Martin and I were out of town this weekend for our marketing class. As soon as we got home last night, I made a beeline for the kids. I gotta get in their faces and hug and love on them, but the older three only tolerate about ten seconds of it.
This one, though, is all about the face smooshes. He even leans in for them now. And? He smells better than his siblings, too. Continue reading →
Exactly seven years ago today,I stood with many others at Arlington National Cemetery to honor Maj. Troy Gilbert after his F-16 crashed in Iraq while he was defending soldiers on the ground who were under attack.Today, on the anniversary of his burial, I stood once again at Arlington National Cemetery with many others to honor and welcome a part of him home again.The circumstances of Troy’s death in November 2006 are pretty dramatic. He was providing surveillance and reconnaissance for ground forces north of Baghdad when a coalition helicopter went down. As American forces were securing the helicopter and the people inside it, insurgents attacked them. Troy flew in, strafing the insurgents, and flying less than 200 feet from the ground. Continue reading →
On a day like today, it’s hard to feel like life is really all that good.I had another post written up for my Good Life series, but I scrapped it shortly after I turned my television news on this morning. Early today, several people were shot and killed at the Navy Yard military installation in downtown Washington D.C. As I type this, the numbers are vague. Some reports are saying four people are confirmed dead. Other reports are saying eight. I just read that there are “bodies” throughout Navy Yard.
And it’s not yet clear if this was one shooter, or multiple. Right now, they’re thinking multiple.
All of it is too much.
This is hitting close to home.
It happened just blocks from my office building, though I was working from home this morning, and it happened to my people: my military friends and fellow government workers.
As of right now, most of my immediate Navy Yard colleagues and friends are accounted for online, at least. They were locked down in their offices. They were told to run out of the building. They (the public affairs types) both locked down/fled, but also continued to work to provide updates for those involved, and the media.
As it goes, the world is small, the federal world is smaller, and the military world is even smaller than that. My heart hurts for the families of those who’ve been killed, and those who are still waiting to learn about their loved ones, and those who experienced this just by being there, who saw and heard things, who continued to work in the aftermath.
The ordeal is haunting and horrible, yet it doesn’t surprise me.
I’m thinking it’s all of it that motivates me to live with my head on a swivel, expecting and preparing for the worst at any moment, but always hoping for the best.
Yet, I know life is random, and it can be hard and violent. And gone in a second. That’s why, for me, living for today isn’t living as if one is dying and completing a bucket list.
To me, living for today is recognizing how fleeting our time is, and how quickly it can all end, and carving out every opportunity to be kind and tell each other how much love is shared.This also means, for me at least, to never depart from one another on bad terms.Easier said than done, as I experienced just this morning.
Every Sunday, the girls are responsible for setting aside their outfits for the week ahead. By the time they are in bed, if this chore isn’t done, I do it for them.
I actually enjoy the chore because I get to raid their closets and get my fashionista on. Up until now, this wasn’t a big deal to the girls. They didn’t care about those outfits.
Except, things are different. There’s a 10-year-old now, a fifth-grader, and she cares.But not enough to prepare for the week ahead, as I pointed out to her as she complained about the shirt I picked for her. She knows the rules. She had every opportunity to plan her own clothes. Yet, she procrastinated, and I did it for her, and that was that.She started frantically flipping through the shirts in her closet, pulling out a few selections before I stepped in.
“No,” I said firmly. “These are all going to end up on your bed, then the floor, and they’ll become more laundry for me to do. Nope. This is why we plan ahead. You have an outfit. Put it on.”
There was nothing wrong with the outfit I picked for her. It was a pair of jeans and a pink solid-color shirt. She didn’t like the three-quarter sleeve length.
We went back and forth about it, although it was more me repeating what I told her, reminding her about the rules, and her sulking in response. She got it. She understood my point.
She just didn’t like it.
I dropped her off at school. She was wearing the whole outfit, but not happy about it. She was quiet and barely audible as she said her farewell, while I leaned over the seat and yelled after her, “I love you, Miss C! You look awesome. I’ll see you later.”
Because there’s that rule: we never separate from each other on bad terms.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the things that propel us forward. Obligations. Deadlines. Chores. Being late for school. Being late for work. Being upset over a slight. Being annoyed over a misspoken word. Taking for granted that there will be time later.
All of those things are normal to our existence. And not everything can be sentimental or wrought with deeper meaning. In fact, as I’ve written before, my wish is that the way we live and love every day, the bond we have as a family, will never leave doubt to where we all stand with each other and all, should the unfortunate happen.But, still.We never know.
So that’s why I’ve tried to live this way, and teach my kids this awareness, to just not miss the chance.
I watched Miss C head up the walkway to her school before I turned my focus back to the street, turning on the blinker to signal my departure, not wanting to hit a wayward kid darting into traffic. I crawled past the cluster of cars and parents, and briefly looked over to the school again.
To the walkway.
Where my daughter stood in her pink shirt, waiting for me to pass.
