Posting this today in honor of my maternal grandmother, Fern Wright Baach, on what would be her 129th birthday. She was quite a woman: a teacher; a suffragette; a self-taught violinist; poet and writer; and a Minnesota farm wife and mother during the worst of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. She died of breast cancer long before I was born, but my mom adored her and talked about her so much I’ve always felt I that knew her. And now I do more than ever, since I inherited all of her old letters to her sister, letters that span the decades from the 1910s to the 1950s. Happy birthday Grandma!
From today’s Prayer for the Morning in Magnificat, a hymn for Memorial Day:
“Remember, Lord, the fallen
Who died in fields of war,
In flaming clouds, in screaming crowds,
On streets that are no more,
That we today might waken
And greet this day in peace
With grateful prayer for those who bear
The storms that never cease.
“Remember friends and strangers,
And those forgotten now,
Whose names are known to you alone,
Before whose love we bow
And ask that you surround them
With mercy’s endless light
That we may live, and we forgive
The foe they went to fight.
“Remember, Lord, the living,
Who bear the pain of loss–
A death she died who stood beside
Her Son upon the cross.
“Remember all your children,
The dead and those who weep,
And make us one beneath the sun
Where love will never sleep.”
– Sr. Genevieve Glen, O.S.B.
Copyright 2004, Benedictine Nuns, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale, CO.
My dad had many close calls while serving in Europe during WWII, and lost many friends, but there is one in particular I want to remember today: his best friend, killed by a land mine in France? Belgium? Germany? I’ll never know. He finally told me the story–which he had never told anyone else–on Memorial Day 1992. The last Memorial Day he lived to see. It was also only the second time I ever saw my dad in tears (the other was when my grandma died). I’m afraid I wasn’t much help to him. I was so stunned to see tears in my dad’s eyes I didn’t know what to say. But I’ve never forgotten the pain in his eyes, and the way his voice cracked in the middle of his tale.
This is a picture of them together, I think. I know this was taken in Europe because of my dad’s acne. He was very handsome but he broke out for the first and only time in his life in France from, he told me, eating too much chocolate from their rations! I suspect the stress of being in combat may have added to the skin problems. In any case, this soldier is in a number of pictures my dad took, and this is the only professional picture he had of him with any of his buddies. but I will never know. For the last 21 years, however, I have prayed for my dad’s friend, and all the boys he knew who never came home.
It gives me a pang in my heart every time I remember the time I was planning a trip to France, and I showed my dad all the material that the Normandy Tourist Office had sent me about visiting the WWII beaches, especially Omaha Beach. He looked puzzled and asked me why on earth I would want to go there. Shocked, I said, “Because you were there. You were in the third assault wave to land on Omaha Beach. Daddy,” I said, ” you were a hero.” He turned away to hide the fact, I suspect, that he got choked up. Amazingly, my own father, the man I had lived with for 23 years, never realized before that his daughter thought he was a hero. (Alas, the trip to France fell through. But someday I’m going to see that beach, and bring flowers in memory of all of those who shed their blood n “Bloody Omaha.”)
I mentioned a later that day that I was planning to visit the American Cemetery in Colleville-Sur-Mere. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he said, quietly, “I watched them build that cemetery.” And I know he never, ever, got over the images he carried from Nordhausen and Buchenwald.
My beloved and gentle father has been at peace now for 20 years. I believe this with all of my being; I know the memories which tormented him all his life have no power to hurt him now, and that God has wiped away all of his tears. But it still breaks my heart to think of my dad, just a boy really, straight off the farm in Minnesota, facing the evils of Nazi Germany.
Eternal rest grant unto him, and all those who served our country, oh Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls rest in Your peace, until we meet again. Amen.
