The Question

“Mom, did Pop-Pop ever kill a man…you know, when he was a soldier, in Korea? “

I was out of breath as we quickly climbed back up the steep path, trying to make it in time for the closing ceremony we had promised to attend.

“I don’t know” I answered. And I didn’t. It hadn’t been part of the stories I’d heard again and again growing up so I assumed he probably hadn’t, but… 

The really awful thing I realized as I reached the top of the path, was that I had never asked…had never even thought to. 

The walk up the steep line of stairs had been the last part of a rush down the hill to the beach below. We had decided at the last moment that we had time, if we went fast. So we had. Halfway down the sky had opened and we had made our way through drenching rain. Once on the beach I had looked around me, surprised to see so many people there in this weather. People who weren’t rushing for cover any more than we were. Not that there was any. I realized they all had come for much the same reason we had. This was Omaha Beach, in Normandy, in France. One of the famous WWII invasion beaches. . . not a destination for sunbathers. 

I stood there feeling the sand under my soaking wet shoes, hearing the downpour all around me and sensing my tall son Chaz’s presence directly behind me. Neither of us spoke as we looked at the open expanse of beach in front of us.  The sharp sound of reveille coming from above reminding us of our promise to make it back in time for the closing ceremony; the ceremony which, day after day, honored the American soldiers who had fallen in Normandy during the allied invasion.  We took one long last look at the 6-mile expanse of beach and started our mad dash up the hill. 

I never really know what my younger son is thinking. Not so unusual I suppose for a seventeen-year-old. But later, after the question, I wondered. Maybe as we had stood there trying to see the entirely normal looking beach through the rain he had been thinking, “It could have been me all those years ago” or, “I wonder what it would feel like to kill someone.” That would make sense of the question about his grandfather since he was the only one in our family who might have killed someone while serving in a war, even though that war had been in Korea, not France.

And, even though I didn’t know what he was thinking, I knew what I had been thinking while looking at  the steel gray water of the English Channel, the same water where  years ago all those young men my sons’ age had drowned, unable to get to shore due to the weight of their equipment: That I would never again complain about drenching rain or wet feet, especially not when I was  wearing my Burberry raincoat and standing safely on a beach with no Germans firing at me from those horrifyingly close cliffs. 

A few years ago during a different trip I took some small stones from one of the other Normandy beaches and handed them out to my department colleagues when I got back to the college where I teach. They were puzzled at first until I explained where they had come from, and what they meant to me. I think we all still have those stones on our desks, I know I do. And every time I look at it I think, “This day could be much, much worse.” And I say a little thank you to the men who died so we all could be free. Free to worship as we wish, free to disagree with our governments, free to make art that is meaningful to us, free to raise our children in the way feel is best. 

Patience skips a generation. My sons are far more patient, for instance, than I am with my Dad  -- with his war stories, and worries, and questions.  They answer him with quiet smiles and soft looks and they don’t turn away and roll their eyes…ever. They amaze me. I get annoyed with my parents at the slightest provocation. I say, “Yes, yes, we’ve heard that Korean war story a million times”. But my dad goes on. He loves his stories more than he fears my disapproval. Maybe he feels he owes it to those soldiers, his buddies, who never made it home. The ones he left behind when he was lucky enough to get transferred behind the front line to learn how to work a radio. Or perhaps he just feels like that remains one of the most important, meaningful part of his life. I don’t know because I never asked him. Amazing really, the inattention we often pay to our parents, to their lives before we came on the scene. But standing on that wet beach in France my son had thought of his beloved grandfather, and had wanted to know.

Maybe that’s just how it is. Parents are so close to us, so vital to our sense of identity and worth that part of us resents it; the part that continues to want to be independent, not needy, no matter how old we get. Grandparents are farther away so we can see them more clearly. Can value their idiosyncrasies and see them as charming rather than difficult, comforting rather than stifling.

I am now both a mother and a daughter and I know how much you can love your children, but that doesn’t make it easier to figure out how to be the child.  What does make it easier is how my sons treat my parents. They ask me, “When are we going to see Gramma and Pop Pop?” and I know they expect an answer that includes that very week, or day.  They walk them out to their car and stand to wave. They help them out of chairs at restaurants and say, “I love you” whenever my parents leave. They are not afraid to show their love, and they respect and value their grandparents’ opinions. 

My dad learned that his father, my paternal grandfather, cared about him when he was a soldier in Korea on the front line. It was a simple enough gesture but it meant the world to him. My grandfather sent him warm socks and underwear for the bitterly cold Korean winter.  That’s another Korea story I grew up with, but now I get it. His father must have lain awake at night thinking about “Bobby”. Worrying about him. Hoping he was ok and would come home alright. That grandfather was not a religious man but he knew how to show his son he cared. And his son has never forgotten it, and has made sure his children will never forget it.  

I think of all the ways my dad has shown me he loves me. Coming to get me when I had practically totaled his brand new car and never blaming me for it. Or making me feel like a grown-up, like someone who could actually help him with my advice even though I was only ten,  by sharing his everyday concerns as we drove home together from my ballet classes.  Those memories make my life richer. They became a part of me; they inform how I see myself, and they help me decide how I want to treat others.

There are things no one else will ever know, even if you tell them. How we feel about our families is one of those things. We can only assume that others must feel the way we do, about their children, their brothers and sisters, their parents. But it still remains a mystery, often even to ourselves.

I found out later that my dad had never killed anyone in Korea. He sounded a bit regretful when he told me, as though he wished he had an exciting story to tell. But he followed up with his story about his father and the warm clothes he’d sent, and then, for good measure, the one about the young soldier who always volunteered to take night patrol and eventually, inevitably,  got shot and killed one night…”Only seventeen.  Imagine that Hil, only seventeen…Chazzy’s age!”

Just what I was thinking.

Chaz WilcoxenEssays