Once we made eye contact, she waved at me with a tender smile on her face. I lifted my hand to wave back. We were cool.
And with that, she turned and raced off to her classroom.
Our wonderful, feisty, talented, caring and so very beloved Grandma MJ passed away early Sunday morning.
The week earlier, she was admitted into the hospital due to some difficulty breathing. A lung scan revealed spots, more tests revealed signs of cancer, and treatment would have been long and aggressive.
Not surprisingly, MJ declined treatment.
When her husband, Grandpa Charley, died last year, Grandma MJ talked with Miss C and me at his funeral reception. Miss C was candid about her feelings of sadness and fear about death, and MJ was frank with her.
“This is life,” she said. “When it’s our time to go, it’s time to go, you know? It happens to everybody, and we just gotta hope we lived a good life and love each other so when it’s our time, we can accept it.”
I reminded Miss C of that conversation when I first broke the news to her that Grandma MJ wasn’t doing too well. The decision was quickly made to move Grandma MJ from the hospital to hospice care.
Because of the uncertainty and logistics involved in bringing the whole family out to Ohio, Martin and I decided to stay put here at home in Northern Virginia, knowing Dad and Linda would be sure Grandma MJ knew we were thinking of her. (Miss C even sent a few words in an email to be read to her.) Of course, my father kept Martin and me updated with text messages throughout the days, encouraging us to carry on with our lives as normal.
This meant keeping our plans to celebrate Jaz’s second birthday with a party on Saturday. As Martin and I decorated, it felt weirdly familiar. I pointed out that just three years ago, we were doing the same thing with Lola and her second birthday party, when my grandmother Ninny was in hospice care at the time. She passed away just a few days later.
For Jaz, we had invited over some friends, and soon our house was filled with the chaotic energy of children chasing each other, playing with toys, and having a great time while we adults hung around, talking about parenting, jobs, and life in DC.
Every so often, I sneaked away to check my phone to get an update from my Dad. I read about how they were playing her favorite music for her. How they were increasing her pain meds. How the hospice nurses felt that maybe the end was an hour away … maybe sooner … and how Grandma MJ held on just a little bit longer.
He even sent a few photos. One showed my stepmother Linda laying beside Grandma MJ with her arms wrapped around her. And in another photo, MJ was sitting up in the bed with most of her grown children and some of her grandchildren surrounding her, all very attentive and comforting.
The images were moving and even hopeful, yet the news was always the same: the end was very, very near.
Later in the evening, the birthday party winded down, and our friends started to round up the kids and head to the door.
And as expected, this took a bit of effort.
Leaving to go anywhere with children does not happen easily. There’s the gathering of all your belongings. Finding shoes. Finding keys. There’s cajoling and begging for the kids to get to the car. And once all the kids are ready, the parents always seem to bring up another topic of conversation, and then there’s some more standing around, talking and laughing while the kids stand around, exasperated that the adults are taking too long to get on the road.
It’s a cycle that swirls every time.
As the hostess, I always feel a little awkward at this point in the visit. Knowing how it is with kids, I try and help herd the children along, encouraging them to listen to their parents. And when needed, I gently urge the adults to move along too, toward the door, but never too eagerly, because truth be told, I don’t mind if our guests stay for a long time, and I never want to seem in a rush to get them out of my house.
Far from it.
Yet, I also know that for many, it’s a long drive to their homes, and it’s late, and the kids are tired, and it’s been a long day. So, in that funny way of feeling both reluctant for friends to leave, but grateful for the wonderful visit, there are hugs and farewells, and Martin and I stay at the door to watch them go until we can’t see them anymore.
As I did this with my friends after my son’s birthday party, I couldn’t help but think of my family in Cincinnati, too, who were, in a way, doing the same thing for Grandma MJ.
We didn’t want her to leave, we would have loved for more time, but it was her time to go, and so in the greatest act of love, the family stayed with her until she was gone to where we can’t see her anymore.
But there is knowledge and faith that just beyond, there was Grandpa Charley, and her sister Rita, and her daughter Karen, and there is comfort to know that she went from our arms into theirs.
Martin and I learned about her passing early Sunday morning. We told the girls individually shortly after they woke up. Miss C has been through this before, but for Lola, she’s now old enough to grasp and understand it a little more, and we wanted to break the news in a way that was appropriate for the both of them.
We will soon be traveling to Ohio to be with our family and to memorialize Grandma MJ and her life.
A good life lived in a way that made every moment count, and left our hearts full of peace, love, and many wonderful memories.
He didn’t say anything about it, but thought it was odd there were so many crosses leaning against such a large boulder on the side of the road. He assumed the crosses were for driving fatalities, and wondered how so many could happen at that one spot.
I didn’t see it.
I was too busy in the passenger seat, looking at our cell phone while navigating our way to Stacey’s house along a winding, tree-covered mountain road over the weekend.
It wasn’t until later that evening when we learned the story behind the rock and the crosses.
