Saturday, December 27, 2008

My Little Mum





(This post was originally a piece I wrote just for myself the week I went home to help my dad move my little mum into the Greenwood Center in May of 2004. Mom had been in declining health for several years as a result of dementia. She was a sweet little thing and a really good mom. She died one year ago today. Thank you for reading. I know it's a wee bit long. I wish I had more of the pictures scanned so I could include them.

I’ve heard it said that when a person is drowning, their entire life flashes before their eyes in a matter of seconds. I don’t think it takes drowning to do it. Sometimes, it just takes watching an 83 year-old woman to do it, too.

After days and days of rain, the sun now shines from behind white clouds in a blue sky. It is my mother’s second day in a nursing home just a mile or two down the road from her home. I watch her as she sleeps. She’s a tiny thing. She seems tinier still as she lies in this bed. She is not aware of her left hand as it finds its way to the usual comfortable spot on her cheek, her pinky finger seemingly separate from the others as it rests across her lips. It’s a position I’ve watched absently for many years, but have only come to realize is “Mom’s” in recent months. Each time I notice it now, I see photographs snap by in my mind as I picture her in this same position, only in my memory she is sitting in a rocker, not laying in a bed.


In my mental photo album, she s
its in her rocker holding babies, rocking them to sleep to the familiar humming of a tune of which she’s never known the title. I’ve often contemplated ways to determine its origin, yet I hesitate, wondering if knowing will take away the sweet mystery of it. It’s a melody Mom has hummed while holding her babies, grandbabies, and my own two bundles. It’s the melody she used to soothe them all.


I turn a page of memories. There she is, learning to ride a bike for the first time. I’m about thirteen, my younger sister five or six. Mom must be 49 or 50. It’s my sister’s bike, a lavender one with one of those silly banana seats and elongated handlebars. Somehow, Mom doesn’t seem out of place with her gray hair rustling in the wind and her bony knees jutting as her muscles push hard against the pedals. We laugh. My sister claps in excitement. Mom did it! She really did it! We would experience this same excitement several years later when Mom finally got her driver’s license. “Grandma D” would be her choice of license plate until she felt like a marked woman by the local police department, more her imagination than anything else. That plate would later be changed to something non-descript, easing her mind a bit. My guess would be the Sanford PD still knew when she was on the road. Mom was never comfortable behind the wheel of a car. She drove only a few years, finally giving up after the side of her silver Buick Skylark showed the bump, bump, bump of intimate contact with a telephone pole after turning a corner on her way home from church.


I steal another glance at her sleeping form, my eyes resting on her once-silver hair, now much closer to white. I travel back to the day in 5th grade when Mom came to Notre Dame School to be a lunchtime monitor. Inside a brown paper bag was the lunch she brought me--a tuna sandwich, slightly warm, the l
ettuce a bit wilted. Had she brought a gourmet meal I could not have eaten, my stomach in knots wondering what my friends would say about this gray-haired lady, such silly imaginings of the paranoid running through my brain. “Is that your grandmother?” “Why is your mother so old?” “Why is her hair that color?” It is funny how the subject of such paranoia—my mother’s gray hair—would turn into such a source of pride. I wear my silver inheritance proudly, giving credit where credit is due—“I got it from my mom!” my mantra. I've loved my silver hair since the first strand visited when I was 18.


Quickly, pictures change to my wedding day. It’s a perfect Maine day in late August. Mom and I are in the basement of the church waiting for the moment we are to move upstairs to the sanctuary. She looks at me, studying my face for a long moment. “It’s not too late to change your mind, you know,” she says to me with all seriousness. I look back at her, realizing that she is speaking it to me, but wishing she’d known to say it to my sister, Suzanne, as well. I love her so much in this moment, knowing she is saying the same to me without so many words. “I’m okay, Mom,” I say as we climb the stairs to where my Dad is waiting. Mom links her arm in mine, Dad takes my hand and the three of us walk together down the aisle.


More quickly now, the pages turn. I remember…the day when I was ten and mom had a big feast for my brother’s friends. Candlelight, spaghetti, and laughter abounded. Mom hurries into the kitchen to find what she smells burning. A glance in the mirror above the sink proves it is her own hair, smoldering with
the telltale sign of having bent just a little too closely to the candles on the dining room table. Another feast, Thanksgiving, I think, and I hear my brother Ernie yell once, twice, three times, “Would somebody pleeeezze pass the mashed potatoes?” only to find that this much beloved favorite somehow never made it to the stove top. A temporary pause of disbelief by those at the table is met by the laughing voice of my mother as she roars, “Oh! I forgot to cook them!”


