Veterans’ Day 2019: Remembering All Who Have Served (especially my uncle)

Arthur Feiertag

To all our veterans, wounded warriors, first responders, their families, and others who serve or have served: thank you for your sacrifices and dedication. I can’t pretend to understand what you have given or given up for our country, but you have my gratitude and respect. If any of you care to write about your service, I will read your accounts.

Many years ago, I sent my uncle and aunt a notebook and a pen each. I wanted to know about their lives, to learn the stories they hadn’t told. My uncle had been trained as a medic in World War II (he went on to become a fantastic optometrist), been captured by the Germans almost as soon as he arrived, and, like many of his generation, had refused to talk about his experiences. I hoped a notebook might elicit some more of his history.

I didn’t hear back from either my aunt or uncle about the package until I was visiting my parents and my dad called his brother. And here let me mention that my uncle was from New Jersey, and he exemplified almost every stereotype about denizens of the Garden State that is known to humanity. Generally speaking, anything that popped into his head, popped out of his mouth. Once, when he and my aunt were on vacation with my parents, a tour bus pulled up and let out a group of Japanese tourists. In a move that made my father want to sink into the earth, my uncle took one look at the new-comers, marched over to the nearest visitor, held out his camera, and demanded to know if it was a good one. Fortunately, none of the group seemed to understand English — or my uncle’s version of it anyway — or were polite enough to pretend they didn’t. And now you know why my father moved away from “Joisey.”

So that day at my parents’, I got on the phone with my uncle, who lit right in: “LISTEN! WHADDYOU SENT ME THAT NOTEBOOK FOR? Nobody wants to read about my life. Nobody wants to hear about that stuff. Nobody wants to hear about…” and he then spent about an hour telling all the “stuff” nobody would ever want to hear. I was completely unprepared, had no paper, no writing instrument, no way to record all the personal history he rattled off at warp speed. 

The central story of my uncle’s war is that of his capture. It happened within a few days — maybe even the first day — after he was sent over. When he and the other POWs were brought to the prison camp, a British officer was helping process the new arrivals. When my uncle approached the table, the officer asked for his name, rank, serial number, and, as was usual then, his religion. My uncle said, “Jewish.”

“No, you’re not,” the officer told him. My uncle wasn’t stupid, but he was young, and didn’t understand at first. So he replied,

“Yes, I’m Jewish.” The officer looked at him hard and repeated,

No, you’re not. Lose your dog-tags!” That officer saved my uncle, and I suspect a lot of other young men, from dying in a gas chamber. 

I wish I knew that officer’s name. I wish I knew what happened to him. I hope he made it home and managed to live well and happily. My uncle did. (Despite his foibles, my uncle was a decent guy. He and my aunt lived a few blocks away from my grandparents, took care of them, raised a daughter, ran a business, and was gregarious and out-going.) He died a little less than a year ago at the age of ninety-six. I wish I had managed to write down his history that day on the phone. 

Anyone wishing to support and honour those who serve or have served might consider writing a letter to one of these folks. An e-mail from Endless Pens reminded me about Operation Gratitude, an organization that collects letters for deployed troops, veterans, new recruits, wounded heroes, caregivers, and first responders. Read the instructions carefully — there are rules — and if you write, maybe you’ll get someone’s history in reply.

Occupatio,* or All That’s Missing

12 July, 2019

I am back. I have been away because, for several months, I was living someone else’s story. And the story was not mine to tell.1 

When I left, it was Winter. In the cold days of February, I thought about other topics about which I might write. There were the cardinals that came close to the houses to glean some of the ambient heat, the reds of the males flashing against the greys of the sky and the clouds, the orange beaks of the females, warmer and more welcome than the sparking males. The flock’s calls and clicks that sounded like notes from a wooden xylophone were equally bright — glowing coals of sound, equally cacophony and symphony. I could have written about the way they came close, but not too close, never venturing onto the patio, never coming under the shelter of the roof, but rather perching on the branches of the pink-bud tree that almost — almost — stretches its limbs under the overhang that shelters the patio.

I thought about telling how, years ago, the pink-bud tree on the patio became diseased and had to be cut down. There was debate about whether the unobstructed view or the shade of a tree was preferable. While we waited for the stump to decompose, new saplings twined up from the base of the old tree and flourished. After some years, it was decided that the new trees weren’t growing right, and the trio of trees were cut down. This time, stump killer was applied to prevent new growth. It didn’t work. The new shoots became a proper tree. And now that tree shelters cardinals in the cold and spills out pink and purple buds in Spring. 

  

Copyright Ruth FeiertagI thought about writing about the rain. The grey skies cast down unusually generous rains and soon there were thunderstorms with their rumbles and explosions and lightning shows. I stood Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019on the patio, under the overhang, watching the wildness, catching pieces of lightning with the camera on my phone.

 

And I thought about trying to articulate the strangeness of watching the heart of one season slide into the respiration of the next in a place that was not home, in a span of time that unspooled yet held still, of seeing Winter’s snows become Spring rains that greened the grass and persuaded the trees to cast on shawls of light green,CCopyright Ruth Feiertag 2019 then coats of darker verdancy. The mock pears shone white with their blossoms;Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019

 

 

 

Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019the cardinals paired off and set up housekeeping in the hedge by the patio and the tall bushes by the back bedrooms. The cardinals and wood doves came for the bird seed I put out; I began feuding with squirrels and keeping an eye out for rats.

 

 


I considered describing how I went to the tree nursery and brought home blooming plants in vivid hues and stuffed them into pots along the patio. Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019
Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019     Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019

 

 

I cast seeds wantonly into the pots and planters, along the back fence, in front of the house. The continuing rains washed the seeds into the soil and set the seeds to growing.

Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019 Copyright Ruth Feiertag 2019

 

 

 

 

I thought about writing about how time morphed into strange shapes and lost meaning and days were the same day and different days and it stopped mattering and time escaped altogether.

I “wrote” in my head, but got nothing on paper, nothing entered onto the computer nor on line. I was too enfolded in other matters, in another’s life, to write anything down.

And then, on 12 May, 2019, my mother died.

And her story become mine.

Sarah Feiertag, 1934-2019

 

1. Jenny Lawson blogged about this dilemma too, telling readers of her blog back in January, “I’ve struggled with what to say because I don’t know what to say. I am an open book and I write everything, but this isn’t just my story and I want to respect that,“ and “Turns out it’s really hard to write about emotional things and even harder when they involve someone you love whose privacy you want to protect.” 

See https://thebloggess.com/2019/01/17/im-struggling/and https://thebloggess.com/2019/01/23/im-back/.