It was the point of impact when an airliner carrying 85 passengers and 7 crew members slammed into the side of the mountain on its approach to Dulles airport nearly 40 years ago.
We learned that little tidbit as we were sitting around in Stacey’s house, chit-chatting with the other adults. We were sharing stories of personal haunting experiences, things we remembered from childhood that scared us, or even things we experienced as adults that made us pause. This was to be expected, I suppose. Stacey is an author who has published several “horror-lite” books and articles, and with a background in anthropology and archaeology and a passion for both history and the paranormal, her stories are always good.
So, it’s not surprising that we were talking of such things.
However, I think it was one of her neighbors who first brought it up, and Stacey confirmed that the spot Martin had seen on the side of the road was, in fact, the scene of a violent and horrific tragedy that took place decades earlier.
Of course, once we got home late that evening, I got online and immediately researched it.
It was TWA Flight 514, and it crashed on December 1, 1974 shortly after 11 a.m.
The flight originated in Indianapolis, Indiana and had a lay-over in Columbus, Ohio. It was meant to land at Washington National Airport, but due to weather, was re-directed to land at Dulles Airport instead.
Because it happened in 1974, there wasn’t an avalanche of information readily available on the Internet. Not like other, more recent airplane disasters.
But I did find quite a bit online, especially since that specific plane crash changed a lot in the aviation industry. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was split as to what caused the crash, and eventually it was decided it was a combination of many things, but mostly miscommunication and language used between the pilots and the air traffic controller. They learned that six weeks earlier, a United flight almost met the same fate due to the same miscommunication errors, but the pilots were able to divert the plane in time.
So flights became safer because of the lessons learned from the crash of TWA Flight 514.
So the crosses are there, and a small plaque listing the names of those killed. It’s not permanent. It’s just placed there, balanced on top.
But in that space, even without the small plaque and the crosses, I’m sure a person coming upon the spot would know something definitely happened there.
On Sunday, as we were driving home, I had Martin pull up alongside the boulders so I could get some pictures. I intended just to hop out, take a few, and jump right back in since it’s just a two-lane road there on the mountain.
But as soon as I stepped out and closed the door, Martin pulled away, leaving me there. He saw a space up ahead where he could park off to the side and wait for me.
But it left me alone in that spot.
And it was quiet.
I turned to face west, and could see the very trees that in the old black-and-white photos were razed and cut away decades ago. They’ve grown back, of course. But they’re not as thick and tall as those around.
I turned to the east, and faced the boulders.
When the plane hit, the nose cone slammed into the boulders and disintegrated. In my online research, I read many accounts made by locals who lived near the spot, who recalled where they were and what they were doing when they heard the sound of the airplane hit. Many said they could feel it, even being miles away. With the sort of force, the debris flew up the mountain and into the trees up there.
The most identifiable piece of aircraft was the tail with TWA on it. The rest was just bits and pieces, spread over a large part of the land. Even now, decades later, folks can still find things up there. In my Internet search, I’ve found blog and forum posts and pictures from as recent as last year, describing things like singed and dated clothing, credit cards, wires, and aircraft pieces found up in those woods.
I didn’t dare go up there myself.
My curiosity allowed for me to stand there at the boulders, but that was enough for me. For one thing, Martin and the kids were waiting for me down the road. But also, while I wouldn’t say I was spooked, I was definitely aware that there was an energy that demanded from me some respect and reverence. The idea of picking around up there and disturbing the area just didn’t appeal to me.
That kind of energy, the damage, the loss of life … I think that sort of thing stays around and gets absorbed in the places where these things happen. It was similar to how I felt in the 9/11 chapel at the Pentagon, at the 9/11 site in New York City, the Oklahoma City memorial site, and on the Civil War battlefields surrounding our area. And on the hill in Northern Kentucky where the Beverly Hills supper club caught fire and killed 165 people, to include some of my father’s cousins.
Life goes on, of course.
But I think it’s definitely worth something to pause, learn and reflect wherever history presents itself.
Last week, my father let us know Grandpa Charley was very sick and the descision was made to move him to hospice care.
Updates trickled in via email and phone calls.
On Tuesday, I was sitting in the press room at the Air Force Association conference, on military orders for my annual Air Force Reserve duty, when I got a message from my father. Things weren’t looking good, and my family in Cincinnati was gathering around to say their goodbyes.
He promised to keep me updated.
In another one of those life twists that proves to me that nothing is mere coincidence, just minutes after receiving that note, I left for my next writing assignment that day: to cover a panel of World War II pilots talking about their experiences.
For the next hour, those pilots – who were the same age as Grandpa Charley, who looked and moved just like my grandfather – spoke of their war experiences while based in England, Italy, and the Pacific. And during the last 20 minutes of their panel discussion, they spoke of their gratefulness fortheir aircraft maintainers. They mentioned how those were always the last men they saw before a mission, and the first they saw to welcome them back, and how they loved those men as if they were brothers.
I sat in the back of that room as they spoke and quietly wept.
