Unexpected discoveries about our families make life more interesting.
The round glass ball, clear on the outside with an explosion of red, purple and blue inside, hand-blown by an artisan, was a fixture in our living room when I was growing up. It stood on a narrow glass pedestal, top-heavy and extremely breakable, so I rarely touched it.
The story handed down was that Daddy wrapped this delicate beauty in rags and stowed it inside a tin can in his duffle bag for the trip home from Europe after the war. I always thought it was a special gift he bought for my mother.
Later in life when Daddy was in an assisted living facility and the glass ball had come to reside in my home, I learned the truth about its origins. He came for dinner one day and I asked him exactly where he had purchased the object.
“I didn’t buy it,” he said. “I found it in a house.”
“Well, the people were gone and my unit used their house for a few days,” he said.
“They were probably in a hurry to escape the Nazis and had to leave everything behind. Didn’t you think they would return once the war ended?”
“I didn’t think about that.”
“ You took something that belonged to someone else, Daddy! I call that stealing!”
“Well, they left it,” Daddy said. “If I hadn’t taken it, someone else would have.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you stole something, Daddy!” I could see his eyes glazing over in denial while I was truly shocked. I thought my dad had always been careful to do the right thing. At least, that’s what he taught me to do. But I had a feeling he didn’t have it in him to confess to thievery.
“I see you still have the Energizer Bunny,” he said, nodding to the curio shelf. My son had given my parents the toy bunny years before my mother died, a reference to their boundless energy and travels.
I recognized a change of subject when I heard one, so I let the theft issue go. But I had definitely learned something new about my father. And more was to come.
Years after my father’s death, when I finally began going through the remains of his belongings—mostly pictures and papers—I found a bundle of letters he had written to my mother in 1945. They had gotten married when the war in Europe ended, but were separated for several months until his discharge from the Army. Most of his letters were about how much he missed my mom and his desire to get out of the Army so he could be with her. Here’s an example, a letter he wrote on November 16, 1945.
It is late and I really don’t feel much like writing, but I know you’ll be expecting a letter so here it is. Don’t expect too much because I’m still very tired from the train ride and I had a hard day at the office. I really should be in bed, but I happen to love that little wife of mine and I don’t want her to have any cause to worry.
My trip down here wasn’t too bad only a little tiring and uncomfortable. I had one whole seat to myself most of the way down here and that helped a lot.
I have some bad news for you. None of the boys in this unit with fifty to fifty-nine points will be discharged until the first of December. If I had stayed in the 28th, I would have been a civilian by the middle of next week because they are getting ready to discharge them now. So, unless things change, you can expect me to be home about the middle of next month. I was thinking a little about starting in school the first of the year, but now that will be almost out of question. I’ll try to straighten things once I get in civilian life.
Well, darling, I know this is indeed a very short letter, but I’m very tired and sleepy as well as disgusted and disappointed. I didn’t have any mail from you when I came back and I don’t understand why. Eleven or twelve days ago you wrote me a letter and I never did get it and it isn’t here yet, so you know something is mixed up. I hope I soon get any mail you may have written me. Write me as soon as you can because I’m going to need some cheering up until I get out of this Army. Always remember, honey, that I love you very much and I certainly do miss you. Do you miss me, honey? I know you do and I hope it isn’t long until we can be together for good.
Good-nite, darling, and pleasant dreams. I love you.
Your darling husband,
Another excerpt, this one from December 3, 1945:
Hello My Sweet,
Today I was made to love you even more when I received two nice letters from you. I felt certain that I would get at least two from you and I was right. I also got two letters from Mother. I would have been very disappointed if you hadn’t written me on Friday night because that would have meant two days without hearing from you and that is bad. I see that you are keeping your word in most cases about only writing me every other day. I wish you would write me almost everyday because I enjoy your letters very much, but I don’t write everyday so I don’t or shouldn’t expect you to. Then again, I admit that it is hard to find something to write about if you write every night. Write as often as you can, honey, and I’ll be satisfied.
Most of his statements were boring, recounting how many letters he received and how many he hoped to receive. Maybe that was to be expected for a soldier away from home.
But when I encountered letters that mentioned Susie and Junior, I grew confused. Daddy’s youngest brother was named Junior so naturally I assumed he was the one referenced. But I couldn’t figure out Susie, since I knew Junior was married to Pauline.
Did Junior date Susie before he met Pauline? I wondered. Or was Susie someone Junior was seeing in addition to Pauline?
Daddy wrote as if Junior and Susie were intimate acquaintances. Too intimate, as a matter of fact, for 1940s conversations.
Then I read,
I love you, honey, and I miss you very, very much. By missing you, I also miss someone else. That’s right, Susie. Do you mind my missing Susie? I bet you don’t. Remember how you were the last Sunday I was home? You really wanted Junior bad.
Huh? What in the world was he talking about? I still had it in my mind that Junior meant my dad’s brother. What would my mother want with Uncle Junior?
In another letter I read,
I crawl down between the sheets at night always wishing that you were beside me. Honey, I admit that I miss Susie a lot, but tonight I would be completely satisfied just to have you beside me.
I was indignant by now. My father was comparing another girl to sleeping with my mother? Then I read,
How does Susie like her diaphragm? Does it fit well?
Wait a minute. Why…? The light slowly dawned. OMG. Body parts. Susie and Junior were names my parents had given to body parts—their private parts.
Weren’t people too prim and proper in the forties for that sort of thing? I mean these were my parents—who I imagined as prudes.
I learned more about my parents than I ever wanted to know and have been unable, despite my best efforts, to erase this new information from my mind. In fact, after I read the letters, I set them aside for a year. Maybe I was in denial, or maybe it took a while to process the fact that my mother and father were, in addition to being my parents, adults with adult desires. Well, of course, they were. They had two children. How did I imagine that happened?
If only my dad were still around to change the subject once again. . . .