The pictures running through my mind surprise me, that it is these memories which flash by in an instant. So many other memories I think might come instead: the tender moments spent encouraging an insecure teenager; the regard felt as she warmly opened her home to anyone brought there; the familiarity experienced within moments of walking through her doorway; the tears she shed over the unrealized slight of a child or the harsh word of a relative; the agony of watching her child close to death. Her voice comes to me. “Offer it up to God, Jan!” “Oh, it must be mental telepathy! I was just thinking of you!” “Has anyone seen my purse?” These thoughts also come, not in a flash, but in moments lost in thought traveling back over the years.


One more memory come
s. It is a picture of my mom sitting on her bed, her Bible on her knees. I want to touch the picture with my finger for the image is so vivid. The Bible she holds is one of those massive Catholic Bibles frequently given as wedding presents in her day. It swallows up her lap. Her fingers slowly skim the page. She is seeking comfort. She is seeking peace, the agony she feels etched in the lines of her face. I know this intuitively as an eight year old. Little children have big ears. We know more than is realized.


The images and memories pause. I sit in the chair beside her bed, brought back by sounds in the hallway, the quiet hustle and bustle of caregivers going about their business. Once more, I look at her face, her eyes closed, sleep undisturbed. A nursing assistant stops in briefly to check on her. She leaves and once more I’m drawn into thought, but this time the memories come more slowly. My heart brims with love for this frail being lying in bed. I see that I am slowly losing her to this nasty disease called dementia. I’m sad, but oh, so grateful. She has been a good mom and such a faithful servant: to her family, to friends, to God. It is from her I received the foundation of a faith deeply rooted. It is from her I learned about God. It is from her I learned to lean on a power greater than myself. It is that gift from her that allows me to release her into the hands of Jesus. It is because of this that I can “offer her up to God”.

Love you, Mom.

Jan

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Seeing Ghosts in IHOP

Originally posted November 16, 2008 on my other blog.

Jim and I went looking at sinks for our reno project at Menard's, Home Depot and Lowe's this cold Sunday. Afterward, we made a quick stop at IHOP for a quick breakfast-lunch. We sat down, I looked across the aisle and my heart skipped a beat. There were ghosts sitting in the booth across from us. It was a hopeful split second before reality set in. Tears began to pour and refused to stop. The menu before me became a blur. With stolen glances, I looked at his shoes, shiny black. Her hair was white and neatly, yet naturally coiffed. She wasn't as tiny as my little mum nor he as tall as Dad. He wore a tie with his dress shirt and a gray tweed sport coat, so familiar. Her face sweetly composed as she tenderly helped him with his overcoat, adjusting the shoulder as he shrugged his shoulders into it. Their eyes met briefly before they turned to walk away.

It would have been Dad helping Mom into her coat. He was a gentleman. No matter if he attended a church service or not, Sundays were made for dressing up and he did. A sport coat, shirt and tie and dress pants were his uniform for the day. There was always a comment made when Dad would arrive on Sundays to visit Mom at the Greenwood Center, her "home" for the last few years of her life. "Mr. D! Why are you all dressed up?," the staff would ask. "It's Sunday," was always his reply. Mom was a tiny thing, barely five foot in her stocking feet. Dad stretched out at 6'4." Mutt and Jeff the two of them were, yet they could dance like Fred and Ginger. Oh, how we all loved to watch them dance.

I miss them.

jdm

Doors, Rainbows and White Crosses

Originally posted September 28, 2008 on my other blog.