Grandpa Charley worked on the bombers during World War II in England.
He was also the father of my stepmother, Linda, but even though we weren’t his biological grandchildren, he welcomed my sisters and me, and loved us, just the same from the very beginning. And of course, that extended to my family as it grew. When Miss C finally arrived, it was with great love and joy Grandpa Charley and Grandma MJ introduced her as their very first great-grandchild.
Grandpa Charley was a classic man of his generation. He came back from World War II, got his education, ran a successful shipping business, built a comfortable house in the suburbs (which they still live in), raised six children, and took care of those around him. He and Grandma MJ were married for 61 years. His world rotated around his family and faith.
He was always kind, loyal, and humble, and never without a smile.
I last saw Grandpa Charley at my father’s surprise retirement party last July. Martin and the girls got to see him just a few weeks ago, when they went out to Ohio while I was in Germany. After we broke the news of Grandpa Charley’s passing to the girls, we spent some time talking about our favorite memories.
Miss C mentioned how Grandpa Charley always stood at the window with Grandma MJ to wave goodbye to them after a visit.
One of my own special memories with Grandpa Charley was the time I visited him before I left for my deployment in 2007. We went over to the house, and sat around and talked. I think it was my Dad who asked Grandpa Charley what things were like before he left for England, and he told us about a conversation he had with his father.
“He told me that I shouldn’t hate the Germans,” said Grandpa Charley. “He said, never forget your enemies are people, too. And I never forgot that.”
Neither did I.
Later, Dad said that after my news team was attacked in Iraq, he printed out my blog post about it to share with Grandpa Charley and Grandma MJ. He said out of all the people who heard or read about the attack from my father, Grandpa Charley was the most shaken by it, and expressed the most concern about what kind of effect that it was going to have on me when I returned home. For some reason, that really touched me. Out of all my close relatives, Grandpa Charley was the only one who also served in a combat zone. My father was stationed stateside as a Reservist during the Gulf War, and my uncle Ray, who served two tours in Vietnam, died when I was still a toddler. Knowing that Grandpa Charley understood the seriousness of what I was going through was somehow comforting to me.
Maybe that’s why I got teary there on the job as the World War II pilots spoke of the gratitude they had for their fellow Airmen, why it was devastating each time an aircraft didn’t return from a mission, how seriously every person took their job. The dedication. The loyalty. The heart.
As they sat there describing all the things that made those men great, I couldn’t help but think that THAT was Grandpa Charley. They were describing who he was.
Not just during the war, but every single day of his life.
Martin and I received heartbreaking news early this morning.
My Aunt Eileen passed away.
I’ve written about her a bunch of times throughout the years. She was my surrogate grandmother; her older sister Bernice was my paternal grandmother, but Bernice passed away two weeks after I was born. And my mother’s parents lived in Texas.
So it was Aunt Eileen, who lived just blocks away from us in Northern Kentucky, who stepped up with the endless supply of reassuring hugs, the Sunday trips to church, the gentle voice that never got loud, but always managed to keep order and discipline in a house brimming with activity.
She never missed a single one of my theater performances or awards ceremonies. Always planted herself in a kids-size plastic chair for Grandparents’ Day.
She was our “in case of an emergency…..” and always responded immediately when those calls were made from the school nurse.
And all during elementary and middle school, my sister Jill and I walked from school to her house, where she watched us until my parents got off of work. I was allowed to eat all the cinnamon toast I wanted. She let me bang out my piano drills on her upright. Let me explore the woods in her backyard. Encouraged me – repeatedly – to finish my homework. Made us homemade bean soup and turkey casseroles. She kept Fresca soda on hand at all times and frozen pizza in the freezer. Her fridge was covered in photos of her seven children, numerous grandchildren and too many nieces, nephews to count.
She unabashedly shared her love and pride for me and my sisters – her great-nieces, but who kept track?
When my parents were going through a bitter divorce, it was Aunt Eileen who took us girls into her home for a weekend here and there, to offer us a respite from the chaos. I can’t tell you the number of times I slept on her pull-out couch, or down in her guest room when I got older and just needed a place to go. (It wasn’t until I was nearly out of high school that I learned she did NOT make limitless amounts of eggbread (French Toast) every morning: she did it just for special guests.) She never pried for details, but was always ready to listen and offer counsel that made sense, especially when we were teenagers.
When Martin came over from Germany to visit me during the late summer of 1999, one of the first places I took him was to Aunt Eileen’s house. She wanted to meet this dashing German gentleman she’d heard so much about, and she loved him immediately. She thought his accent was charming, and said she could listen to it all day.
A few years later, she flew over to Germany to attend our wedding. It was her first time out of the country, and she was one of the biggest reasons Martin and I threw ourselves in planning an awesome week of travel and sightseeing for our guests. We wanted to be sure Aunt Eileen especially had a great and memorable time.
And I think she did. At the wedding reception, just before she left in the cab to return to her hotel, she grabbed my cheeks and looked me straight in the eye.
