The Family I Never Met

I recently received a package from the executor of my brother’s partner’s will.  In the envelope were letters that my dad wrote to my mom during the war when he was stationed on Iwo Jima.  The picture is a photograph of my mom, my dad, and big brother.  It was taken sometime in 1941 or 1942 in my mom’s parents’ house in Pennsylvania.  My dad enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942 and because of his age, being 32 at that point, he had to get a Congressional appointment because he was officially too old to be called up.  My mom’s uncle, Uncle Ivor, was a sitting Congressman in the voting district they lived in and he wrote the letter for my dad.  I am assuming shortly after this photo was taken Dad left for boot camp.

I spent one entire evening reading through letter after letter that my dad wrote to my mom during the war.  Needless to say , it was a night of tears and questions.  The tears flowed easily and it was a good cry.  The questions flowed equally but there were no answers and no one who could answer them as I am the solitary living person of my family with the exception of my two kids.  I must have stared at that photo for an hour, talking to it as if it was going to answer me.  I looked at their faces, one by one, and didn’t recognize them.  I was more than 4 years away from existence and I was staring at these three strangers.  These were not the people who raised me!  Sure, I recognized the features but the expressions were so different from what I remember.  I look at my mom in that picture and I see a woman at peace, a strong woman who defied her dad and left home to go to the big city and train to be a nurse against her dad’s will.  I see my dad’s picture and I see a young man with confidence and a devilish, mischievous smile on his face.  And then there is my brother, what a cutie!  I cannot remember a time when he wasn’t intensely overweight.  This was his family, mine was different!

I read each letter in chronological order, from boot camp to shipping overseas, to fighting on Iwo Jima to the bombing of Hiroshima. It was like a personalized history of our lives, our country, our world as it existed at war in the 40’s.  The last letter my dad sent to my mom in October of 1945 was written right after his ship docked in California after crossing the Pacific.  All his letters referred to my mom as “Honey” or “Dearest Mary” and all kinds of affectionate terms for my brother.  His last letter ended with a thought I am sure many service men had as they were returning from combat.  He ended it with, “I bet Little Jerry would love to have a baby sister!  We’ll talk about it when I get home!”  I arrived about 10 months after he returned but to their surprise I was not the sister they apparently wanted.

I was born in Bellevue Hospital in NYC where my mom got her RN degree and worked.  We lived in a railroad flat on East 23rd St and 2nd Ave just blocks away from my Italian grandparents.  Several years later we moved out to Queens and my brother would tell me stories about how he had a different dad than the one we have.  He told me that the difference was significant from pre war Dad to post war Dad.  I listened to that for years as my dad developed a drinking problem and mom worked herself nearly to death.  The serenity on Mom’s face was gone and the happy, mischievous smile was gone from my dad’s face.  My brother gained a large amount of weight and the daily grind became arguments over money every night at the dinner table.  They didn’t know a lot about PTSD back then, in fact I think it was referred to as shell shock.  Dad never told stories about the war and rarely shared any feelings he had about going to war.  Don’t get me wrong.  I knew my parents loved me and my mom was the most loving, understanding mother a kid could have.  My dad did things to make my life and my brother’s life better but the affectionate terms they had for each other were gone.  Our extended family members were always telling us how proud my dad was of us but he could never tell us that- we always had to hear it from others.  So when I saw that photo this week a real sense of sadness came over me.  I wished I had known those people in the picture.  I would give anything to see mom’s face light up with happiness or dad’s mischievous smile come over his face.  Life became hard for them, for us!  I can’t help but wonder if the faces would have remained more like the picture if Little Jerry had gotten the baby sister they wanted…….

B4ME

I enjoyed reading George’s story of his parents through the lens of his father’s letters. What a fabulous insight into a time of mass upheaval! It’s easy to understand the fascination with the time before your birth to get a clue about the antecedent conditions. It’s sort of “You – the Prequel”.

I’m imagining that George’s Dad was changed by the war, but also returned to a different environment. Women had joined the workforce in huge numbers and no doubt enjoyed the freedom of choice and self-confidence gained through achievement at work. The post war world integrated returning service men into the workplace, but change was already in play. Perhaps that accounted for some of the differences that George described?

I can share my family’s story in part – with some similarity to George in that it seems hard to form an accurate impression of their hopes and dreams. My mother was raised in a warm, but scrappy Italian family – the youngest of five. My father was also the youngest of five in a single parent family of emigrated Londoners.

Both parents were pre-teen during the Great Depression and grew up with a strong understanding of being without – whether that was food, or simply money. Mom lived in a family enclave a block from Rockaway Beach – her fond memories included the “League of Nations” diversity of her summer friends at the beach. She won the art medal at her High School graduation and hoped to attend tuition free Cooper Union – but that was not to be. Her yearbook comments suggested she was friendly and upbeat – -with the nickname Sunny. She took a job at a Grumman Aircraft and was a literal Rosie the Riveter.

My Dad struggled in a dirt poor environment. He experienced abandonment by his father and the deportation of his older brother to Australia. At thirteen, he was shoveling coal in the school boiler, while his mother worked in the school cafeteria. His high school yearbook comments indicated that he was a science whiz. After graduation, he was also hired at Grumman Aircraft, but took a hiatus to join the merchant marine, rising from machinist mate to Chief Petty Officer during the war. Although he did not encounter enemy fire during WWII, he was shot in the shoulder walking the streets of Astoria as a teenager – and was later shot at by striking maritime workers while in the merchant marine. 

