Memorial Day came and went. I always think about my grandfather and my dad — they both served in the armed forces. My grandfather in WWII and my father enlisted when he finished college, just after the end of the Korean War. They both told stories about their time in the service — the stories that were tellable anyway. The story I remember the most is one told to me by my grandfather on more than one occasion. I remember it fairly well because my grandmother would tell me the same story from her perspective. I understood, at an early age, how confusing words can be — even when you’re reading them for yourself.
The story goes that around 1942, my grandfather had to leave to go overseas in the army, leaving my grandmother and my mother behind (my mother would have been around 6 or 7 years old at this time). When my grandfather was “called to duty”, all he was told was that he would be returning in about a year. This news made my grandmother angry… angry at the thought of being away from him for so long, at being alone for so long, at being left to care for my mother by herself for so long. The reasons she was angry were limitless when my grandmother would tell her side of the story. My grandfather’s side of the story was that when he finally shipped out, he turned to face my grandmother and said, “don’t be mad momma” (my grandfather called my grandmother mom and momma all the time… that’s all I ever heard him call her really.)
During the time my grandfather was away, my grandmother worked at an Italian prisoner of war camp located in Weingarten — just down the road from their community of Farmington. She did odd jobs at the camp… seamstressing, cooking some, helping the POW’s write letters. She took my mother with her each day she went — my mother often talked about how all the prisoners would call her “bambino” and smile at her. The fact that this was a prisoner of war camp always made this part of the story confusing for me — I mean my mother was running around a POW camp like it was an amusement park (back to the story).
The months went by slowly… always slowly for my grandmother who wanted her husband back. She wrote him at least once a week, sometimes more. And she received letters from him often — once every couple of weeks or once a month. But the letters she received were confusing and apologetic, asking her to, “…please don’t be mad momma”, “…write me back momma.” So my grandmother would write back and each time she would say that she wasn’t mad and why didn’t he believe her. This often confusing exchange went on for a year — until she got a letter saying he was coming home.
My grandfather’s side of the story is a little different. He knew my grandmother was upset about him leaving for the war but there was nothing he could do — war is war. He began writing letters home to my grandmother immediately… two within the first week and one or two every month after that — “…how are you?”, “… how is Barb?”, “… why won’t you write me back?”, “… don’t be mad momma.” There was never a reply. For a year he was unsure if his wife and daughter were ok, were still in their house, were still a part of his world.
The day finally came when my grandfather was to come home — a home he wasn’t sure was still a reality. My grandmother gathered up my mother and went to pick him up at the time he had given her in his often confusing letters that she had trouble deciphering.
When my grandfather had collected his belongings and was leaving the base to find my grandmother, he was given something — something he had trouble understanding… a stack of unopened letters… a year’s worth of worry and doubt and confusion was handed to him all at once. The Army had never delivered the letters that my grandmother wrote to him — they collected them, thinking it would make being overseas and away from family easier for the soldiers. My grandfather said he was dumbfounded. He had no time to read a years worth of letters in the few minutes he had before my grandmother was due to pick him up — he was still unsure his wife would even show up to collect him.
My grandmother arrived with my mother in tote and waited for him and for his explanation as to the confusing letters he had been writing for the last year.
When they finally saw each other, my grandfather held up the letters that he had only moments earlier been given. He approached my grandmother and said, “don’t be mad momma.”
The year-long confusion finally made sense to them both. My grandmother was receiving my grandfathers letters but he was not being given her replies. For morale.
I guess war is confusing — I’m sure love is. I guess there can always be two sides to every story and often the confusion about who has the best perspective can be found somewhere in the midst of each story. I guess, at times, it’s easy to believe only what you read or hear, but even then, you must be careful and delve ever deeper to understand the often confusing mess left in the wake of a story that always has two sides. Sometimes, I guess, what we think we know is often as confusing as what we don’t know.