“I am so proud of you,” she said. “Martin is such a good man, and he is so lucky to have you as his bride. You are beautiful. I love you.”
Years later, in the midst of an outdoor barbecue she hosted before I left for my deployment, she grabbed my cheeks again, and with watery-eyes and a shaky voice, made me promise I’d come home safe and sound.
And when I did come home safe and sound, she wrote me such a beautiful and heartwarming letter apologizing for “not writing me enough” while I was over there (although I beg to differ – she sent me the sweetest notes) because she said she didn’t have words to articulate just how much she worried or how brave she thought I was, or how proud I made her. I’ve kept that letter, tucked safely away with the others.
Aunt Eileen battled cancer for years: she fought it away many times, but stubbornly, it crept back in different forms. She just kept fighting. I remember the surgery that removed her breasts, and her leaning against her kitchen counter lifting soup cans with her arms to strengthen her chest muscles where they carved into her skin. A few years later, during another bout, I remember the unexpected shock of seeing her bald head when she casually lifted her wig to show me the gleaming smooth skin underneath.
Despite all those painful challenges, though, she was always so nonchalant about it, so I was nonchalant about it. I worried, but not too much, because this was Aunt Eileen. The gentlest, but strongest woman I’ve ever known. Even during this last bout, even when my Dad provided me updates about her health, even when those updates became more discouraging, about her moving into hospice care a few weeks ago … it still seemed impossible.
But of course, her body could only fight for so long. And so, last night, her soul finally found some peace as she passed away quietly in the night, surrounded by my Uncle Don and her seven children.
My tears are entirely selfish. Of course, I cry for those of us left behind. There is so much we are going to miss. So very, very much.
But I’m also so selfishly grateful she was in my life, and that the woman I am – and try to be – is so greatly influenced by the example she set for me.
In the midst of this grief, there is joy. Because if there was ever a woman with a guaranteed spot in heaven, it is her. There is no question she’s in a place of peace, and love, and everything that is good. Because she WAS peace, love and everything that is good.
I’m sorry I didn’t tell you enough, but that’s only because there are no words, Aunt Eileen, to articulate just how brave I thought you were, or how proud of you I will always be. I love you.
I got lost in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery when the girls and I visited there Saturday.
Though I’ve been to Arlington several times over the years, it’s been more than four years since I visited that specific section. The last time was in December 2006, when I was there for the burial of Maj. Troy Gilbert, a family friend from our days in Italy. I remember that day, looking out over the empty field ahead of Major Gilbert’s grave and wondering how long it would take before the expanse would be filled with more markers.
Needless to say, the area that was empty and void just four years ago is now full of perfectly-lined white headstones and it threw me off.
So did the sight of all the families and friends visiting their loved ones.
There were so many people gathered in Section 60.
There was an even mix of joyous laughter and silent tears. Families with lawn chairs and blankets sat around their loved ones’ headstones, talking. Some brought faded uniform items. Others wore shirts with their servicemembers’ names and faces printed on them.
A young woman lay prone atop one grave, alone except for her small dog sitting patiently next to her master’s head.
An older man was laying on his back on top another grave, his sunglasses barely concealing his closed eyes. I couldn’t tell if it was sweat or tears creating the lines down his face.
There were dozens of men – both young and old – in biker gear, talking and strolling between the white headstones, many which were adorned with letters, flowers and clear stones. Three young men in biker leather watched me and the girls as we walked by them as they stood before one of the graves, and I noticed that they didn’t look much older than me. In fact, they were probably younger. One of them was in a wheelchair, missing one of his legs. All three of them still maintained military haircuts.
The grass was thick, and Miss C had to help me push Lola’s stroller through it. At one point, I had to just stop – my back was screaming in agony, I was out of breath and Lola was getting fussy, wanting out of her stroller. So I had Miss C go ahead of us, weaving between the headstones, reading the locator numbers on the back of them to find the one we were seeking: Site 8520. Finally, she found it and Lola and I made our way to her.
It was a little jarring to see Troy’s name in the stone, even though I’d seen pictures of it. American flags had been placed before each headstone. I took out the red and blue bouquets from the stroller and let the girls divide up the flowers to place in front. The weather was gorgeous, though humid and warm. We sat in front of his headstone for awhile as Miss C asked questions about Troy and his family.
He and his wife Ginger were stationed with us at Aviano, Italy, and we both had our baby girls just weeks apart. For about three months, they had welcomed us into their home once a week for a parenting class through the local church. And even after the class ended, we bumped into each other on the base all the time. The last time I saw Troy alive was at a random gas station in Germany after Martin and I visited family in Bavaria.
Miss C wanted to know how he died, too, and so I spoke about how his airplane crashed in Iraq as he was helping some U.S. soldiers who were being attacked on the ground. Because of his actions, those soldiers’ lives were saved.
It was nice sharing these things with Miss C. Even Lola seemed interested, sitting down next to me to play with some blades of grass. The bittersweet memories came back easily, and not just my memories of Troy and his family.
