Sunday, August 30, 2009

Forever Out of Reach

Last week I strolled into a hobby shop, looking for glass bottles for the wire art I never get around to making anymore. The garrulous owner was sitting with his back to me and thought I was someone else and cursed -- or so he said, I didn't hear that. I was already not listening. Because I sensed with a physical chill that something was happening.

I found something in that shop, which evoked a series of memories. And a startling realization I wouldn't have made otherwise.

I knew it before I even saw. The place was filled with models of planes, cars, ships, trains. The owner was apologizing for his language, saying he was really "so very sorry m'am..." but again I could not keep up with the patter because I was looking for it, something I'd been in search of for decades.

His cohort came in, the curses subject, maybe in jest, although maybe not because this man was carrying a pizza, so I put a stop to the apologies with an abrupt, "But do you have Flakbait by any chance, the B-26 bomber?" I didn't need to explain. I knew this would separate the wheat from the chaff.

And it did. The shop had nothing to do with bottles and wire art and the like. But it carried a nice, large model Flakbait at quite a decent price, the plane my father flew in during World War II in Europe. The one he served in as a gunner-engineer. The plane pocked by enemy fire that had been in the Smithsonian for a while, cut in half so I could stare inside through the plexiglass, take my son there, my son who never met his grandfather. But they took the plane away and stored it somewhere in Virginia, I lost track of it. And when they did that I lost that piece of my father too.

But last week, after that strange encounter in a distant strip mall I seldom visit, I walked out of the shop cradling in trembling arms the beautiful, detailed replica of that plane. And the owner gave me a discount, unasked. "Because you have a connection to the plane. And your father was a hero."

I will eventually give the plane to my son, who never met his grandfather. But not now. I want to keep it for myself, he is a teenager and won't appreciate the gift. And I need it. Because this collection of metal and plastic does not conjure up the romance of an era for me, heroism, the simple days of war for the "right" reasons. Instead, it evokes a mystery.

These days, with him gone for nearly 20 years, I am edging closer to that inaccessible part of the man, even though I know he will forever remain for the most part undisclosed. He was not one for introspection, self-analysis. He was happiest when in motion, outdoors, in action. But somehow, I am compelled to try to piece together bits of the mystery. Because in the missing, maybe I will find the lost measure of the man.

Why? "You are just like him," echoes in my head sometimes. It isn't true. It never was. Or maybe it was, before. Not now. Maybe, in ways. It's a muddle. Like life.

I will not start at the beginning. But in the middle.

We were not a musical household, but my sister and I took piano lessons. As my playing improved, my father became interested. He had not cared as my sister and I banged out chords and early pieces. But as I began to play the very simplest classical, he would come into the room and sit on my bed.

I was surprised by this. Although my father occasionally listened to Schumann, and tried to interest us in the composer, our house was usually filled with a cacophony of noise from the televisions and radios my father and brother set up to obessessively follow their sports teams and whoever else was playing in the universe. Also, just the general background noise from five people in one house.

On the nights I played, my father got very quiet. He sat and stared into the distance. And then, as though spent, he would stretch out on the bed. Sometimes, when I finished and turned to look at him, his hand would be on his head, shielding his eyes, as though in pain. And I thought I could see his eyes glistening. Tears?

He said, by way of explanation, that "they played this music in London, in Ireland, during the war. It was in the pubs and the restaurants. Not like here."

My mother and father raised us in north Alabama, where old gospel twined with the high, sad lament of Hank Williams drenched us through the pores. Sprinkled with drops of bluegrass. Then, as I grew older, this was layered, lavishly, with Motown, jazz, the blues. Not classical.

My mother seemed to be agitated by his behavior about the piano music. I didn't understand why. I felt she was blaming me, somehow, for something. She hovered, darting through the house, her tensions rendering me silent and fearful in one moment, then overly loud and brash in the next, characteristics that have propelled me through life. I stopped playing soon after, but that's another story, not part of this one.

The actual fact of the war was not something my father yearned for, that I know. It was horrible. He rarely spoke of it. He calculated where to drop the bombs. Then went into the bubble and fired turret guns. After surviving many missions, crash landings, deaths of comrades, woundings of airmen next to him, men he helped get to the ground alive with rudimentary medic's skills, he refused the offer of an air transport back to the United States. Instead, he returned home by boat. And he refused to board a plane for 40 years.