(The following is a copy of the initial report I am submitting to the Lilly Endowment as part of the requirement for receiving the grant. I don't think it is quite what they expect, but this is what I needed to write. It begins with the snapshot moment I have in my last post. Sorry, it's a long post.)
“A cool mist lightly caresses my face as we climb the slight incline of smooth red brick. Ten steps away, I spy another door. My steps hesitate as I approach, afraid to look, afraid not to. My eyes search hopefully from top to bottom, side to side, desperate in their quest for an answer. My heart grows heavier with each step past the door. I had so hoped that this would be the door. The weight in my heart grows heavier still as I blink back the tears. A stairway looms ahead, its mass of metal, bolts and taut wire pointing to a dead-end. .
My feet begin the slow pivot as I turn back. Something catches my eye, seeing, but not believing. My heart skips a beat then quickens, thump-thump-thump-thump in rapid succession. There is a slight shadow in the middle left panel of the door. My eyes zoom in on the shadow as I try to make sense of what they are seeing. A light touch of my hand pushes open the secret door-within-a-door. My heart is in my throat, a roadblock to the words I try to say. “Jim,” I whisper, “It’s the door.” Words deny me. Tears blur my vision and mingle with the cool mist on my cheeks.
In that moment, I lose myself and become a young soldier of so long ago, standing tall and brave and proud. The journey of four thousand miles and a year of planning bring me to this single moment. Raw emotions rise to the surface as the memory replays itself in my mind as a movie running in slow motion, frame by single frame.”
To the casual observer, this snapshot moment may not appear to have much significance. To me, however, it meant everything. It was the pinnacle moment of my entire proposal and ensuing trip. The hours that followed this moment also hold a special place in my heart. In those hours, I was able to walk the same path my father did, find that special door, drink “the best beer in the world” (according to my dad) and sleep where my father slept in the post-war summer of 1945. I was covered with a sea of emotion. Still, as I write this, the emotion sweeps over me again.
My husband and I arrived in Andechs, Germany on the fourth day of our trip. It had rained off and on during the afternoon. As we left our car in the parking lot at the base of the hill below the church, my stomach became a twist of knots. What if we came all this way to find that this was not the town and church we were searching for? What would I do? Fortunately, it was unnecessary to answer those questions for I found everything and more.
Once we found the door, we entered the Bräustüberl, or Beer Garden. Activity was high as people came in and out. Tables were filled with companions and travelers guarding steins filled with amber liquid. Pig knuckles, sauerkraut and gigantic pretzels engulfed the table tops. Jim and I each ordered a weissbier and a pretzel and found our way to a booth built for eight. I looked around at the people milling about. From everywhere rose the voices of German people speaking in their mother tongue. As I searched the crowd, I wondered aloud if any of them could be locals. We continued to peruse the crowd. Behind us in the next booth, was a crowd of older German men. “Jim, do you think they are from this town?” I asked. With a shrug of his shoulders and a “we have nothing to lose” attitude, he got up from the table. My heart filled with hope and hesitation as Jim approached the men with a photo in one hand and a German-English dictionary in the other. In halting German, which improved with each weissbier, Jim did his best to explain what we were looking for.
The photo he held in his hand was the only clue to where my father once slept. It was a photo of my father as a young soldier standing in front of a German gasthof (guest house). Only a portion of the building could be seen behind him and just a hint of its name could be read. What were the chances they would know it? What were the chances it still existed? Was it even in this town? Six old men crowded around the photo. Fingers pointing and excited voices rose above the din. Curious eyes from neighboring tables were upon all of us. One man, whose name we would learn is Hermann, did his best to explain. What we believed he was saying in rapid German was that he knew this gasthof. He would point to the picture and then point down the road. Soon, he waved us to follow him. As we walked down the hill toward the parking lot, we realized he was taking us to the gasthof. I so hoped he was taking us to the gasthof. Into our rental car we climbed, Jim and Hermann in the front seats with me sitting with anticipation in the back.
