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The emotions and thoughts presented in this book, especially about his father, are his and he owns them. He has not attempted to represent how his brother Mark, or his sisters, Susan and Sally, feel or reacted to any situation that he discusses. That would be a subject for their own personal explorations. Come along on a journey that evokes the deepest feelings and thoughts a child can fathom, the discovery of a parent through his own words.
Today my father died. His passing was not easy and as we waited for his last breath to mercifully arrive, as I saw that frail and dying man lying before me, I experienced a deep longing for his eyes to really see me, his hands to touch me, and his heart to love me. My mind was filled with a whirlpool of memories that carried me back through 65 years of events, which eventually led to a reversal in the adult-child roles between us. Back to his strength, his laughter, his fearsome roar, his absence, and his sadness. I found myself wanting one more chance to ask him all the unasked questions that had followed me for a lifetime, only to realize that even if he were still alive I would first have to complete my transformation into an adult, and he would have to soften his heart if this quest for answers was to be successful.
I was born in New York City and my early childhood was formed in the shadow of World War II. The country was optimistic and the opportunity for personal achievement was palpable. My parents, like most, wanted their children to be the best, to grow and prosper. In my young mind, our home was a place to celebrategood grades and achievement. A place where to be loved was often to be judged, where failure carried the belief that one was less loved. This was a time when fathers who fought in WW II carried wounds too deep to permit an outward expression of love so fully needed by a sensitive young son.
As a boy I mostly succeeded; that was the message I wanted to give to my father. When success eluded me, I sometimes invented the success so that Dad would be happy and continue to be proud of me. I now understand that the possibility of either of us truly knowing each other was difficult or remote if, to meet his expectations, I had to be something other than what I really was.
My relationship with my father was not very healthy, although I did not acknowledge this until my own children were young adults. In earlier years I strived to live by the commandment "Honor thy father and mother." I would not allow myself to concede that Dad was anything but perfect, and I stuffed any negative feelings towards him deep into my gut. Slowly I began to erect a barrier between us, protecting me from his behavior; so I could be safe in my childhood beliefs of his perfection.
About fifteen years ago I began a program of self-growth and as a result began to acknowledge some of my truths about myself and others, including my father. I began to see things more realistically, and for the first time acknowledged how my father had hurt me and others. The barrier I had erected between us commenced to grow taller and wider as I attempted to block out decades of anger and frustration towards him. In time, however, this did not satisfy my core need to love and be close to my father, so I changed the direction of my personal work. My goal now was to find a place in my heart for my father. Writing this book is part of that work.
Dad died when he was 89; for several years prior he had become progressively weaker as his body tired and he was afflicted with some dementia. In the final two years of his life, my mother chose to have a full time aide live in their home to help care for him. While his physical deterioration was difficult to witness, it was the slow deterioration of his mind that became increasingly challenging to all of us and was particularly hard on my mother. Even as he approached death, he was unable to find ways to connect with and love those who cared the most. He needed my mother to sit next to him and hold his hand for hours at a time, and he became agitated, even hostile, if she was called away. As his concentration failed, he became more easily angered by the real or imagined world of his death.
During his last several months his children spent more time visiting with him and Mom. My wife and I stayed several nights at a time at their home. Once I remember sitting up with Mom all night when we thought Dad was at his end, holding his hand, caressing him and sending him love. True to form, Dad suddenly opened his eyes, told us to stop bothering him, turned over, and went back to sleep. Needless to say, I spent the rest of the night holding and comforting my mother. Was this to be the way I remembered my father, as a fierce, insensitive, and angry man?
Following Dad's funeral Mom gave me a special family treasure and for the past months I have been mining it for pieces of gold that might begin to give me the father I had lost amongst his and my unseen and unspoken shadows. That treasure is an intricately detailed five-year written record of his journey through the Second World War, in letters he wrote to my mom, Roz. A treasure that has held the truth of my father's heart for a half century waiting for the moment of his passing to give him back to me. I went from being a man who occasionally thought of his father to a son who can't get thoughts of him out of his head. I am so much more for having traveled to that place. Like an archeologist I have found in the bones of his writing a man who touched me deeply, a person I wish I had known more fully when he was alive, and a father who will forever hold me as I now hold him in my heart.
