Familiar Faces

And so, we bring to a close the winter holiday season, and I must say, I’m sad to see it pass. What’s been unusual and wonderful this year is that we’ve seen a lot of my parents over the last week and a half. They had come up on Christmas Eve and only departed for home today on the fifth. Making it even better, they didn’t have to stay with us in out dollhouse-esque abode. We can do visitors for a day or two, but anything more than that and things get decidedly cramped. I know families used to all live on top of each other just a few generations ago and I’m sure it provided good warmth in beds, but personally, I’ll happily let that aspect of the past go in favor of being able to live with some privacy.

Mom and Dad have a weekend place they stay at on the island, and though originally intended as a summer cottage when it was first purchased, I believe they have closed it down for the season only once. That was the year before Short Stack was born. Since then, my folks have sort of dragged their feet when it comes to draining the plumbing and removing all the freezables in preparation of letting the house go dark for the winter. Last year they talked about it a lot, but in the end, they put off the decision so long that it made no sense to finally go through with it. Personally, I blame adorable grandchildren, but then, I might be biased.

Even when they are not coming up for extended stays, they are, more often than not, here on the weekends. That means Short Stack and Lulu Belle get to spend a lot of time playing with my parents and that, for obvious reasons, makes me very happy. I have a very strong and good relationship with my folks and to see my son and daughter get to forge their own memorable relationship with them, well… that’s hard to beat. It’s a boon for my parents as well since I’m it as far as offspring go. My kids are their only grandchildren and they dote on them to a ridiculous level.

From Short Stack’s point of view, the best thing about visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s house is the sleepover. As a child, for whatever reason, I had a very hard time sleeping anywhere but my own bed. I just didn’t want to. I’m not sure if I was actually afraid or simply very uncomfortable, but the effect was the same. When it came to spending the night at a cousin’s or grandparent’s, the answer was always, “No, thank you.”

Not so, with Short Stack.

When he stays over, it’s with a huge smile plastered over his tiny, round face and if it is my unfortunate duty to tell him, “Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow.” I can just about bank on carrying a very sad and confused little boy up the stairs to his bedroom in our own house. I’ll also be peppered with questions right up until I tuck him in as to why he couldn’t stay at Gram and Gramp’s tonight and could he PLEASE stay tomorrow as well as promises of being a good boy. Personally, I’d rather get a stab in the arm rather than run this guilt gauntlet, as thrown down by a little red haired, blue eyed three year old.

Kid guilt to parents is like water to the Wicked Witch of the West.

“I’m meeeelllll-ting!”

This last week, I think Short Stack has spent more nights away than he has as home. It’s tough as a parent, but heaven for the other parties involved.

Action Girls folks are much loved by our kids as well and though it means a log drive to go and see them, the fun that they have is always worth the slog up north. Whether tromping off to the farm next door or simply running around the yard with my wife’s folks, the kids always look forward to the visit and hop in the car like eager riders on some unseen rollercoaster.

Short Stack and Lulu Belle love their Grandparents, both sets, but more importantly, they know them, and know them well.

It was something that occurred to me last night as I pawed through the genealogy project that my Father has been working on for some time now. It started, for me anyway, when my Father’s Mother passed away. She was the youngest in her family and as such, was the holder of the family photo albums. In her little apartment attached to my aunt and uncle’s house, resided picture albums reaching far back into our own little slice of history. Faded black and white photos of half remembered people whose faces look familiar, but only in parts.

She didn’t have much to leave behind other than the photos and after the funeral service, we all wandered into her apartment with the idea of collecting a keepsake to bring back home to remember her by. As we entered, I brought up the idea of not touching the photo albums, but scanning them instead. Once digital, we could all have copies. It was agreed to by the lot of us and after a fashion, the complete set of family faces dating back to the turn of the last century had successfully entered the computerized world. For what ever reason, I never got a copy, but Dad did. Over the intervening years, my Father has been finding out exactly who is whom and making lots and lots of notes.

While Short Stack and Lulu Belle napped one day, I took a moment to look through the old photos with Dad. Some, I had seen. Others were of aunts and uncles whom I knew and could still talk with. The ones of my deceased grandparents furrowed my brow with sadness even as I smiled broadly at the memory of their voices, still echoing in my ears.

Then I found this.

To anyone outside our immediate circle of family and friends, this picture might look mildly interesting as a snapshot in history. There isn’t much to see here, honestly. At lest to the foreign eye. The cloths are for cold weather and the shadow of the tree shows bare branches, so we know it’s winter. The house behind them is large and windowless so we can guess that it might be an apartment building. The child has many holes in his obviously worn stockings, so you could also surmise that they were poor, and you’d be right. The man and the little boy could be anyone.

But they are not.

They are my Grandfather and his Father. The Father, is a man I never knew. A man, in fact, that my Grandfather barely knew, for he died when the little boy in the picture was only about ten.

What stopped me cold were the faces. My Great-Grandfather’s face looks identical to my father’s as I remember it from my own childhood. My Dad’s face has aged and changed now, but when I was a boy, this is what my Father looked like, exactly. In his arms, the child, no more than three, looks eerily like my own son. The same build. The same round face, even the haircut. It’s a very good match, indeed. To top it all off, there has been a long succession of men in the family with one of two names. It’s alternated, actually and both of these names have seen heavy use in a family that has, for four generations, hung onto its surname by a single thread. I was the end of the line before my own son was born. He is it now.

My parents, for reasons of their own, decided to break from tradition and gave me a first name that had not been used by our family since, (so far as we know) the sixteen hundreds. I’ve always been happy with it, but when it came time to name our own son, looking down at his pink face, I knew without doubt what his name would be. The family tradition was back on track.

