just.
Grandma Sophie's mother died giving birth to her, the seventeenth child and the only one who would survive the War. Sophie was small and stout, with dark olive skin and slanted eyes. She was not beautiful, but she was strong. They sent her to a work farm to starve, but she refused to die.
Grandpa Frank had thick, wavy hair and stern features that photographed well. His uniform became him. On his medals were fierce symbols, wolves howling at thunderbolts.
Grandma Sophie gave birth in a camp of women who were fed one pancake a day in a dish made by Schindler. She lay near death and had no milk. But other women lost their babies and kept their milk. They passed Sophie's son from one to another and kept him alive.
Grandpa Frank returned home with a Purple Heart and a shattered face. His medals lie in a glass cabinet beside my grandmother’s china. The tiny cold shards of grenade shrapnel lie in his neck, quiet and still beside the pulse of his jugular.
They sent Grandma Sophie to a munitions factory when she could not work on the farm and would not die either. When the Allies bombed the factory, she walked into the fire and laid her number tattoo across a burning post. The scar on her arm from wrist to elbow was a badge she could never take off.
Grandpa Frank did not tell his wife or his children about the War. When the little ones asked questions, he said, “You know nothing about it.” When they asked why he never told them about the War, he said, “No one asked me.” He only spoke to pray or to correct. He only touched to discipline. His children grew up strange and wounded. Out of five, only my mother had the will to bear children, but he was angry that she did not bear enough of them. “He never loved us,” my mother's sister said. “I can’t believe you haven't accepted it.”
Grandma Sophie brought her son overseas with false documents and went to work on a farm in Canada. They picked cucumbers to pay back the debt of their passage. The farmer hoped the child would be lost in the field and die so the mother could work faster. And so they moved again, always to the wrong place, to Detroit before the riots.
Grandpa Frank is frail now, just before his ninetieth birthday. Last month my grandmother took out a picture of my grandfather young and handsome in his uniform, and my grandfather wept as he never had in sixty years of marriage. My grandmother was afraid. Grandpa Frank is old now, softened and cracked. Tears and memories hoarded since before he met her tumble out. His best friend died while driving a truck that Grandpa Frank was supposed to have driven. “I had to clean his brains out of that truck,” he said.
While Grandpa Frank lost his heart in the War, Grandma Sophie lost her mind. She would remember nothing before 1950. She forgot more languages than most people will ever learn. In Detroit, she stood over a trash barrel burning stacks of documents bound by swastika-shaped grommets.
Grandpa Frank looks distinguished even in a hospital bed. His back is straight. His thick, wavy hair is iron gray. He hugs his family now. He speaks kind words to strangers. My mother is alarmed. She wonders if it could be dementia. “I kind of like it,” my grandmother says with a smile. He watches football and drinks beer now. My grandmother eats too many cookies now.
Grandma Sophie had more prescription pills than she could remember to take. She dumped them all out of their bottles and into a big mason jar, all mixed together. Each day she took out a handful and swallowed them together. Each month, there were some left over in the bottom of the jar. Those she ground up and steeped in a scalding hot bath with witch hazel and soaked her body in it. She cooked herself as hard as the eggs she would boil and pluck from the water with her bare hands.
I was born on Veterans’ Day. My grandparents bought me the best crib at the best department store. It was built to last through many, many infancies. They never imagined they would have only one great-grandchild.
Grandma Sophie hung mysterious herbs from her kitchen ceiling and cooked with goose blood. She never gave up her recipes and secrets. When my husband was born, she gave him the tiny knitted sweater that his father had worn in Austria, still pure white and pristine. It was far too small for such a healthy baby.
Grandpa Frank fed his children vegetables and fruit and poultry raised with his own hands. He never taught them how to help, because they would not do it just right. In the fall he banked leaves and mulch over the potatoes and carrots so that he could dig them up for dinner even in the middle of winter. They say the exercise and good food are why he has lived so long, in spite of everything.
Grandma Sophie was robbed in Detroit and beaten cruelly and left to die, but she refused. In the hospital, she was given a transfusion of the wrong blood type, and her skin turned black, but she would not die. When she was good and ready to die later on, she made one final request: that they bury her whole. “Don’t burn me up like they wanted to do,” she said.
This winter my husband and I will have a baby. She will be the only grandchild of Sophie's boy, the only great-grandchild for Grandpa Frank. In my daughter will be reborn the seed of her great-grandfather’s heart and the seed of her great-grandmother’s mind. She will know what they gave so that she might live, and her heart and mind will grow to fill the wounds of each generation since the Last Good War.