As I looked out over the rows of headstones, to include the ones that had been added since Troy’s death in 2006, I wondered about the lives of the men and women buried there.
I watched the young men in biker leather, and tried to picture them as they probably looked over there in the desert, in sweaty uniforms under all that body armor. I thought about the men and women I’d met during my deployment in 2007, about all those people who’d populated those bases and remote locations in Iraq and Afghanistan, who dined with me in those dining facilities, who I watched roll away in Humvees or lifted up in those helicopters, who climbed with us over mountains or sweated it out along the banks of the Tigris, and wondered if any of those people were here in Section 60, too.
And then I looked back at Troy’s headstone, and those around his, and stared at their names. It’s hard to explain, but I could imagine how these men and women lived their final days. While each of us had different missions and jobs, there are some things all people do when deployed. All of us were constantly cleaning away the constant dust and dirt, whether from our weapons, our clothes, our rucksacks, everything. We all had to wash our hands at these large, communal sinks before entering a dining facility with our guns slung over our shoulders or strapped to our thighs. We all kept letters and other personal items tucked in our pockets at all times. We all established close relationships with our buddies, and depended on them during the best and worst of times.
And yet, for whatever reason, these brave and ordinary men and women were killed while the rest of us were lucky enough to return home.
It was the least the girls and I could do to visit and remember.
We didn’t stay long, though. Lola got fussy again, attracting the attention of a kind older lady, who had been dabbing her eyes with a tissue at a nearby grave. She came over and spoke with the girls before pulling out a bag and giving Lola a clear blue stone, like the ones left behind on top of the headstones.
“I have a whole bag of these stones,” she explained. “I think you should have one, too.”
Both girls thanked her before we made our way off the grass and back to the main road.
By the time we got home, I was so exhausted and my back was totally in pain. But I was glad we made the trek to Arlington Cemetery and to Troy’s grave. It was a moving experience and the perfect start to our Memorial Day weekend.
We’ll always remember.
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“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers & cities; but to know someone who thinks & feels with us, & who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It was late at night Tuesday when Martin and I got a phone call from Germany.
Our beloved Oma — Martin’s maternal grandmother – passed away just a few minutes before.
It was not an unexpected phone call. A few days earlier, my brother-in-law Christian called us to let us know that Oma’s health had turned for the worst and they didn’t give her much time.
My mother-in-law Christel and her sister, our Tante Mali, were at Oma’s bedside the entire evening, making sure Oma was comfortable. According to Christel, Oma simply fell asleep and calmly breathed her last breaths in peace.
She was 99 years old.
The last time we saw Oma in person was in July 2005, during our last visit to Germany before our move back to the states. She was healthy then, her mind still sharp and full of wit and humor.
She was living in a one-room apartment in an assisted-living complex, and it was extremely hot that day. We had the windows and balcony door open, and she was wearing a loose summer dress. We filled a little tub of water on the balcony for Miss C, who wasn’t even two years old then, and my niece Nie-Nie to splash in. Pretty soon, the babies tore off their wet clothes and diapers, and were streaking through the room, laughing and trying to avoid our pinches.
It was during one of those moments that I took my most favorite picture of Oma, so relaxed and laughing. She loved babies.
It’s a bittersweet grief for Martin and me. Losing someone as loved as Oma is always sorrowful, especially on a date that we associate with such happiness and love. (We didn’t mention her passing here or on Facebook to give our family time to spread the word in person.) We always want more time.
Yet, how does one truly feel sad when the person we’re grieving lived such a long and full life?
In early 2001, Martin and I sat down with Oma and for five hours, I did nothing but interview her about her life. Martin translated where my German language skills fell flat, but for most of the conversation, it was me asking her questions and her sharing stories about her life as I frantically took notes and checked my voice recorder.
During our last visit with her, too, she pulled out her albums and let me copy and photograph her worn, aged photos and notes. I then used Photoshop to restore what I could, especially the photos of her childhood.
She was born in December 1911 in northwest Germany, the youngest of eight children. She was named Amalia. Her mother was pregnant the following year, but fell while hanging the laundry; she ended up miscarrying the child a few days later. (No doubt, this is why Martin was so hard on me about keeping off my feet this past weekend after my fall.)
When Oma was about two years old, her father was killed in a coal mining accident. As he and another man opened up a passageway, dangerous carbon monoxide overtook them. Oma had an older sister, called Kathe, who was like a little mother, and she had memories of Kathe caring for her.
Oma’s oldest brother was named Karl, and he was known throughout town as Schwartzer Karl, for his ebony black hair. He was known to be a bit of a good-natured troublemaker with his gang of friends, and whenever the town police came strolling down the street, the neighbors would always announce, “Oh, they’re coming for Schwartzer Karl!” even if that wasn’t necessarily the case. Karl was drafted in the military and sent to the front lines. He was killed in combat during World War I.
