Thursday, January 26, 2006

A Ninety-year Old Personal Tragedy


Today I will shed the discussion of urban history to talk about a tale that moved me, about my own family. It was related to me by my mother yesterday, and it touched me so much I feel I must relate it to you.

My Prussian great-grandfather (my maternal grandmother's father) was serving on the Western front in World War I. By late October, it was clear to him and to others that the fighting was dying down in his sector as the Central Powers were losing the war. He had grown a beard of rather large proportions, as German men of that era were wont to do. My great-grandmother took a dim view of this, of course - she had liked him clean-shaven. So on November 7th, just a few days before the armistice, he wrote to her, and enclosed the beard. He had said something to the effect of:"my dear wife, I shall soon be coming home. My beard shall be arriving first, the rest of me shall follow."

Sadly, that was not to be. On the very last day of World War I, my great-grandfather stepped on a landmine and was killed. I am sure such a story has happened countless times through history, when people die for a cause already rendered futile through the events of the day. Perhaps my mother would have not met my Chinese father in Chicago, and I would not have been born, if my great-grandfather had survived. But I cannot help but mourn his tragic loss that my great-grandmother had to live with the rest of her days.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

419

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—

A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—

And so of larger—Darkness—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

--Emily Dickinson

Anonymous said...

Dave:

There will always be a last soldier killed on the last day of any war. But when that soldier is known or related to you, it ceases to be theoretical. I salute your great-grandmother for what she surely must have borne after his death.

My maternal grandfather (gung gung?) served in WWI (joined at seventeen after lying about his age) under General Pershing. Infantry then were issued standard items as part of their kit, including a 'Soldier's Diary' (about 2.5 x 4 inches in dimension), allowing each soldier to record his private thoughts from the Front. So many decades later, it makes for fascinating reading.

Keep up the good work.

Fred Jacobsen
San Francisco

P.S. The proper addressee is a bit of a guess on my part. If I should be addressing Stefan, please forgive me.

Argleblaster said...

Family members of my grand- and great-grand-parents' generations were busy trying to kill one another on all sides in both WWI and WWII.

I can't help feeling that if we were more willing to listen to those 'boring old war stories' from our elderly relations, we might be a bit more reluctant to resort to 'the last resort' when dealing with recalcitrant nations.

Dave and Stefan said...

Thank you, whoever you are for the Emily Dickinson poem. And Fred, thank you for sharing the story about your grandfather's diary. It must be fascinating reading indeed! I have often enjoyed the writings and literature coming out of World War I, given the apocalyptic resonance it still has today, like Graves and Dos Passos.

Arglebaster, I agree with you completely. That's why remembrance of war is so important - not only to respect the dead, but to try to persuade the current generation that past mistakes should not be repeated.

Clever said...

What a beautiful but tragic story.