When I look at the picture, I see my Father and my Son, and because of my parent’s choice, the names of those two long passed figures, match the names of the living. I must admit, it sort of unnerves me, but I can’t look away.

My Dad printed me a copy of the photo and I’ve already framed it up and hung it in the living room. Whenever I walk past, I stop and glance and it makes my heart beat a little harder. It’s funny to react so to the picture of a man whom I never met and the face of a child whom I know grew up to be the old man with the ubiquitous cigarette, thick glasses and thinning hair. But that is not who I see, after all. It’s far closer to home to my eyes.

As the kids wake up and come downstairs to join my parents and me in their home, I can’t help but feel happy for them. They will remember this now. They are old enough. Lulu Belle I still a munchkin, but she’s catching on fast. Short Stack, with his elephant like memory, will clearly recall these days with his beloved Grandparents, either here or at my in-law’s and for my part, I feel like a member of the work crew, forging the moments that link lives together so that they can be relayed to future grandchildren, yet unimagined.

My Mother’s Father lives not too far from us these days. Maybe only an hour away, though there always seem to be some reason why we can’t go today or the next.

I think it’s high time we pay him a visit and work on those links some more.

We only get one family.

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And Then There Were None.

Harry Patch has died.

He was born in 1898, trained as a plumber at age fifteen, was conscripted into the army of Great Britain in 1916 and was the last living combatant of the First World War. There are three other men still alive who served, but Harry was the last who actually fought. A soldier who, on the day of his nineteenth birthday, entered the trenches for the first time to experience something that no one alive today can fully understand. It’s not possible that we could.

He had a good idea of what lay ahead of him. Not only did he have an older brother who had already been wounded in the conflict that would reshape much of Europe and lay the groundwork for yet another, far bloodier war, but also, this was not 1914 anymore either. By 1917 when he had completed his training, citizens of all nations understood the meat grinder that they were throwing their teenagers and young fathers into. By then, the enthusiasm for glory was diminishing daily. It was understood by all except the embroiled governments that there was no real glory to be had but rather, death, dismemberment, mental anguish that would last a lifetime, reducing men to shadows of their former selves. The wide eyed, naivety and excitement that so commonly clouds the minds of otherwise sensible individuals had been mostly scoured away in the mud of no-man’s land and blood of millions of young men.

Harry was trained as machine gunner, an invention that was used to such effect in those years it became the signature weapon of the Great War. The device, invented years before the outbreak of war, was perfected in this conflict and refined to a point where even for the next generation, designs were near duplicates and carried once again to the fields of France to fight in the war after “The War to End All Wars.”

Machine guns were feared by all on both sides and as such, were prime targets to be taken out as quickly as possible. This was to be the fate of the gun crew Harry was attached to. As they lay in the slime of Passchendaele, a shell exploded over the team. Three, out of the five man team were blown apart. Harry suffered a wound from the flying shrapnel but lived. With a visit from a battlefield medic, a run on a stretcher to an aid station and then to the rear and out of France, he made it back to the Isle of Wight where he would convalesce. Later, still in England, as he drilled on a rifle range, preparing to return to the front, he would receive the news that the Armistice was signed.

stretcher

The war was over. The lives of over eight and a half million soldiers had been lost. Over twenty one million had been wounded. Far more had wounds that did not show outwardly. It took Harry over eighty years before he could bring himself to talk about it. In 2007, he found the strength to return to the fields of Flanders and see the land again where so many men were unlucky enough to not be wounded like himself, but instead mingled with the soil, unseen even to this day.

That one battle alone consumed over 850,000 men.

One battle.

I am a student of history. I have a thirst to know and find awe and respect in the items that have been carried and cared for by those who have held these things; who have lived or just as often, not lived through the fires of past conflict. I am not alone.

Collectors of history cover the globe and the hunt for the right helmet, the correct rifle or the authentic letter spurs on a lively commerce. What worries me is the disconnect that can occur with these items and the stories that refuse to cling to them. An object can’t tell you the story of it’s owner and with the death of those who knew, we loose that human element, and it is a loss. The bayonet that is snapped up at an antiques show that might have ruined the life of a family a century ago. The canteen for sale that once was filled but never drank from. The extra overcoat that was ordered but shipped back unworn. We can’t forget where these things come from or whom they might have touched. We should, however, care for them since we can no longer care for their one time owners. They are not ours, however. We are only stewards and need to teach why there are items of humanity. Why they are special.

In 1914, the European youth were electrified with the promise and thrill of war. There had been a long wait between conflicts and the populace had forgotten that glory was a lie. It wasn’t glorious. It was riding into the jaws of Death and hoping to be the survivor, even as your friends die all around you. The elders of state ordered them to go and they did their duty.

Lions led by Asses.

We can debate the argument if the Great War was inevitable or avoidable. We can question who actually started it and where the fault lies.We can point fingers at incompetent commanders and mourn those who died due to the idiocy of suicidal orders handed out with no care or strategy. What we cannot do, should never do, is think for a moment that the Great War was that. Great. It was a charnel house. We should never for a moment confuse that with glory.

Good night to you Harry Patch, you and all those who saw the war of 1914-1918 with their own eyes. There are yet three more who were there, but you were the last to raise arms against an enemy you barely knew.

The fields are quiet now except for the sounds of traffic and tractors. The memories you shared are written in the annals of history.

May we never forget the price we as men paid to hear them.

“I met someone from the German side, and we both shared the same opinion: We fought, we finished, and we were friends. It wasn’t worth it.”

~Harry Patch

HarryPatch

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