My uncle's spirit is with me- WW II pilot carried by an Angel
The Angel holds the soldier in her strong metal arms
The Statue outside the train station
I lost Irvings Wings
The Black Angel
Uncle Irving knew he was about to die. In our Jewish tradition, when a child is born, the infant is named after a relative who has died. Before I was born, my Uncle Irving wrote to my mother from his air force base in England. He wrote on thin aerogram paper in small neat script:
“Dear Sally, I am so sad that I can’t be home with you when you have your first baby. I am happy about the baby. Maybe, if it’s a boy, you could give him my name. Not his first name, but maybe his second, or third, or even his fourth name, could be Irving.”
When Irving was a kid Sally had felt so loving and protective towards her little brother. But he was far beyond her protection now, half way around the world with German attacks every night. Irving saw how many of his squadron flew out, and how few returned. By the time my mother received his letter, Irving was dead. He was a bomber, and when his plane crashed in the fog, Irving was manning his station in the vulnerable lower part of the fuselage. Three of his small fight crew survived. They wrote to my mom and grandmother. Their letters were on thin light air letter paper, with military censor markings.
They called my grandma Bessie “Mom”.
I hope you don’t mind us calling you mom. Irving spoke so often about you, we feel like you are also our mom. We are so sorry about you losing your beloved youngest son. We loved Irving. He was a great team mate, and we all trusted him with our lives. We feel like he is our brother, and we are part of your family. The plane crash… it all happened so quickly. They got him out right away, but he was dead in the crash. He didn't suffer.”
I was born a girl, so mother kept Irving’s name for her next baby.
My mother Sally was “lying in” when she heard the news. She was in bed, cuddling me. My father and, my grandfather came home from the shoe store in the middle of the day. Mother knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. She got right up out of bed, and began cleaning the apartment, vacuuming, scrubbing the floor. She couldn’t stop cleaning. Irving was buried in England, so there was no funeral in Vancouver. The memorial prayers glorifying Gods wonder were not recited in our home. The mirrors and pictures were not removed. There were no plans for a headstone.
At that same time, my maternal grandmother, Bessie, was worrying that Irving’s letters had stopped. Bessie was very sick with uncontrollable diabetes. The family thought it best not to tell her that Irving had been killed. Bessie got sicker and sicker. She kept looking for letters from Irving. She couldn’t sleep. She snuck down to the corner grocer for chocolate bars. She became irrational, yelling, and insisting that she saw Irving on the street. She was committed to the Essondale Provincial Mental Hospital, for life. Sometimes mommy took me to visit her.
When I was three, mommy took me on a trip on the streetcar. We rode all the way downtown to the CPR train station.
“This is the last place I saw your uncle Irving” mommy said.
“This is the train station where my brother and all the young men went away to war.
They looked so handsome in their uniforms. The mothers were all crying. We were so sad to see them leave.”
I held mommy’s hand as we walked through the stations’ big shiny brass doors into a room that stretched out too far for me to see. Ways up high on the ceiling were shapes that looked like flowers if I stretched my head back. Big people were in the room. Their shoes clicked on the marble floor. I saw so many grey and black pant legs walking past quickly. I didn’t see any other children. Noises were echoing in my head. Outside on the sidewalk it was quieter.
Mommy took me to the corner. There up against the sky was a giant black angel. The angel was bigger than mommy, bigger even than all the men on the street. The angel stood on a black post with her black wings stretched out. I could see her black feathers. She held a soldier stretched back over her arm. His eyes were shut. He looked asleep, but mommy said her was dead, like Uncle Irving. Mommy said the angel was flying the soldier up to heaven. The angel had a calm, serious look on her face.
“What is the angel made of” I asked.
“The statue is made of steel, that’s a kind of metal.’ Mommy said.
I thought the metal angel with her big metal feathers must be very heavy. How could she fly? How could the angel carry the poor dead soldier all the way up to Heaven?
One special treat mommy gave me when we got home was a chance to wear Irving’s wings pinned to my sweater. When I was a baby mommy, and grandpa Zadie got a parcel from the Canadian government. In it were Irving’s wings, his shoulder crest, his medals and his metal badge from his hat. Zadie kept the medals. Mommy got the wings. She opened her green leather covered jewelry box and showed me-a small colored metal brooch. The wings were given to Irving when he learned to fly the airplanes. The wings got pinned onto his uniform by his Officer. Each wing had tiny colored feathers. It was so beautiful.
I asked “ Please, mommy, can I wear it? Please, Please?”
She let me, but only in the house. When I went outside to play with Johnny in the lane I told him.
“I don’t believe you.” He said.
I begged and pleaded, and finally mommy let me wear the wings outside.
“Don’t take them off your windbreaker’ she said.
It was a cold windy wet day. Johnny and the other kids looked at the wings.
“Oh I bet those wings can’t fly.” Johnny said.
“I can make them fly” I said undoing the clasp.
I threw the wings through the air. They flew and then crashed down. We ran and got them.
“Lets crash them into the ocean” I said.
I threw the wings into a mud puddle. We fished around in the cold wet water, and found the wings. Then we did it again. This was too easy.
“Lets close our eyes as the plane crashes.”
I closed my eyes and threw the wings. I heard a plop. It was a very big mud puddle. After searching and searching we were both wet, cold, and muddy.