The drive was over almost as soon as it began. We pulled into a small parking lot across from a small grocery store and behind what I suspected was the place for which we searched. We entered a door in the back and walked through a small hallway. Doors led to unknown spaces on either side. Hermann pointed to one door and motioned for us to enter. We were greeted by a fair-haired man in his thirties. This man and his wife now owned the gasthof and the name had been changed from Gaststätte Zum Seefelder Hof to Gasthof Erlinger Hof. Hermann explained to the innkeeper why we were there. He showed him the picture of my father in front of the gasthof. The man looked at the picture then glanced about the room. He signaled us to wait and wove his way among the tables. He examined some pictures hanging on the wall in the
restaurant. He would look, give a slight shake of his head and move to another picture. At the third picture, he removed it from the wall and brought it to us. It was a picture of the gasthof taken in the same era as the one of my father. It was identical to the one of my dad, only the young soldier was missing from it. I just held that picture in my hand and cried. I cried even more and gave the innkeeper a hug. I think it was an awkward moment for him, but he was gracious.
After a few minutes, arrangements were made for us to spend the night at Gasthof Erlinger Hof. The innkeeper brought us back through the hallway where we first entered and through another door which led to a stairway. Once again in such a short span of time, I stood without breathing. The stairway my dad had described rose before me, strong and solid. “Dad,” I could barely breath, “I wish you were here.” Again, I wept. As we climbed the stairway, I pointed to a window in my father’s picture, indicating that this was the room he slept in (the window just above the front door). He pointed to the door leading to that room and indicated that that was now part of his family’s living space. Nevertheless, he let us go in. We stood looking out the window and I thought of my father. I tried to envision the world he witnessed when he stood in that very spot.
We were soon in our own room and I looked about. The room had been modernized and no trace of a bygone era could be found. It did not matter. As I stood in the room, I tried to absorb all that had transpired in such a short period of time. This had all been so easy. Within one hour of finding that door, I was standing in the very gasthof my father had been living in over sixty years before. The emotion was overwhelming. I had guarded my emotions as I planned this trip and as I began this journey. I knew the chances of locating the town, the church, the door were slim. To find the gasthof from an incomplete picture would be near impossible. Yet all this and more was found.
Writing this report has been incredibly difficult. With each word I type I relive those precious moments. The waves of emotion sweep over me again and again. Tears pour.
Fortunately, the very evening after I found the door, we located an internet café. We had but 30 minutes to closing, but the owner graciously gave us a bit of extra time. In a mad dash, I jotted down a quick email and sent it to my dad. My sister-in-law read it to him as he lay in bed. He was pleased and was able to laugh at a few of our antics and at a few stories I shared with him. I looked forward to talking with him about our adventures and to sharing the photographs we took. I wanted to see his face and to hear his laugh.
Four days after these few hours in Andechs, my father died. Jim and I were staying in Kuchls, Austria when I learned of his death. I believe it was the hand of God that brought us to such a beautiful place to hear heartbreaking news. We were there only by serendipitous events. We arrived in Kuchls in the late afternoon. After having settled into our room overlooking the Austrian Alps, we took a walk around a small lake on our way to dinner. A light rain had come and gone and the clouds were clearing. I stopped dead in my tracks. Over the Alps arched a beautiful rainbow. I looked at my watch --- 6:30 pm, Austrian time. I didn’t say a word to Jim, but I knew when I saw that rainbow that my father was dying. Though torn with sadness, I felt a great peace.
The next morning, I woke quite early. Jim was still asleep, so I lay there a bit. From our bed, I could look out the window and take in the beauty of those mountains rising above. My waking thoughts were of my dad. I knew what I would find when I opened my email later that morning. Again, a great peace blanketed me. I took my laptop and my camera out to the patio and thought and wrote and prayed. I was drawn again to the beauty of the mountains stretching before me. I sat in awe. After a time, my eyes were drawn to a small object reflecting the sun nearer the base of the mountain. A simple, white cross stood as a sentinel overlooking this little town. Tears flowed as my heart ached.
It feels as if I were an actor performing in an over-melodramatic motion picture. The Alps, the rainbow, the simple, white cross all symbolically crafted to tap within the viewer great emotion. But I wasn’t an actor. I was just a daughter who loves her father, a man mighty and brave with a keen sense of duty. All I wanted to do with this trip was to honor him. What I could not know was that this journey would result in my ability to grieve his death in such an enormously fulfilling way.
My gratitude to the Lilly Endowment cannot be expressed in words.

