Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

 There are some occasions when a number of events converge for me, and this Memorial Day is one of them.  It is the first Memorial Day since my mother’s death; I just returned from visiting Pearl Harbor; and the United States is still at war in Afghanistan.

Not only have I had a decided anti-war bias since the Vietnam War but I am profoundly bored by talk about guns, ships and planes, so I was unprepared for what I experienced on my recent visit to Pearl Harbor when I went to see if I could discover where Dad’s ship, the USS Case, was sitting on December 7, 1941.   I’d expected the air to be full of military pheromones and American flags.  What I found instead was a quiet sense of respect for all who had been involved in the conflict that day and an attempt to give visitors some sense of what it must have been like. 

Dad really never wanted to talk about the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing.  He would only say that it was early Sunday morning and no one had expected it.  He may have mentioned seeing fires on the ship and oil burning on the water.  An account from someone who had been on the Case mentions that later when they passed by the Arizona, they could see it all in flames.  The sheer magnitude of the attack must have been staggering.  Last night on television, there were interviews of soldiers coming back from Afghanistan, many with post traumatic stress syndrome, describing not only what being in the war did to them in while they were in it, but the difficulty they had with returning to an ordinary life when they came home to their families.  Most of them were just out of high school, college age.

I always forget that in 1941, Dad was only 21 years old.  He was no older than those faces I see on television and wonder how our country in good conscience can send over men not only to take part in killing first hand, but, if they survive, to live with that experience the rest of their lives.  Dad was that young.  Just out of high school when he enlisted.  I have to make myself remember that he was not even married to Mom at that point.  Researching our family history has helped me to realize just how traumatic it must have been for him coming from a small backwater town into the war.  It was not that he did not know hardship, since with his family background he certainly did, but he had never seen violence on anything of that scale.  His mind when he married Mom must have been still fresh with the images of the fires, burning oil, sinking ships that he saw.  He brought those into the marriage with him and they must have been with him again as he sailed out seven days after marriage to face what, for all he knew, might have been another Pearl Harbor.  I’ll never knew what he went through, nor would Mom have either, but I wonder, when young, what he told her about them and if they filled his dreams at night.

I still believe that one of the greatest services anyone could do for our country would be to expunge military metaphors and idioms of battle from public debate, but at the same time I have a renewed belief that it important to try to re-envision what it was that people like my father went through and to try to appreciate the effect that it had on them and on the lives of those they loved.  Perhaps if we do, we may eventually come to recognize what the poet Wilfred Owen so vividly tried to tell us back after World War I, the reality of  “The old Lie: Dulce et  Decorum est/ Pro patria mori.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

Mother's Day

A year ago Mom had just celebrated her 90th birthday and I don’t think any of us would have really believed that by Mother’s Day this year, she would not be with us   I think that pretty much all that can be said about mothers and mothers day can pretty much be said but I just wanted to acknowledge not only Mom, but the two Northen family Grandmothers.  To say the least, they all lead hard lives, but they too were young at one time and as beautiful in their day as many of the younger Northen women in their twenties and thirties are today.  Rather than seeing them as grandmotherly, I think it is rather nice to think of them as young women who had many hopes and dreams themselves.

This is a picture of Laverna S. Wilkins – aka Grandma Wilkins – at 18.  I never knew what S. stands for, so I’m glad if anyone wants to fill me in.  We all know about her having to raise eleven kids and work at Kerr Glass company later in life, to boot.  As for being young, Grandma always looked old to me from the time I was little, but she was like a portrait, as the years changed and everyone grew older, she never seemed to.  When she came to visit me in Buffalo in the 1970’s her hair was as black as it was when I was a child.

I never met my Grandma Northen, Mattie Lewis.  Unlike Mom and Grandma Wilkins who made it to 90, she only lived to be 45.  There are few stories about her, though we all have heard the one about her drowning in the river  In this picture, though she is in her wedding gown.  At 22 she was three years older than her husband, and as was common in her day, married in her father’s home.
As I look at these pictures, I wonder what they must have been thinking, what they thought their lives were going to be like, and what secrets they kept themselves that we will never about.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Great-Great Grandpa Michael Ryman

     I recently came across two short newspaper articles from the Aberdeen Daily News in May of 1915 about the death and funeral of my Grandma Wilkins’ grandfather, whose name was Michael Ryman. He died in Warner Township, Brown County, South Dakota, where he had settled in 1885.  He was called one of the pioneers and early settlers of the county.  It is  the same county where Grandma Wilkins was born and not far from where Mom was born. 
     He’d been born in Switzerland in August of 1835.  His name before coming to the United States was Melchior Reimann, but that was anglicized once he got here.  In Switzerland he married Magdalena Bossely in 1861 and then two years later came to the United States.  The first place he lived was in Sullivan County, New York and then moved on to South Dakota in 1885.
     The newspaper headline was "Apoplexy Cause of Pioneer's Death."  He had eleven children (nine of whom were still alive at his death), thirty-five grandchildren and, at that point in time, four great grandchildren. His son Will Ryman was Grandma Wilkins’ father.  This was the first information I’ve come across about Michael Ryman, other than a few dates, so I thought it was interesting to find out.  If anyone happens to know more about him, please make a comment.