The Other Side of Sacrifice
by the national gadfly, Wed Nov 12, 2008 at 09:23:53 PM EST
Yesterday, I wrote about my grandfathers and their contribution during WW2. As I finished it, I realized that it was incomplete - only half of the story. It is all too common that I think of only the soldiers from WW2 first and the families that stayed behind second. Sadly, the legacy of the children and wives of the soldiers consists of far greater numbers than all of the troops that left to fight. The people who stayed behind. They were mothers, fathers, younger brothers and sisters, children and wives.
My two grandmothers stayed behind with their children. The war was not kind or easy for them. For some, their sacrifices continue to this day.
My mother's mother.
She was born out of wedlock in NYC, in a Catholic Orphanage Hospital. She was adopted by a family in St. Charles, IL along with their natural son and another adopted girl. Her childhood was the Great Depression. She learned to work hard, honest and with the system. She met and married my grandfather in The Great Depression. She was left to raise two girls while my grandfather was in the war. She worked several jobs at once, campaigned for Democratic candidates, joined The League of Women Voters. He came back from the war as an addict with a violent temper. Despite her strict Catholic upbringing, she divorced him and struck out on her own to best take care of the girls and herself in the process. His drinking caused them great shame and the divorce was hard on them all. My grandmother went into overachieving, my mother just tried to avoid talking about feelings and my aunt blamed them both for making him go away.
My grandmother later remarried, as I mentioned in last night's diary. Their relationship was promise delivered to her for her sacrifices. They had a good house, they lived a good life and they loved each other very much. The government kept its promises to them in the form of jobs and healthcare. She worked for the State of Illinois and he worked for the Army. Eleven years into their marriage, he deveolped a blood clot. He went into the hospital, the treated it and told him he could go home. He called her and asked for a ride home. While she was driving to the hospital, the blood clot slipped into his heart and he died.
The good life, it seems, is a hard thing to hold onto. Even if it was hard earned. She outlived him by 30 years. I spent many Christmas dinners in the basement bar, playing pool with my cousins, aunts and uncles. She did see a reward for her sacrifices and perseverence during that war and for the years since, in the form of a large family. She was a good soul and she taught me to laugh.
My father's mother.
She had a hard life and it started rough. Her father was shot and killed in front of she and her sister by another man. It was a family feud, dating back to The Civil War when two families chose different sides. The still simmering tension between the families was brought to a boil with my great grandfather's womanizing and relationship with a woman in that family. My great grandmother, who was now widowed became distraught. She gave the girls up for adoption to a family they knew. That family was good, kind and stable. The girls received excellent education and support. My grandmother graduated college and became a journalist. She met my grandfather during the depression. He was charming and probably a lot like her father.
They married and when he left for the war, my grandmother was left with four children and a farm to manage. Money was scarce and times were hard. Winters were cold and grandfather was not around. She was raising the children alone and he was off with the Army. She had given up a career in journalism to run a farm with little or no money and four children - alone. Grandfather was not faithful in his vows. I think she came to an understanding, with him being at war, etc. I don't think it was an easy or pleasant understanding, but I think she accepted it. She loved him. She really did. One day, a woman from here in the US shows up at grandmother's door, with a baby. My grandfather's baby girl from this woman and their affair. She carried it but was not going to raise it, so she had driven to Missouri to leave the baby girl with my grandmother in my grandfather's absence.
My grandmother took that girl in and raised her. My father would wake up in the morning to light the fire in the potbelly stove to keep her warm in her crib. I only hear bits and pieces of what that family went through in my grandfather's absence. They all found ways to cope, some of them with alcohol some with other forms of denial. However, they were all a family and the bond would not break.
After the war, while my grandfather was in occupied Germany, he discovered a 'black market' ring in his subordinate officers. He went to his commanding officer, who was also in the black market. He had my grandfather put into an insane asylum, to nullify his testimony. My grandmother launched a successful campaign with newspapers and Congressmen to have my grandfather freed and the guilty charged. Grandfather was deployed to occupied Japan before he finally came home.
He found a family that had grown up without him. In some ways, he was a guest in a house that did not trust him or completely welcome him. He built a new house on a bigger farm for he and my grandmother to carve out their sunshine years, however they may come. 6 years later he died.
Grandmother died a little that day and spent her remaining years with alcohol and cigarettes to comfort her. I felt that she just wanted to die when he did, but her body took a long time to fail. It was sad. She led a hard life and I don't think that she had much joy, but whatever she did have she gave to others. I never saw her let anyone down or break a promise. For her, the cost of the war was the ultimate cost, paid out again and again for decades: loneliness and isolation.
So, the 'hidden' costs, so named because they seem hidden by their omission in most history books that discuss WW2. Rosie the riveter gets a mention when discussing the lives and sacrifices of families left behind, but that's often it . The families were the biggest part of 'the greatest generation', their stories mostly relegated to the memories of those still left from that time. Their grandchildren and great grandchildren have little or no idea what they gave up for us to be here. More is the pity.