"Jim," I whisper, "It's the door."

As part of the grant I wrote in order to go to Germany, I proposed writing a short story about my dad. That is a work in process. The end result is intended just for me, only to be shared with a few family members and friends. One way I'm "forcing" myself to work on it is to participate in some of the writing activities our 8th graders are learning about in their English classes. At present, they are learning to write snapshot moments. A snapshot moment is to be written in the first person, includes thoughts and emotions, uses sensory details and only meaningful dialogue and requires staying in the moment. So I wrote a snapshot entry about the moment I found the long sought-after door (see the grant proposal for more info). Today, I shared my written piece with two of the classes. Tomorrow, I'll share it with two more. I still can't read it without crying. It will always be a source of deep emotion for me. For what it's worth, here it is:

A cool mist lightly caresses my face as we climb the slight incline of smooth red brick. Ten steps away, I spy another door. My steps hesitate as I approach, afraid to look, afraid not to. My eyes search hopefully from top to bottom, side to side, desperate in their quest for an answer. My heart grows heavier with each step past the door. I had so hoped that this would be the door. The weight in my heart grows heavier still as I blink back the tears. A stairway looms ahead, it’s mass of metal, bolts and taut wire pointing to a dead-end. .
My feet begin the slow pivot as I turn back. Something catches my eye, seeing, but not believing. My heart skips a beat then quickens, thump-thump-thump-thump in rapid succession. There is a slight shadow in the middle left panel of the door. My eyes zoom in on the shadow as I try to make sense of what they are seeing. A light touch of my hand pushes open the secret door-within-a-door. My heart is in my throat, a roadblock to the words I try to say. “Jim,” I whisper, “It’s the door.” Words deny me. Tears blur my vision and mingle with the cool mist on my cheeks.
In that moment, I lose myself and become a young soldier of so long ago, standing tall and brave and proud. The journey of four thousand miles and a year of planning bring me to this single moment. Raw emotions rise to the surface as the memory replays itself in my mind as a movie running in slow motion, frame by single frame.




Happy Birthday, Dad

(Originally posted August 7, 2008 on my other blog)

Today would have been my dad's 85th birthday. He died two months shy. It is an odd feeling to not be able to call him and wish him a happy birthday. I sang to him in my car anyway. After two months, I still have the urge to call him about this or that. The other day, I had a moment when I began to think about what to get him for Christmas and then I remembered--no gifts this year. Since Jim's dad died 15 years ago, it is the changing seasons that hit him with his loss the most. His dad would always call as the seasons changed to remind this young man of the tasks to accomplish around the house in order to be ready. Jim misses those phone calls. I miss my dad.

It was my goal to be busy today to keep my mind on other things. I went on a turtle hunt. Literally. I went on a turtle hunt with my little friend, Megan. I drove over to Bourbon early this morning. It wasn't early enough, apparently, because Megan was awake at 3 a.m. in anticipation of our adventure. When I pulled in the driveway, I couldn't even get out of the car before Megan was out the door, bucket in hand. In the car she hopped, strapped herself in and said, "Bye, Mom." And we were off. We drove to Syracuse Lake to meet our friend, Britt, and her 2 y.o. son, Miles. Britt gave a quick lesson on canoe behavior, got our paddles in the water, and we slowly and quietly made our way. We wove through the lily pads and the reeds trying to spy itty-bitty snouts poking out of the water between the leaves. We spotted many and almost caught one, but it fell out of our net. Megan was a bit nervous among the reeds, but she persevered. She collected bits and pieces of water lilies, weeds, and cattails to put in her bucket for any turtle we might find. Miles just took it all in, surprisingly. I thought for sure he'd fall overboard. Megan and Miles soaked it all up with wonder and awe. It made me happy just to share the adventure with them.


Happy Birthday, Dad.

jdm

Sunday Morning in Sanford

I'm glad I'm here. Dad keeps saying "this will be a good two weeks for me." I made him a simple turkey sandwich yesterday and he made me feel like I cooked him a five course meal. However, he did cook me breakfast this morning and washed the dishes. I thought I was supposed to do that! He goes from having a little energy to being absolutely pooped. I don't want to shut him down because he would be offended and go crazy with boredom if I did. There will be a time coming when he won't have that energy. We'll let him use what he has.

His new medications for sleep and depression are causing his mouth to go very dry in the night and he is biting the inside of his cheek. He said this morning that he thinks the cancer is moving into his mouth. I don't know if that is paranoia or the power of suggestion. Personally, I think it could just be the fact that he sleeps with his mouth open, as evidenced this very moment while he naps in his La-Z-Boy. Maybe that's just my wishful thinking. His general physician told him "he thinks" the cancer is moving upward because he now has a tumor in his neck. I'm a little tired of the "I think" and want to hear a little more "I know." How flipping long does it take to get that information anyway? He had a CT scan last week. I would think he could be a little more definitive than that. What do I know? I'm just on the sidelines. I'm not mad, just a little frustrated. That doctor is on vacation this week, so I'll have to wait until he gets back.

Anyhooo, I am glad I'm here.

jdm

It's Not An Ulcer, It's Cancer

Originally posted on April 16,2008 on my other blog.

We bought my dad's airline ticket to Germany on Friday. Within hours, he was in the emergency room with stomach pain. He is still in the hospital and may be for several more days.

