When her only brother went off to the Korean War as a medic, my mother was a junior in high school. They lived in the small town of Geneseo, Illinois, southwest of Chicago, near Davenport, Iowa. Born late in the lives of my grandparents, my mother’s older brother was also her only brother.
Not until my mother’s recent death have I thought more deeply on how this loss affected her young life. She only talked about her brother in brief outbursts, then tears overtook her, as if she were experiencing his death all over again.
This mystified me. It was so long ago. How could it still ache like such a fresh wound?
As a child of 10, I remember awakening one night to the cacophony of her playing both the piano and the organ at the same time. They sat at right angles to each other in our open dining room. I peeked out from the sliding pocket door that separated the hallway to my bedroom from the open living room and watched as my mother sang, then stopped to toss something in the fire. Maybe I crept a little closer until she noticed me, and then I saw the flames eating up old photos, pictures of her only brother. By then, I had a new baby half-brother, named after this uncle I’d never know.
My stepfather came out of the bedroom in his pajamas and tried to coax my mother back to bed, but she seemed suddenly enraged and grabbed the keys to her maroon Plymouth Fury, then ran out the door. My stepfather ran after her, lifting the garage door just in time to keep it from getting torn from the hinges. He came back in, glanced over at me, and called the police.
I didn’t see my mother again for several weeks. She’d had a vacation, she said. And she showed me the crafts she made. One of them was an ashtray from coils of clay, but my mother never smoked. Now I think maybe she had postpartum depression presenting as mania. She always seemed restless, or a bit “flighty,” or “high-strung,” terms I heard others use to describe her over the years.
Over a year after her death, I find myself still attempting to reassemble my mother, to glue her back together. This piece–of her only brother going off to war, then missing in action, the family learning that he’d been shot, forced to march a long way, got gangrene, and died a painful, lonely death– shadowed my mother’s early adult years.
Recently, I went through her yearbooks, her pictures and her wedding album: she went to prom, got engaged, a year later married my father, all with her brother missing in the background. Perhaps with a desire to enjoy her senior year, engagement and newlywed life, she didn’t allow herself to process the grief of losing her only sibling, of becoming the only child of aging parents.
My grandmother was 41 when she had this surprise son. My grandfather was 49 when his only son was born, in his early 70s when he learned his son would not come home alive, or at all. His body was never recovered.
It is only one death, one story of so many we briefly memorialize on this day. The effects of war and its losses run through the lives of many generations in big and small ways, upending lives beyond the ones lost, devoured by the gruesomeness of war.
Awareness of death can catapult us toward joy and reflection, Mary Pipher writes in Women Rowing North. But when death happens behind enemy lines, or in places we have no access to, as in this time of the pandemic when many have died but no one has gathered to mourn and process their deaths, death can submerge itself in the unknown nooks and crannies of our minds becoming a shadow following us through life.
Writing and remembering is about coming out from under the shadows into the joy of living and loving beyond the grave. I love this uncle I never knew. As I look at pictures of him with his little sister, my mother, I realize how much this one life, given over, means. And I find myself mourning, in small moments, what might have been.