Now a widow with so many children, little income and with a war going on, Oma’s mother had little choice, but to separate her children and send them out to relatives and families living in the countryside, away from cities and factories that were war targets, where food was more readily available.
Oma was a bit older at this point, and remembered being sent to live with a wealthy family who had one daughter her age. She remembered a big house with a big yard, and in that house, there was a room totally devoted to the daughter’s doll collection. There were strict instructions that nobody could play with the dolls, though. So Oma and the girl spent most of their time outside, collecting frogs and trying to keep out of trouble. She stayed with the family for the remainder of the war.
Her experience a few decades later during World War II were much different.
She had gone to school and worked during her 20s and had no time for marriage. And she sang in a choir, which she continued to do for years.
But then she met our Opa, Josef. He was an electrician who worked for the Siemens company. They announced their engagement Christmas Eve 1939, surrounded by their friends and family. The wedding was a big event. She married Josef in 1940, wearing a dress she made out of curtains. They were both older than what was typical – she was 29, he was in his 30s.
Oma gave birth to her first child just over a year later, to Tante Mali. At some point, as World War II escalated, his job required them to move. He worked in Berlin during the week while Oma and Mali lived on the outskirts of town, in a suburb where it was much quieter and not a war target. Two more children were born: our Tante Barbel and Onkel Peter.
Martin and I have heard many stories about Oma’s war experiences, and during the interview with her, she repeated some of them, although others I heard from our aunts. Some are based on their own faint childhood memories of the war: other stories are what they heard from her or others. As the war stretched on, things became harder for her. Her husband was unable to come home as frequently as before. During the last few years of it, when it became obvious more men were needed on the fronts, teenagers and older men were recruited, including Opa. He was sent to France.
During my interview with her, I asked her about what it was like to be a mother during the war. As we looked through the photos her husband took from the front lines, I was struck by how similar they were to the World War II photos my grandfather brought home: men shaving, lined up and hamming for the camera, eating their rations and enjoying lighthearted moments.
But of course, that era was anything but lighthearted.
Oma was left behind with three young children in a deteriorating situation near Berlin. With her husband gone, Oma took in work as a seamstress, sewing badges and altering uniforms for the German military.
The two war stories that stick out the most was about the time when Oma was stopped by Russian soldiers as they brandished their weapons and demanded information from her.
And the other happened toward the end of the war, when things were really bleak. Oma ended up stealing potatoes from a neighbor’s garden to bring home for her children.
As a devout Catholic, this act – which was no doubt spurred by a mother’s desperate need to feed her family – weighed heavily on her, and it was the story she always told when asked, “Oma, what do you remember about the war?”
During my interview with her, I asked Oma what it was like to have a grandson paired up with an American woman, if she could have ever imaged such a thing for her offspring back then when the two countries were such at odds.
Her answer echoed what my grandfather Charley always said about his World War II experiences (which included a stint in England as part of the Army Air Corps.) Before he left, his own grandfather sat him down and said, “Never forget that the Germans are people, too.” For Oma, there was never any animosity against Americans, and she spoke of how American soldiers were the ones to provide food and rations for her family. At her 90th birthday party, she and her friends recalled the candy the American soldiers passed out, too.
She was amazed by how much could change in the world in what seemed to her such little time.
The whole family, even Opa, survived the war. And life settled down for them in the 1950s as they moved to Erlangen, Germany, where Opa continued working for Siemens. Martin’s mother was born there; a later-in-life surprise for all of them.
Oma raised her children, sang in a choir, attended church regularly and worked at the German Red Cross, where she made many friends who continued to visit with her well into their 90s. Opa passed away sometime in the 1960s, but Oma continued to live an active life.
Tante Mali became a nun and Tante Barbel married an Italian man and raised several children of her own on the island of Sicily. Onkel Peter grew up to be a butcher and married our Tante Herta.
And of course, there was Christel, Martin’s mother, who grew up and married Martin’s father and worked in a bakery while raising Martin and his siblings.
Oma adored her grandchildren and traveled all over Europe to be with them during their first communions and weddings. She took many vacations, often accompanying her children’s families wherever they went. She spent a lot of her summers on the beach in Italy.
The first thing Martin did during my second visit to him in Germany in 1999 was take me to his Oma’s house, where we decorated her Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree). It was the first time she met me, and she liked me right away.
When I was stationed in Germany a year later, and drove the three hours to Erlangen to visit Martin nearly every weekend, Sunday always meant a visit to Oma’s for coffee and cake. It also meant that every time we drove away from her apartment, she stood on the balcony to wave goodbye. She did this every single time for every single visit.
One of my most favorite personal memories of Oma happened at a beer festival. Martin and I weren’t married yet. We agreed to meet up with Oma and Tante Mali in one of the big tents, which are filled with tables for people to sit and drink beer and eat bratwurst while listening to loud polka music. While it was crowded, Martin and Tante Mali were texting each other on their cell phones and she directed us to a corner table.