He thought it was an ulcer. It's not. The cancer is spreading.

jdm

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Only Clue


In order to find the door and the church my dad talks about, I have scoured the internet. I've googled German churches, Andechs, church doors, anything I could think of that might help me solve this mystery. Each time I shared these photos with my dad, he would say that they just didn't look familiar.

In April/May, I took a family medical leave to take care of my dad for a few weeks. At the time, I started scanning old family and military photos which he had. Dad would talk about each picture I found. I lament that I didn't take better notes at the time. I thought I had all summer to write this down...

I came across one small photograph of my father in his fatigues. It is no bigger than 2x3, is in black and white and is tattered a bit. Dad pointed to it and said nonchalantly, "That's in the town we are looking for." I said, "Huh?" as it was not quite sinking in. "That's me in front of the place I lived when I was in that town." WELL, WHY DIDN'T YOU SAY SO!!!!! Finally, a clue. The only clue.

My dad was in this town for only a month in the summer of 1945. WWII had just ended on May 8. Dad and those troops were there to do clean-up and to wait for further orders. My dad stayed in what he called a little hotel with a small restaurant downstairs. He said the rest of the soldiers lived and ate in a building across the street. He described his place as having a small courtyard in the front (which would be to his right in the pic) and a balcony off his room. See right above his head? That's the balcony. The window in the middle is actually a door to/from his room.

The photograph shows partial words on the building behind him. I took the photo to school to show our German teacher. He said the words were probably "Gastëtte Zum Seefeld." "Gastëtte" is a German word which means "restaurant or pub." The teacher said that sometimes these places also have guest rooms available. "Zum Seefeld" would mean something along the lines of "of the Seefelder," meaning that it would be "the pub of the Seefelder," or someone from the town of Seefeld. The teacher also said that he doubted that I'd be able to find this place. After all, it has been sixty years and things have changed.

We will see.

jdm

A Mystery

(Part II of my grant proposal. The full title of the grant is "A History, A Mystery").

In the retelling of his military experiences, some of my father’s fondest memories are of the time he spent in Germany during WWII. He spoke often of how beautiful the country was and how kind and generous the townspeople he encountered were to young soldiers of another country, a country at odds with their own. My father especially thinks fondly of one town in particular, but its name is a mystery. For many, many years, my father could not recall the name of this town, he would just tell us, “If I ever see the church again, I’ll know.” In the fall of 1985, my mother and father traveled to Germany to visit my brother—another young soldier in another era on another tour of duty. While visiting, my parents and my brother toured the beautiful countryside of Germany. All the while, my father kept speaking of this unknown town and hoping that they might just stumble across it. After several days of travel, they had to rush back to the military base in Augsburg as my brother had commitments to keep. There was no longer leisure time to spend exploring cities and towns. As they hurried home, my father turned to look back at the town they were leaving. There on a hill stood the church he remembered from so long ago. It was with such regret that he’d missed his opportunity. So many times since that trip, my father has lamented this misfortune. They never had chance to return, but my father now has its name---Andechs. At least, we think he has its name. In recent emails between my dad and my brother, there is some disagreement. The limited photographs found on the internet of Andechs have caused my father to doubt this is the right town.

As a young soldier, his time spent in Germany seems etched more deeply in his heart. Perhaps it was his youth and inexperience with the world that created such great impact or perhaps it was just the kindness of strangers experienced a world away from home. Whatever the reason, this country remains embedded in his memory. In recent months, I’ve prodded his memory for more stories.

“We’d been stationed outside of Munich. A motel with a courtyard had been converted into quarters for the men in my battalion. The Germans couldn’t get coffee at that time, it was a rare commodity. So, each night after mess, I would get the coffee grounds left over from the day’s meals. I’d take the coffee grounds into town a little way to this church that sat on a hill. To one side of the building was a little door. It reminded me of a theater ticket window, where a little door on the top would open. I’d knock on the door and soon after, that little door on top would open. Through the door, I would hand the used coffee grounds to the person inside. In exchange, I would receive a small portion of schnapps which was made right on the premises. It was really good schnapps. Every night until I was shipped out, I would make this trip to the church. Each night, the exchange of coffee-for-schnapps would be made.”

So, therein lays the mystery. I would love to return my father to Germany in an attempt to solve this mystery once and for all. I would love to find that little door.

jdm

A History

(Part I of my grant proposal. This is the rationale for writing a history of my father. This is all a personal quest).

