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WWII: A Mother's Terrible Loss

Updated on February 17, 2012

As genealogists, we spend a fair bit of time digging up and poring over old documents and old photographs. But as this (real) story from my husband shows, we can find family history in odd things and in odd places.

Grandma - with Grandpa and my Mom
Grandma - with Grandpa and my Mom

Grandma's house

When Grandma died, I got the job of sorting out her house. We get that job once or twice in our lives. It's a sad duty. And like death itself, not a situation that many of us feel prepared to handle. But you just go do it, right?

It was a single-level, white stucco brick house. It was where she raised her 4 children. It was also where, in 1942, she had said goodbye to her only son going off to war against Japan.

It was the house from which she had sent her son letters. The same house where the last of those letters had been returned, unopened.

I visited that house much later, as a small boy, then as a young man. Some rooms in the house, like my Grandma's bedroom, were always off limits. Cool, dark and off-limits.

And now? Here I was an adult and moving about inside the house - unsupervised. It was like being inside a museum after hours. It felt illicit. I went inside her bedroom. I was inside her sanctum sanctorum. I was opening drawers, rummaging through cupboards.

My Uncle

I didn't know much about my uncle. Only that he had been the oldest and only boy. He was kind of the star of the family, good on the piano, a champion swimmer, with a quick sense of humor and always first in his class. A cousin told me once that he had swum all the way across our local lake, a feat that at the time seemed impossible.

I knew he had gone off to fight in the Second World War with all the hope and bravado of that entire generation. I have a photo of him leaning out of a rail carriage looking directly and impishly at the camera. Without a care in the world. He was christened "Edward Augustus" (now the names of my two oldest sons) - but they called him "Bill".

This is Bill: Not a care in the world but death would come soon enough
This is Bill: Not a care in the world but death would come soon enough

The cupboard

There was one old cupboard in Grandma's bedroom, a free standing "gentleman's wardrobe". It had been the most expensive piece of furniture they had owned - bought on lay-away when she was first married.

When news came that Bill had been killed in action - in Papua New Guinea - my Grandma became unhinged. She started to do strange things, like mowing the lawn at 3:00 am in the morning. My Mother told me later that she couldn't understand why Grandma couldn't find solace in the children who were left, like her.

It had been nearly 50 years since Bill's death, as I stood in front of the closet. I peered inside, just like Grandma would have done every single day. I could see a rack of my Grandma's dresses, I remembered the patterns. I also saw a suit. Not a suit really - the fabric was stiff and rough. I brought it out into the light.

Last photographs of Uncle Bill
Last photographs of Uncle Bill

History in my hand

What had been in Grandma's cupboard all these years?

It was a military uniform. Bill's old army uniform, with his lieutenants' bars still attached.

I felt in the pockets: a watch, a compass, some papers. I held it up. He must have been shorter than me. And much thinner. It felt like I was seeing him for the first time, meeting him, reaching across the decades, almost touching him.

Grandma had kept her dead son Bill's uniform for all those years. Right next to her own clothes. In plain sight - only to her. I suppose it was a way of staying close to him, of keeping him alive in her mind.

Clothes have a way of carrying something of the person with them, even after the person is gone, don't they?

Genealogy is about documents and old photographs. It's also about things and places, and stories.

Different ways of telling stories

There are different ways to tell our family stories - written memoirs, audio recordings, poems, HubPages, photo albums, video biographies (my specialty) are all great. It's less about how you do it and more about just getting a start. Stories need hosts - they need someone to carry them to be kept alive.


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    • Sheila Berger profile image

      Sheila Berger 7 years ago

      Good story. I love old photos of family members, you are lucky to have come across it. So many pictures are discarded.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      What a sad but touching story that you've told so beautifully. And you're so right - genealogy isn't only about documents and old photos, but things, places and stories. Mostly the stories. I have no patience for those who call themselves "genealogists" or "family historians" who are satisfied to find a birth and death date, but never look for the stories "in the dash".

      Over two decades ago, I had to clean out my mother's house and I'm still piecing together the stories from the clues in the things she left behind.

    • Norah Casey profile image

      Norah Casey 7 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Great hub! Welcome to HubPages :)