“You say grace before meals.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
Impossible to believe. I’ve lived without my father for two decades, despite all of my wondering on the day he died how I could last a day without him. A testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, I guess. And to the importance of cherishing our memories of those we have lost, in the knowledge that goodbye is not forever. Below is a repost of a tribute I wrote to my dad on this anniversary day several years ago:
He died face down in the cold, wet, new-fallen snow twenty years ago today on a shivery, white, mid-January Minnesota day. A day much like today. He was a husband and a father, a brother, an uncle, a nephew, a cousin, and a friend. And although Tom Brokaw hadn’t coined the phrase yet, he was one of the “Greatest Generation” the United States of America ever has known.
He was born in 1919, the third of eleven children in a large, exuberant German-Catholic farming family. He was forced to leave school after fifth grade, at the age of ten, to go work and help support the family. That was the year he and his older brother Leo shared one pair of shoes; one day Leo would wear them, the next day, Leo’s little brother got to wear them. In his teens he worked in the CCC–the Civilian Conservation Corps–sent all of his pay home to his folks, and remained a New Deal Democrat until the day he died.
He was sitting at the kitchen table filling out his card for the Selective Service (i.e. the draft) the afternoon he heard over the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Within a few years, he would take part in the bloodiest nightmares World War II had to offer: landing in the third assault wave on Omaha Beach, spending Christmas Day 1944 in some of the fiercest fighting the Ardennnes saw during the Battle of the Bulge, helping liberate one of the sub-camps of Buchenwald in the Hartz mountains of Germany (a work camp, not a death camp, was all he would ever tell me, adding a moment later that there wasn’t any difference).
When he finally came home in September of 1945 and discovered that his mother had saved all of his combat pay (which he’d sent home for the family to use) in a bank account for him, he used the money to buy the place where the family had been tenant farmers. He, his dad, and brothers founded a construction company too, and built many of the barns and houses in the Rush City-Pine City area of Minnesota, a number of which still stand today. He was the son who stayed home to farm and look after his mom and dad, putting off marriage and family until his parents decided to move into Rush City to live with his sister Julie. He was always the doting older brother and uncle, though, the tease, the one who made sure every niece and nephew had a Christmas present. He was the reason his little sister Jo refused to let her boyfriends come visit her at home–she knew she’d NEVER hear the end of it once her big brother found out a boy liked her! (Funny, his daughter had the same problem many years later…)
But in 1963 he married the girl he’d had his eye on for more than a decade and they settled down together in Minneapolis. They adopted a tiny daughter of five weeks in 1968. He almost died five years later, when he suffered his first heart attack, but luckily, it was mild and he lived another nineteen years. He lived to stick by his wife through two separate bouts of breast cancer, to take care of his daughter when she had three back surgeries for scoliosis at the age of seventeen. He lived to teach his little girl to fish, to show her by example that nothing in the whole world ever comes before the people you love. He took her to the Shrine Circus (unaware that she was terrified of clowns), the State Fair, and, every year, to see the Christmas lights in downtown Minneapolis. He stayed up with her all night when, at eighteen, the boy she thought she loved stood her up to go out with the campus floozy.
He was my father. His name was Leonard Henry Resch, and I adored him beyond reason, beyond words. And twenty years to the day he returned home to God, I still do. I always will. To have him as my father was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given. Thanks, God, you may have him back now–as long as you promise that some day, I’ll see that twinkle in his eye again, and I’ll get to kiss him on the forehead once more. That we’ll all be home again. Together, at last.
My dad’s funeral was 17 years ago today. It’s amazing to think so much time has passed, when I thought I could never live without him. But I discovered that I can, because he is now a part of me and I am never alone, never without him, and I know that he will never be truly lost to me. St. Leonard, a member of the communion of saints. It’s not that I don’t still grieve, and sometimes I miss him so much my heart, literally, aches, but the grief has changed; gradually, the comfort of my memories and my sense of his presence has finally outweighed the pain. Most of the time…
Certain smells, certain moments when I feel unloved, certain aspects of the Christmas rituals, and hundreds of other ordinary details of life, will reopen the wound. But at least now I can let it bleed for a while and go on. At least now I can be open, not only to those painful moments, but also to the many joys of my life.