I see pictures of my parents at a roller-skating rink and horseback riding during their courtship – activities that didn’t survive past their marriage vows. Mom and Dad did not have the blessing of their families to marry; apparently, Italians thought the English never bathed – and the English apparently had similar hygienic thoughts about Italians.  So my parents eloped. Things eventually worked out, however: soap was in abundance.

Once married, both my parents worked – all the time. Dad had two jobs until my younger brother was born. Clearly money was tight and there simply was not room for many social pleasures. I sense that was the same for George’s family. 

What I appreciate the most about my parents is that they never allowed their tensions and worries to affect the love they showed my brother and I. They coped. Like George’s father, my folks had hoped for a daughter to add to the family – but they were proud of their sons. All in all, I can only hope to do as well as a parent as they did.

I Wonder…

Unlike my blogging partners, I know little about my parents as partners.  Back in my day, very little was shared with children about family and, I would hazard a guess, there was background information that they wouldn’t mention to many adults as well.

I am the oldest of three children and though I’ve been around the longest, I have little first hand knowledge of my father.  In addition, my mother and her parents felt children shouldn’t be exposed to “adult” matters. There is a strong likelihood that there was wrongdoing and legal ramifications of my father’s actions that likely added to the censorship that I was surrounded by.

My mom had two brothers, one older and one younger.  Her father came to this country from Austria and was a musician.  He made a living by playing the bass in the orchestra at the Waldorf Astoria.  Her mother came from Rumania and worked as a seamstress there as well as where they lived in the Bronx.  My mother grew up at a time when many left-handed people were forced to write with their right hand and young women were expected to become housewives, not college students.  With a musical talent for the piano, my mom was accepted to the Julliard School of Music and secretly attended classes for one year until her father found out and ended her studies.  She met and married my father and had three children.  I wonder what her choices would have been had she had the support of her parents to finish her degree and write her own music with the freedom to use her left hand.  Would she then have developed the confidence to understand that she truly had the right to determine the course of her own life?  Would she have married when she did?  And, from all that I can determine, if she did, it would likely not have been my father.

My father was born of Russian Jewish parents but grew up with them and his older brother in Italy.  His father owned a large shoe repair factory, and his mother, (who was educated as a doctor in Switzerland, but was only allowed to be considered a healer at that time in Italy) apparently enjoyed a well to do life until they were abruptly placed in an internment camp.  My father and his brother and his brother’s wife were able to escape to the United States.  Not having finished a formal education my father used his charm and natural intelligence to make his way.  He was adept at convincing people to trust him and to give him undeserved opportunities as well as loans and investments.  However, he would often take advantage of his benefactors and after moving about from one career to another and one part of the country to another, he ultimately disappeared abandoning all who had known him, including his family.  It has been easy for me to judge him from the standpoint of the effect his actions had on my life and that of my mother and sisters, but I don’t really know what it would have been like to follow his path of survival as a young adult.  He arrived in this country knowing he’d never see his parents again.  His brother had made a life for himself and his wife with little room for my father.  He had no degree, spoke English with an Italian accent and had to forage for his twenty-something self, alone in a foreign land.  I suspect meeting my mother offered a path to citizenship and stability more than the lure of young love.  If he had come to America under different circumstances, these two very different people would likely never have married.  Of course in that case, I wouldn’t be around to speculate!

Regardless, my mom managed to raise three children with successful careers, beautiful families, and more happiness than either of my parents likely experienced.  I’m content to wonder what it would have been like for them under different circumstances but whatever they had to struggle with and whatever choices they made I’m grateful for the role they played in helping me and my sisters get to where we are today.

2 thoughts on “The Family I Never Met

  1. My grandfather died when I was 10. He was a WW1 vet that fought in the trenches of France. Gassed, and wounded twice, he came back a different man as my father would tell it. I never knew him as he was before the war, but I never saw the bad side of him either. He was just there, working his job, playing his fiddle and drinking at the bar around the corner. We did talk a few weeks before he passed, and he related as much of his wartime experiences that he could to a child my age. What I heard was frightening; hand to hand combat, killing with a bayonet and knife, friends blown to pieces as they laid next to him in the trenches. I understood some of it, and the rest gave me nightmares. I now know he suffered greatly from PTSD, I am sad to this day I never knew the other grandfather.

    Like

    1. HI Phil. Thanks for commenting. We like to get readers’ reactions to the things we write. You are very fortunate to have had that opportunity to talk to your grandfather about it before he passed even though it seemed scary at the time. I would give anything to have an opportunity to ask dad about it now, but when I was growing up as a teenager I was so self absorbed that it never occurred to me to ask him about it. I realize the profound effect it had on him and on our family. He was still a loving father but the drinking intensified and his ability to express his emotions diminished to the detriment of my mom, brother and me. There were no services back then for the guys when they returned from the war, not that my dad would have taken advantage of them if there had been. Now as the aging patriarch of what is left of the family, I have a million questions and no one to ask for the answers!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s