Memories are not always kind. Sometimes the ones you want to forget are the ones you remember the most. I have a lot of memories that haunt me daily, memories that wake me nightly, memories that must be shared.
It was August, no rain in sight, the ground was parched and hairline cracks meandered about, disrupting the growing pattern in the grass and moving rocks as if searching for relief from the painful drought. I remember waking that morning, feeling youthful, exuberant, alive and getting ready for the day, to go to work. Hearing a horn outside the old mobile home where I began my married life, got my attention as I tidied up the place so I wouldn’t have to clean when I got home from a double shift. My sister-in-law, at the time, sat there in a beat-up 1977 Chevy Malibu. The rust patches dotted the car like a Dalmatian and the crack in the windshield chased its way from left to right. She was a known tale bearer, of her own admission, unable to ever tell the full truth. Her lies kept the family in laughter and in quarrels. It seemed her only mission in life was to cause as much trouble as possible wherever she went, going so far as to call the Internal Revenue Service on a close family member when they didn’t act in accordance with her will.
She opened the driver’s door slowly and got out. Her face was drawn; you could tell she’d been crying. With red eyes and shaking hands she made her way to my porch and rubbed her hands together nervously, interlocking her fingers in a way that looked a lot like glee. I opened the screen door to allow her entrance and offered her something to drink. I could tell by then that something was wrong but past experiences with her made me skeptical of believing even her facial expressions. She was all but panicked by the time I came back from the kitchen with a glass of water. Her face was covered in sweat; she was rubbing her hands together, constantly wringing them and twisting in agony or fear. “You might want to sit down,” she breathed heavily; “I’ve got some bad news.”
I braced myself for a lie but worse yet, the truth. I had my day planned. I’d go to work; I’d put in my day and come home to enjoy dinner with my husband of less than one year. We were newlyweds in every sense of the word and couldn’t wait to see each other at the end of a long work day. My mind was racing with plans of what I had to do at work and how to best manage my time at home. I was thinking of laundry to be hung, feeding and watering the dogs, I was living life. Then, in an instant, my life changed. It came to a screeching halt with one little sentence. “Your grandparents are dead.” That’s it. I could see the black marks on the asphalt as if a vehicle had geared down too quickly, brakes grabbed at the pads, creating friction; heat. Calipers squeeze pads against discs, shoes press outward on the drums causing friction and allowing for that heart stopping feel of gravitational pull when the wind is knocked out of you.
At nineteen, I felt on top of the world. Life was long, old age was thirty and I’d barely begun to live. I remember my mind feeling cloudy, as if I couldn’t quite make my brain wake up after being asleep for too short a time. I sat down, sinking low into the second-hand couch so lovingly given to me by my dad. Its thin white and black stripes bleeding and pulling back like a mirror in a fun house at the annual fair, made me dizzy as I placed my head in my hands. As if I were outside myself, I asked her, in complete calm, “What happened?” I couldn’t imagine. It was only a day or two before that I’d been at Mamaw and Papaw’s to take them to the grocery store and help tidy up their home. Warning bells went off in my head, she had to be joking. This was some cruel joke she was playing on me and I was falling for it hand over fist. Wasn’t it just minutes before that I had plans made for the day, had it all planned out and was living my life? She didn’t know details; she’d only gotten a call from my folks as I didn’t have a home phone.
In slow motion I moved to get my purse, put on my shoes and even gave myself a glance in the mirror before heading out to that ugly car with its cigarette burned seats and loud exhaust pipes. We were going to find my mom. She weaved when she drove, causing waves of nausea to roll over me and apologized as she jerked the steering wheel just slightly with each bump in the road. I found mom being led out of the store where we worked and I numbly asked her what happened. She didn’t know the details just yet and was going to the hospital. In my state of mind, I walked trance-like to my department to tell my boss I wouldn’t be at work. She of course, already knew, as news travels fast in a small town. I stayed with my sly, conniving sister-in-law law until my husband came home. I didn’t want to believe her. Her previous lies had my heart tied in knots of disbelief and fear yet I felt bound to her because of her one truth. Hours into the stay, I got the details of the day.