"I know I could smell the gasoline. You're not supposed to on an airliner. But once they turned on the engines, I know it would happen," he would say. He finally did, to visit me in Baltimore. Which freed him to travel to WWII reunions in distant places before his death. He loved them.

But there was one reunion I am left wondering about, a reunion he never had. The woman he loved in England, during the war. The woman who corresponded with my grandmother, whose address was in family bible. My father never spoke of her, but after he died, my mother did.

My father did not know my mother before the war. He knew her brothers and even her fiance, who was killed in that war along with one of her brothers. My father came home from that war and sat down beside my mother on a bus. They started talking and realized the common ties, and griefs. Before long, they were engaged. And married.

Soon after, my father handed my mother a letter. It had been forwarded by his mother in Tennessee. We were living in Texas then, where my sister and I were born. The letter was from his former lady love in England. It was unopened.

My father said his mother told him there was talk about the Englishwoman coming to the United States to visit, or maybe she was already here -- New York, New Jersey, details were fuzzy. My mother clearly was not happy, many years later, discussing these details. She told me my grandmother "really liked this Englishwoman," even though they never met. My father had no plans to open the letter. "You are my wife. I'll let you decide what to do with it."

My mother took the letter and threw it away. Unread, unopened. They never discussed it again.

I wondered about that, late at night, staring at Flakbait, watching it carefully for clues that night after bringing it home from the shop. Did my father leave London planning to send for his love later? Had they broken up? Had it been unresolved? So many questions.

I think about this woman. Her letter refused, thrown away. Maybe she jilted my father.

It hit me then. That's who he was thinking about, the woman from England. As I played that handsome old upright piano, verging on young womanhood, he sat in my room, tears filling his eyes, staring into the distance, traveling in part of his mind over the vast ocean to other rooms filled with music quite like that. In another country, another life, another war. The tears were about loss.

For what had been, for what could have been. He was not a man who looked back, who regretted. But for those few times, for a few minutes, I am sure of it -- he did.

My sister has my grandmother's bible. I badgered her until she retrieved it from safe place and carefully paged through the fragile pages to the thing I wanted. She read it to me over the telephone. The Englishwoman's address. I wrote it down. I look at it and read it out loud to myself now and then.

Where is she now? Did she have a family? Was she responsible, caring, honorable, someone who took good care of her family? And despite those things, did she still have another quality her family puzzled over. The same as I do now: A vast, inaccessible space unknown and unknowable, forever out of reach.


  1. Your father sounds like a very interesting man. You write beautifully.



  2. Yes, he was, SB. I wish I had "known" that back when. And thank you for the kind words. That means so much

  3. This is a wonderful piece Glimmer. I can feel the sadness here. My father was much the same way--he kept things hidden inside. He didn't reveal much about what he was feeling. Thanks for sharing about your father. And for the beauty of the writing.

  4. It was a generational thing with these men, of course, Syd. I'm not sure they could have "talked out" their feelings if they had tried.

    And thank you for your own insightful blog and for commenting here. When you like a post, I know I've picked a good one.

  5. This was wonderfully written, and a great story. Isn't it amazing how many stories eacah person holds in their hearts and how we can never fully know someone else, no matter how close and how much time we spend with them? I am noticing this more and more lately...we are all mysteries, wrapped up in ourselves, going through life together.

  6. That's one reason I'm writing this blog. I want to leave a record. I would love to see something like this -- the bad and the good -- from my people who are long gone now.

    Thank you for dropping by, SJ.

  7. Is the story done if you don't find the woman?

    Another lovely piece of writing...

  8. HA! The editor speaks (Anonymous). I cannot tell you how many times I have put pen to paper with the thought of it. But something stops me.

    That could be the next step, though, after writing this.

  9. My father, too, loved a woman in England during WWII. He intended to send for her after the war but life got in the way. He came back and found out he no longer had a home after his mother had passed away. He had to help his "crippled" brother and, by the time he could have sent for the girl in England, he had already met my mother. They married and the family began. We sensed he was never totally happy but we never knew why until he was in his 70s and briefly mentioned it to my mother. He was so laden with guilt because he worried he had not sent for a young girl who might have been carrying his child. My mother was deeply hurt and so he had to bury it inside again for the remainder of his life. I wish I could find the "young girl" in England and tell her he loved her and he wanted to send for her but his money was used to help his brother and he had no home to give her. I would just want her to know he was a good man and he did love her.

  10. That is an incredible story, anon! You should write about it. Really. You have no idea, she might just see the story, that child, if one exists, might. You know? Think about it.