“We better go get mommy to help us.”
Mommy asked which puddle it was. I looked down the lane. There were so many mud puddles. Mommy spent all afternoon out in the lane. She got a bucket and started to empty the puddles. When it was dark she had to stop. When she came in the house she was crying.
After that, every time I went out to play in the lane I looked for Uncle Irving’s wings. But they were gone.
One hot summer day mommy drove me in the car way way out to the country to Essondale. We went to visit Baba Bessie in the big mental hospital out there. There were lots of tall building made from brick. Some of the building had lots of little square windows without glass. Women would stick their heads out of those openings so their faces filled the whole window, and call “Help, help.”
“Mommy, why are they calling help?” I asked.
“They want to go home.” She said.
“Why can’t they go home?’
“They are sick, they have to stay here.”
The women didn’t look sick. Would Baba Bessie look sick? We followed a nurse down a long hall to Baba’s room, through heavy doors with shiny brass locks. The nurse unlocked the doors so we could walk through, then she locked them behind us. The locks made a loud click. Baba Bessie was sitting on her narrow bed, in a long room with one row of beds on each side. She didn’t look sick. She was wearing a flowery dress with a blue sweater. She kept kissing me and stroking my hair and saying “Marshi, Marshi”. She was wiping her eyes.
“ Mommy, why is Baba crying?”
“Don’t worry Marsha. She is just happy to see you.”
Baba Bessie had made some socks for me and for mommy and daddy. Nice soft fuzzy, socks with lots of colored stripes. She made them from scraps of wool. They were beautiful.
Mommy said: “Oh why do you use the wool scraps when I bring you good balls of wool?”
Baba said; “The nice nurses give me these short pieces.”
Baba licked her lips.
“Lets got out for ice cream” she said.
“Oh Ma, its not good for your diabetes.”
“Yes its OK just this time.” Said Baba.
We went out walking under the big green trees. Baba finally convinced mommy to drive us to the ice cream store. Baba had a straw berry cone, I had vanilla. It was a very hot day. Baba really liked licking the drips that ran down the cone.
Baba spoke to mommy in a quiet voice.
“Sally, Sally, I saw Irvee here to-day. He is here working at the hospital.”
“I don’t think it was him” mommy said sadly.
“Who is Irvee?” I asked.
“My brother Irving.” Mommy said.
“But mommy you said he was killed in the war.”
“Yes. “said mommy. She looked very sad.
Mommy brought wool for Baba’s knitting, but she wouldn’t let me wear those stripy socks. Mommy said they weren’t good enough and gave them away when we got home. One day I found a pair and hid them in the bottom of my drawer for a long time.
I was a great joy to my mother as a child. However as an adult, in one way, I totally disappointed her. It was almost a sacred duty for Jewish women to have children, to somehow make up for all our people murdered in the holocaust. I never had children. When she realized I was a lesbian, my mother said to me:
“You could still have a child. Single women are raising children these days. I would help you.”
She would have been a wonderful help if I had a child. I dearly wanted a child, but it wasn’t so easy in those homophobic days. Now at the age of 63, I am lucky to have a partner Marie-Belle, who has two beautiful grandchildren.
A few years ago, close to Remembrance Day, Marie-Belle’s seven year old grandson Matt said to me: “Marsha you must be so sad about that man who was killed in the war.”
I said: “Yes Matt, I am so sad about all the people killed in all the wars.”
Matt said: “No, I don’t mean those people. I mean the man in your bedroom!”
I was really confused. What on earth was Matt talking about. I hadn’t had a man in my bedroom for over 35 years.
“What man in my bedroom?”
He said: “You know. You have a picture of him near your bed. He is that guy in the pilot’s uniform, with the wings.”
“Oh, yes you’re right Matt, Uncle Irving.”
I had not thought much about Irving for many years. However soon after that discussion with Matt, my mother showed me that she had Irving’s picture re-framed. She had Irving’s medals placed inside the frame, below his picture. He looked so young. Then mother showed me the old letters written by Irving’s flight crew to my grandmother Bessie the weeks after Irving was killed. Mother and I wondered if Bessie ever saw the letters.
That night in bed I was thinking about Irving when I suddenly remembered another person who fell to her death. My friend Charlotte had fallen while we were mountain climbing many years ago. Weeks after that accident, when I still couldn’t stop crying, I went to see an old British psychic lady. Mrs. McDonnell meditated with me. I did not have to tell her anything.
Mrs. McDonnell spoke at length about my friend. She told me my friend was well. When I thought she was finished and was ready to leave, Mrs. McDonnell said:
“There is also another spirit with us here. He came because wants to speak with you very much. He is a young man who looks like you. If you look in the mirror you might even see his face transposed onto your face. He is a close relative and he has been with you for a long time, since you were born. This young man died before his time and he is living his life through you. He says he notices that you are often lonely, but you don’t need to be. He is always there with you.”
Mrs. McDonnell questioned me repeatedly about who this young man could be, why was he so close to me? She said he was wearing a uniform. Was he a cadet? At that time I had no idea who she was talking about. I wondered about him.
One night I dreamed of the dark angel carrying Irving in her strong black arms over the ocean, all the way across the continent, home to his family who loved him, to his mother who never stopped looking for him and to the little newborn baby girl who willingly carries his spirit if not his name.