My papaw was a man with my heart. Tall, dark-haired and skinned, a close second to my dad, was the kindest, most gentle man I’d ever known. His laughter and generosity in every memory of my childhood into adulthood had made me strive harder in school to get good marks, to rise above the norm to be outstanding. He, part Native American Indian and a Purple Heart recipient, served the United State Army during World War II. He freely gave the great sacrifice of serving overseas only to be brought home shortly before the end of the war with the birth of my mother. My Mamaw was a woman whom as I’ve grown and matured, has passed on her spirit and lives on through me in that I inherited her looks, her mannerisms, personality and love of cooking. These two precious people kept my foundation strong and grounded me in reality. It was only a few years before that my grandmother had started passing down her generations old recipes to me as well as her infamous household tips and tricks that she’d used over the years to manage a tight household budget.
Mamaw like to talk, a lot. She’d dole out advice, asked or not, from everything from cooking to getting your act together and she liked to use her hands while talking, constantly gesturing as she spoke in a fast clipped pace. The family teased her that if her hands were tied behind her back that she’d die from not being able to move them while she talked. During the 1940’s while raising two small children on a shoe string budget, Mamaw worked at a chewing gum factory up north. She used to tease my siblings and I when we ask for chewing gum, that many times in the factory when it fell onto the floor; it was scooped back up and tossed back into the pot. Not having a way to dispute her story, it was a good deterrent for our queries and a plus for our dental health. After a long day at the factory, she’d go home and cook for neighbors, take on sewing jobs to make ends meet. She worked hard, ensuring the success of her household as she took care of my papaw, when after his time in World War II, was in and out of a hospital for what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Papaw, just before being brought home was marching along with his company when a grenade was launched, hitting his buddy who was in line next to him. I couldn’t even imagine what he went through that day.
He rarely talked about his military stay. It was a year or so before he died, I was at his house one spring day, when he opened up and shared his experiences. The basement door rose to a set of stairs that led to the wrap around porch and the old wooden swing where I sat visiting with my Mamaw and mom. He was out of breath coming to the top of the stairs and called out to my mamaw, “Hon, I think the grape juice has turned!” and slowly tottered towards me and sank into the cushion next to me. The grape juice had turned. Considering he’d drunk a full quart of it, he was pretty tipsy but willing to reminisce about his time overseas. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his brow, his big hands lined with marks from life, marks that told his age, that shared a story of his making. His hands shook slightly and he belched loudly, an after-effect of the juice. “You know Sissy,” he began. He called all of us girls Sissy. It was just his way. “It was a long time ago, that day. We were marching, showing our presence and seeing the effects of the war. Destruction was everywhere. Buildings trashed from mortar fire, debris in the streets, wary eyes peeking from behind semi-closed doors and raggedy curtains, watching with curiosity and fear. It was hot, early July and rumors were flying that the war was almost over. I was so excited at the thought of getting to come home to your Mamaw, knowing she was ready to give birth to your mom. That was what kept me. I kept thinking of them, your uncle, wondering how they were doing, making out with the shortage of goods and your mamaw’s condition. That’s where my head and heart were at all times. When I talked with my buddies, my conversation was on getting home and taking care of my family. That’s what I was thinking about that day. “
Our conversations about Papaw’s illness were always centered on “that day”. That’s when time stopped. That was the chasm in our timeline. It was “before that day” and “after that day”. That’s what we called it because we didn’t know any other details other than what he could share. As a family, we’d been told when we’d go visit and he’d be in the bed sick and that he needed mental rest and later we’d hear that Mamaw had taken him back to Cleveland Clinic for a little stay to get better. There was no stigma attached to the situation, it was just Papaw. As we grew older, mom would share a few details as she learned them. She was in her forties before she learned the full truth. She didn’t however, feel the need or have the ability to share the pain. It was a bit of her dirty little secret that eventually came out.
