Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Sunday Memory Drawer - Story of One Veteran...and The Girl He Left Behind

Friday was Veterans Day so let's remember a soldier.  Here's one who was a relative that I never met.

More importantly, I was named after him.

He was one of my father's three brothers.  My dad was the youngest.  I've have to look up records to find out where this never-seen uncle fell chronologically.  In a family unit that didn't share a lot of information on their most transparent days, I know even less about "Uncle Lenny."

Except that he was killed in the south of France about two weeks before the Nazis surrendered and almost at the same time that Hitler bought the big one in the bunker.  I remember when I first saw that date.  How ironic.  So close and yet...   I wondered if anybody in my family acknowledged and lamented that bitter irony.

As usual, nobody said a thing.

Oh, my grandmother would casually mention him in a story.  There was a Purple Heart (I think it was purple) that hung in her living room.  I recall once her pulling some mementos out of a drawer.  There was a small flag that you could hang in your window during World War II and it signified how many in your household were serving in the military.  And there was another hanging cloth that let folks know you had lost a loved one.

Years later, I personally ran across some papers after my grandmother died.  There were several letters from the War Department letting my family know in what French cemetery he was laid to rest.  The actual longitude and latitude of his grave site was listed.  Not that anybody went to visit it, although I would later learn that my father's older brother did many years later.  Meanwhile, there were other notes and documents that effectively closed out my uncle's life as far as the military was concerned.  Oddly, the telegram providing the grim news was not saved.  Or, perhaps, it was thrown away in a hailstorm of emotions.

I don't know.  More questions.  And now and forever, no answers.

Another level of confusion pops up.  I think about my uncle's grave in the south of France.  What was the thinking behind this?  Was there any thought to bringing him home to the United States?  I asked my grandmother once and she didn't remember.  Or want to remember?

I once heard a rumor that my mother was dating my uncle before ultimately hooking up with my dad.  When I would pose this query, I'd get the usual wave of the hand.  True?  False?  Or simply "go away, kid?"

Now I did know that my uncle was engaged to be married to a woman named Stella when he died.  I'm in on this intel because my grandmother sent her a Christmas card every year.  I used to write them out for her, so I would use the opportunity every December to do a little fishing.

"You sending a card to Stella?"

Of course.  But little else came.  Except that she was a nice girl and lived in the Bowery.

Like a bum, I asked.

I was told I asked too many questions.  Frankly, I didn't ask enough.

But surprisingly, Stella appeared.

She materialized very nonchalantly.  My father's prostate cancer was in its final stages and had spread as bone cancer to his right leg.   He couldn't really walk so he pretty much stayed in his recliner from dawn to dawn.  Watching television and doing the word puzzle in the Reader's Digest.  He had help coming in so weekdays were covered.  I would do some of the personal maintenance on the weekend.  Of course, I checked in with a phone call twice a day.  One night, I got a voice that seemed to be the slightest bit teary.  This was monumental in itself.  My father never ever showed much emotion.

"I just got a phone call.  Did you ever hear us mention Stella?"


From the surprising details I got that day, this lady had pretty much looked my father up in the Bronx phone booth and dialed him up.  Her husband had just died and she was feeling nostalgic.  She was flipping through a lot of pictures of my uncle and our family and simply wanted to share the moment.

Lots of pictures???  Where???  Can I see???

Stella's call seemed to stir long deep-seeded emotions in my father as well.  Perhaps it was a recognition of the passage of years.  A realization of the passage of perhaps only a few more days.  I don't know.  But I do know that my dad enjoyed that conversation with Stella more than any other he had in the recent past.

Even better?  She called again.  And again.  And again.  And again.

Nothing perked up my father in his final months as those phone calls and then letters from Stella.

The packages in the mail contained wonderful mementos.  A book of memories shared by his fellow soldiers who were with him when he was killed.  Personal letters and photos.  I'd read them as they came in.  Here was some of the history that had been missing for years.

Shortly thereafter, it was time for my father to go to one of those places which he, in better times, would have called "the last stop."  A nursing home/hospice where it all closed out quietly and quickly.

As I cleaned out his apartment, I came across Dad's address book, which he must have first purchased in 1950.  I flipped through it.  How many of these folks had gone before him?  And then I saw it.

Stella's phone number.

She might have been calling him to no avail for the past several weeks.  I realized that I was going to have to call her myself and share the news about Dad.

It hit me like a brick.  I would be calling her and saying...

"Hi, this is Len...."


Needless to say, it took me another week to get my nerve up to hit those digits on the dial pad.

I swallowed hard.  A lot.

Stella picked up on the other end.

"Hi, this is Len..."

She was elated to hear those first words.

There would be come.   Tune in next week.

Dinner last night:  Pepperoni pizza at Stella Barra.

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