But when we got to the corner, we just saw a large group of young men still in their rugby uniforms, sitting in a huge circle.
Where was Mali and Oma?
We walked all over that tent, checking every corner, but we could not find them. Martin sent another text. The reponse: We are in THAT corner!
So we walked back to the rugby guys and pushed our way through the bodies to the table. And there, sitting in the middle of that group, laughing and flirting with the raucous men were Oma and Mali, both wearing huge smiles and Oma gripping a large stein of cold brew. She was 90+ years old, and still working it! The young men welcomed us, telling us how awesome and funny our Oma was to them.
With Oma’s passing, a huge chunk of family history goes with her, an entire century of life experiences! I am so thankful for the photos, stories and memories I do have of her, and while I regret that Miss C has no memory of her, and that Lola never got to meet her, they will know of her.
And I hope for all us to follow in her footsteps and live long, full lives. Her journey was not easy, but she never lost her sense of humor, her kindness and warmth to others. I know I will never forget her.
Every now and then, Miss C and I walk Patches der Hund by ourselves.
It’s often the only opportunity I have to focus all my attention on her. While our dog sniffs out the neighborhood, leading us through tree-lined streets of our subdivision, we talk about all kinds of things.
Sometimes, we talk about her school day. Other times, we talk about a book she wants to write and illustrate. Every now and then, we point to one of the airplanes approaching nearby Dulles airport, and wonder about the people on board. Where are they coming from? Who is at the airport waiting for them? Did the flight attendant already ask them to raise their trays to an upright position?
I love these conversations, especially when we’re walking at night, Patches’ tail waving in and out of the flashlight beam in front of us, her hand in mine, keeping warm in the quiet still of the empty street that feels like all our own. I often feel a flicker of disappointment when I see our house come into view around the corner, our time together coming to an end.
One night about two weeks ago, after we walked and made small talk, I suggested we walk an extra block. She protested. But I felt inspired to talk with her about a tough, but necessary subject.
“You know, one day, I may not be around anymore,” I said.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, one day, in a long time from now…” And I paused, finding the right words. “You know, all of us are going to die one day.”
Without missing a beat, Miss C answered. “Like in the movie? With the funeral? When the lady’s mother died?”
“Yes,” I answered, knowing she meant Secretariat, when the main character’s elderly mother passed away. “But you have to know, that happens to everyone. It’s going to happen that my parents are going to die, and then one day, I’m going to be old and I will pass away, too.”
Miss C squeezed my hand. “I will be very sad,” she answered, “But I will be older then.”
And we kept walking. And talking.
For some reason, I felt drawn to discuss this subject with Miss C, to apply whatever she knew about death to her world that night. We walked around two more blocks, her hand tucked in mine, Patches leading the way at a comfortable, slow pace.
I answered her questions about death and God, our ideas of heaven and souls, and assured her that all of us are born with a reason and a time, that some people have short times on Earth and others have a long time on Earth, that we always have to make the best of it every day.
After we got home and I’d tucked her into bed, I thought about our conversation. It struck me how up until this point, I’ve been raising my girls to someday leave me; all parents do this. From the frustrated howls of a toddler’s quest for independence to the beaming student waving goodbye on the first day of school, these milestones are all part of the journey to that day they leave us as independent young adults in a big, wide world.
Yet it must continue beyond that; we must also prepare our children for the one day we leave them.
As I write this, on the evening of Lola’s second birthday, my mother and her siblings are standing at my grandmother’s bedside. Last week, there was surgery for a tumor and they discovered more growth, which was followed by evasive testing and a dim prognosis. Her recovery’s been scary; a touch-and-go roller coaster, and it’s beating the energy and emotion out of everyone.
In our heart of hearts, there is always hope.
There is always prayer.
Yet in the past 48 hours, it’s become clear that our time with her is becoming even more precious.
This is my maternal grandmother. She is the woman who raised my mother and her siblings to leave her one day, to go off and start families and live full lives. And now, one day too soon, all of us are facing a life, a future without her.
Needless to say, I’ve been emotional. Miss C saw me cry after a telephone call, and I explained why. We referenced that conversation we had during that walk with Patches, and she understands the gravity of the situation.
At some point soon, I will go to be with my family, and I gave the option to Miss C to either stay home with Martin and Lola (who is simply too young at this point), or to come along with me.
“It will probably be sad,” I cautioned. “But I know everyone will be happy to see you.”
She thought about this.
“I will go,” she said. “Your mom may be losing her mom, and I think we should be there for her.”
It took all I had not to full-out bawl, moved by her compassion. So I just pulled her into a bear hug instead.
And later, as I rocked my now two-year old to sleep, singing a quiet Happy Birthday and promising a great celebration when everything is settled, I thought of the bittersweet cycle of life: how time passes so fast; how grandmothers, mothers and daughters influence each others lives; how all those ‘one days’ come too soon; and how out of the darkest moments comes life-changing clarity.
My prayer: That I’ve said enough soon enough, so when the time comes, they know.