“That day,” he continued, “I was thinking of how I was almost ready to come home and meet my new baby when out of nowhere, we took on fire. There was shouting to get down, to hold our place and while trying to get out of the street, to take cover, a grenade hit Franklin in the chest. Franklin was tall, like me, and he stood as my best man with your Mamaw and me. He was fair-haired, younger than me and excited about coming home too. He all but caught it in his hands and the look on his face wasn’t horror but sadness. I saw his life flash before his eyes as he exploded before me. I froze, unable to get away from him, and not wanting to. Instinct told me to save him but I couldn’t. There wasn’t anything I could do. I took third degree burns and shrapnel damage to my chest, face and arms. I was finally able to act, pulling other members of my company to safety but the injuries I sustained landed me in the sick bay for the duration of my stay. Once I was on the hospital bed, I felt useless. I began reliving the attack, I should’ve done this, and I should’ve done that. I should’ve known it was coming; I should’ve saved Franklin’s life. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t think and when I’d barely begun to heal physically, I was released when your mom was born. I went from being stuck in that mindset of not being able to have done what I needed to do to being a new dad again and trying to settle into a normal life. It never happened.”
He leaned his head over to the side of the swing and I could see tears welled up in his eyes and trickling down his paper-thin cheeks, lined with years of experience-joys and pains. He was talked out. His story told. He’d emptied his heart into my lap and for over twenty years, I’ve carried it with me, treasuring it, dissecting it, putting it back together and learning to accept what his story gave me and took from me at the same time. It was what took my Papaw from me. When he came from home from overseas, doctors diagnosed him as being bi-polar, dosed him and kept him comfortably numb for another fifty plus years. His numbness wore off as time went on and doctors were unable to keep those nightmares at bay.
On better days, with good memories, I’d sit around the kitchen table with my grandparents and reminisce about my mom’s early years, how they had so much faith in her musical ability, how she’d go far in life and how proud they were of her and the family she’d given them. Mamaw was sick, well, both of them were sick. Hitting nearly seventy, Mamaw had one kidney, having lost one when she was in her late twenties, and was losing the use of her remaining organ. When I was a little girl and Papaw would “get sick” he’d get agitated and start chanting to himself that “the Germans are coming” and you could see real fear in his face, eyes glazed over from a medicated state but the emotion pouring from deep within. When he was grounded in reality, he’d sadly joke that when he went, he was taking Mamaw with him so she wouldn’t have to be alone in this world.
The doctors worked with Papaw, changing his medication as his condition grew worse and reality became less and less in his mind. As long as he took his medication, he did well. Doctors had warned the family that he needed to stay on his medicines and be kept under a close watch but despite those warnings, he grew worse. His mind broke down, segmented and broke again until he no longer knew the truth. It was that day in August, a warm summer morning when my aunt stopped by to see Mamaw and Papaw. It was customary for her to stop in and check to see if they had any needs but knew something was wrong when she found the front door open. Looking straight into the kitchen, she found Mamaw, face down in the floor, dish rag in her hands, shot in the back and clearly dead. As if that wasn’t horror enough for a daughter to find, moving back through the house and down the hall, the sight she beheld was one that will never be forgotten.
In Papaw’s bedroom, pillows and bed covers were stacked around the perimeter of the bedroom, resembling a fox hole from his military days. We presume that in his mind, he was back in the war, deep in battle and was out to protect his company. He had loaded his shotgun, turned it on himself and ended his fifty year battle with reality.
The reality of this story is that after many, many years it’s been kept as hushed as possible. The problems with a small town being that everyone knows your business and those who don’t will make it up and tell it. To this day, the family still doesn’t talk about it. Going so far as to move away and not come home, refusing to have family reunions, the effects long reaching as is the arm of death.