News reporter Tom Brokaw wrote a book called “The Greatest Generation,” a tribute to the men and women who lived and served our country in a variety of ways during WWII. When I first heard of his book, I felt an immediate and emotional connection. Yes, I said. They were the greatest generation. I did not feel this way because I knew so many of these individuals. I knew it was true because of just one man, my father.

My father was my greatest hero when I was a child and he continues to be in my adult life. Over the years, my father has recounted bits and pieces of his military history to family members. Some of the stories are filled with humor, some are filled with sadness. He always laughs when he talks about the time my mother traveled a long distance to visit him when he was on temporary duty. Dad ended up being restricted to quarters for some mischievous activity and his buddy had to entertain mom for the weekend. My mother would just roll her eyes when he laughed telling this story. There are other stories he tells with a heavy heart, such as breaking the news of soldiers’ deaths to their families and accompanying their bodies home from war.

I am incredibly proud of my father for the obstacles he has overcome throughout his life, always as a “good soldier.” My father is the 12th of 13 children. He grew up as the son of a butcher in Sanford, Maine; dropped out of school at age sixteen shortly after both parents died and later joined the U.S. Army. He eventually earned a G.E.D. and rose through the ranks to retire as a Lieutenant Colonel (there were a few demotions along the way). Today, an enlisted man without a college education would be hard-pressed to repeat this feat.

My father’s example of commitment, loyalty and duty has spoken loudly to those who know him. The last twenty-two years of retirement, years meant for travel, golf and family, have been spent instead caring for a daughter who tragically sustained a head injury in a car accident and for a wife who suffers from dementia. He has never once wavered in his commitment to their care. When encouraged to take time for himself, his response is always, “You don’t leave a soldier behind.”

I want to write about him. About ten years or so ago, my father received a phone call from a man who had served under my dad’s command. They were reminiscing and catching up about times and people they remembered. The man commented on my father’s rise through the ranks. My father’s humble response was to say he got some lucky breaks. “Lucky, hell!” the man responded, “You were a damn good soldier.” Hence, the title of the short story. (And also the reason for the title of this blog).

jdm

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Quest Begins

(written June 1, 2008)

It's a beautiful day. Our travel from Bremen to O'Hare was fairly uneventful with the exception of one wrong/missed turn. Never fear, we found out way. Zip! We drop the car off at Avistar for long-term parking. Zip! We arrive at the Lufthansa area. Zip! We find our place in line. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. We stand in line for our boarding passes. There's a glitch with their computers. We don't care, we are just happy to be there.

For those of you who don't know, this trip is being funded by a Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity Grant (http://www.lillyendowment.org/ed_tc.html). This is a grant that is available to educators in Indiana. I wrote a proposal which was accepted, so here we are. The grant was written specifically so that I could take my father back to Germany to retrace some of his steps in Germany while in the army in WWII and 1952-54. We are also attempting to solve a mystery. Unfortunately, my father's ill health has prevented him from making this trip, but my mind is on him constantly. I got word via email today that a tumor in his neck has doubled in size in a short period of time. The cancer is becoming more aggressive. If you would keep him in your prayers, I would gratefully appreciate it.


As I sat on the plane waiting for take-off, unexpected tears poured down my face. I'm thinking of my father who should be making this trip with us. He's not, but he is in spirit. I know how his heart wants to go, but his body will not cooperate. It's bittersweet, really. So much about this trip will be different without him beside us. I was so looking forward to standing beside him as he pointed to this and that and told his stories from so long ago. I am grateful I was able to visit in April and recorded some of those stories.

We're off on great adventures!

jdm

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Hero Worship

I've been doing a lot of thinking about my dad over the course of the last year. I grew up listening to the stories he would tell at family gatherings about his time spent in the military and there are many stories I'd like to share. That's part of the reason for creating this blog. It's a project I've long thought of starting, but just never quite seemed to get there. My dad will be 85 years old on August 7. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in November 2007 and his illness is beginning to take its toll. It's time to begin.

While this blog is supposed to be about my father, there is no way to separate his stories without also talking about my mom, Theresa Desmarais. I get extremely emotional when I think about my parents. They weren't perfect, but doggone, they were good parents.

As a little girl, I thought my daddy was the most wonderful man ever. He looked so handsome in his military uniforms, whether they be combat fatigues or dress blues. He was a soldier in a time when being a soldier was held in high regard and was looked upon with honor and respect. He was my hero.

He still is.

-jdm