Tuesday, March 3, 2009


A man with the evocative name Bishop Bone apparently lived sight unseen in my home when I was growing up. The name was rarely spoken. Although occasionally one parent or another quietly mentioned "Bish."

It took decades for me to comprehend the significance of this man.

Bish's first real "appearance" for me came when I was a bored teenager. My mother took me on an endless car ride into the Tennessee wilds, a place more remote than the Alabama countryside where I grew up. Mother was an eerily quiet person back then, before my garrulous father died. She said we were going to see "a friend." This was all I got in response to steady wheedling.

We arrived at a cottage almost entirely blanketed in wooded green. I channeled my faux well-raised Southern girl self and recited polit-ceties (*short for polite niceties, an example of the Ridge Talk specialty of my mother's family).

I was burning to get back to my grandmother's, who had a neighbor I had just discovered, the blond, beautiful Teddy, who was 14ish like me. Teddy was my new hobby while visiting the folks in Tennessee. I only wanted a glimpse of him, but was willing to spend hours in that pursuit, while pretending to not know he was alive.

But I had to survive the visit to a woman I had never heard of in my entire life. But was suddenly so important that my mother drove us a long distance on dirt roads through the wilds.

I do remember the uncharacteristically intense hug my mother gave this tiny, ancient woman in the cottage front room, which swelled with emotion that affected even the unpracticed heart of a put-upon 14-year-old.

They sat close in the sunlit room, speaking in low voices. Someone produced tea and sweets. The visit was soon over and we stood to leave. The woman of the house then picked up a framed picture of a young man in uniform from among the antique pieces in the room and handed it to my mother. And my mother burst into tears.

I had never seen that happen. Ever.

But my mother hugged the woman goodbye, hustled us out of the room and we were off. She would not talk about it, sticking to her version of the story: The woman was an old friend, the man in the picture was her son. They were people she knew growing up. End of story. Period.

Years later my father died at 80. Bits and pieces of their lives before us had come out. I knew, at this point, that my father had been a gunner-engineer on an Army Air Corps bomber in Europe during World War II and survived many missions. In fact his plane, or what was left of it, was in the Smithsonian for a while. I was able to take my son to see it. And my mother and brother came up for a ceremony dedicating a plaque with the names of the men who flew that aircraft.

My father knew my mother's brothers growing up. But she was 10 years younger and they did not meet until the day he sat beside her on a bus, after the war. They struck up a conversation. And the rest was history, as they say.

Their marriage seemed to be a practical one. They cared for one another, certainly, but there was no evidence of great love or passion. My father ruled the roost and my mother complied. The usual for that time and place.

But after my father died, the presence of Bish grew.

My mother started to talk. "Is she seeming hyper?" my brother asked one day. We'd never known her to be so verbal. And finally the story of Bish came up. A little bit here and there, but finally this man was fleshed out enough for me to see him.

My mother grew up with Bishop Bone. She was a tomboy, the youngest of a large family, a girl with many brothers who lost her father at age 12. As the two got older, love blossomed. But there was a war on and Bish and her brothers were going.

They would marry when he returned. Although they both had been born and raised in that tiny place, he wanted to see what waited for them outside the limited circumstances of a farming community in Middle Tennessee. He thought they would maybe move to Chicago. Then see the world. Oh yes, she said, she would love that.

He left. Mother waited. And then the news came. Bish had died. He had drowned in the English Channel. He was with other American soldiers who had survived the ditching of the plane into the dark cold water. But they were waiting for enemy troops to move away before climbing to safety on the shore. Belgian troops or townspeople, I don't remember the details, were creating a distraction to help the Americans. No one could explain what happened. Why Bish slipped away.

Details were still murky, more than 60 years after that shattering death. And Mother could barely lodge the words up from her throat.

I will never understand it, she said. He was the best swimmer. He could swim in any kind of water.

My father also knew Bish. And he had fought and survived that war, which also claimed the life of one of my mother's brothers. And then my father came home and sat down beside a pretty young woman on a bus. A woman who underneath her quiet way was consumed by too many losses.

My mother is as loyal as they come. When my father died, she arranged his wake, funeral and after-services lunch at our home. Then we drove the nearly four hours to their hometown in Tennessee for another round of funeral festivities. And she buried him there, as he wished.

And then she waited the recommended time, built another house, and started dispersing Daddy's belongings. She handed over his watch and class ring, his rifle and shotgun, his dress white straw hat, his medals from the war.

The flight wings were tarnished so I cleaned them and another pair I had found with the set. I thought maybe my father had two for some reason. Some people order another set after misplacing them and then the original shows up.

But when my mother saw me rubbing away, she picked up one of the wings, startled. She said, "This is your father's, you can have it. But this one is mine."

And I knew who had worn those wings, a young man long buried in Belgium. And I knew what was next. This woman in her '80s clasped the silver piece tight in her hand, then to her chest, and rushed from the room, refusing to talk about it, as always. The 60-year-old grief as powerful, present and stifling as its initial blow.


  1. What a wonderful and touching story!

  2. And such a sad one... Thank you!

  3. Oh my. This story pulled me along, like I was holding hands with you at 14, watching, confused, bated breath, never thinking of your mother as a young woman with passion. There are loves that are so big because the hearts of the two lovers become entwined in a spiritual way many never feel. It is sad, too, that when those loves are never able to mature, to be tested, to thread through 60 years of real life, they are lodged someplace that is ever frozen, other worldly and fragile. You are SUCH a good story teller. I want to hear many more about your people and your heritage. I'm hooked!

  4. It's good to "talk" about something that was forbidden, because the pain was too great and it wasn't mine. But it affected all of us, really. And thank you Re, I'm enjoying my trips to yours too!

  5. When I read your life stories it helps me to see that someday I too will be able to write so openly and with respect. The untold stories that as children we are not given and possibly never know until perhaps someone who did know lets the story unfold. Yes, how many women who had a true love and died in a war find themselves with a new man, build a life but who never fully let that love go...lovely...

  6. Ellen: I wish everyone would write their stories like this put them where someone could find them one day. Even if they hated "Bridges of Madison County." Unfortunately, we don't get to ever see some of them. Or we only see a shred. I want to cry when I think of all the stories lost forever.

    I've promised reader Danielle that I will write more about myself. And I am sturdying myself for that (not really a verb, that one, sturdying). I am a fortunate soul to be where I am now, but got a bit lost along the way, enough that my teenage son would be completely shocked and of course that's exactly the kind of thing I would like to read about someone else. So I will need to write it.

    When I started this blog, I said if people are going to do me the honor of spending their precious time here, I will do my very best to give them something in kind: a tiny bit of real, even if it hurts.