This book is documentation of my journey to find my father, and at the same time, to find pieces of myself which lay hidden in my collective shadows, most notably anger and fear. It documents my search for the truth by reading Dad's letters and speaking to him through letters of my own; letting my sorrow, fear, joy, anger and a host of other emotions flow freely from me to paper. Since this is my search for the truth to foster my own growth and healing, this was not the place to put on the proverbial rose colored glasses and present Dad, or myself, as more or less than we were.
The emotions and thoughts presented in this book, especially about my dad, are mine and I own them. I have not attempted to represent how my brother Mark, or my sisters, Susan and Sally feel, or reacted to any situation I discuss. That would be a subject for their own personal explorations and I encourage them to do so.
My mom is now living in a beautiful assisted living home where she gets excellent care but misses my father very much. I have discussed some of the facts and questions I encountered in my journey of discovery with Mom, but her memory is becoming weaker and her emotions are too raw for me to push the discussions too far with her. I do know that she is happy that Dad's wish that the letters be published is fulfilled and I believe she is proud of me for undertaking my own journey of discovery. Mom has read many portions of this manuscript and has told me I captured Dad's spirit very well. She has pressured me to allow her to read more and I walk a delicate balance wire, providing a section to her and scanning her eyes for signs that the memories are too strong for her to handle now.
I leave this document as a record for my children, their children and future generations of Leitmans so they will have a better understanding of who they are and where they came from. I hope they will learn from the mistakes I made in putting up barriers between my father and myself based on my insecurities and childish angers and not giving my father a chance to show me who he really was.
Life goes by very quickly. The infant boy, Dick, that my father asked about in his letters is now 65 years old with a family of his own, and an eye on the next twenty or so years that will be granted to him. I believe the most significant lesson I learned through this journey, and by taking many, many breaths on this earth, is that the time to love is now and the time to say I love you was yesterday.
In October of 1940, Dad's draft lottery number, # 158, was picked by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, putting Dad in the first group of men to be drafted into the US army. On January 18, 1941 he officially entered military service for what was to be a one year stint. He committed to Mom that he would write a letter to her every day that he was away. The letters began on January 18 and the first was dated, Day 1, and continued consecutively as he counted down the 365 days his service commitment was to last. The last letter to be dated in this way was Day 244, when he learned his commitment to the army was extended, just before Pearl Harbor shocked the nation, and he began to put the actual dates on the letters. The last letter I found was dated November 6, 1945. Dad was released from service on December 13, 1945, marking a period of service of four years, eleven months. Some days he could not write but on others he wrote two or even three letters to Mom. During 1943 and early 1944 Dad was stationed in Freehold, New Jersey which was close to home. He did not write to Mom as much during this period as he was able to see her quite often.
The letters were written on any stationary he could obtain and he used fountain pens, pencils and sometimes a typewriter for inscription. At the time, there existed a form of communication called V mail in which a letter was written on a special form and photo reduced. The reduced copy was sent to the recipient. When Dad received a V mail letter from Mom he felt gypped because the writing space was limited and they were very difficult to read because of the size reduction.
Mom saved every letter that Dad wrote, tying them up in bundles with a piece of colored ribbon. When he came home from the war they were placed in his army foot locker and stored there, rarely touched. Occasionally the foot locker was opened and we were shown the letters. Once in awhile someone would read a few and put them back. Their limited handling assured that they would be preserved without too much deterioration over the years.
A few years ago my daughter, Jennifer Mirman, read some of the letters and was astounded to see the quality of the information they contained. She began a project to organize them by date and put them in protective sheets, and then in binders. She told me that I just had to read them as they were fascinating and, since I was born during this period, I was discussed in most of them.
After Dad passed away, my wife and I took up the task of completing the organization of the letters into binders. I decided to scan the letters into our home computer so they would be preserved for future generations to read. While scanning them it became necessary to read many of the pages so that they could be electronically filed in the proper sequence. In doing so I too became fascinated with their content.
Dad used to ask which one of us was going to make a book out of them. As he got older and feebler he asked more often but no one took his request seriously at the time. However, after seeing how beautifully he had written these letters and their fascinating content I decided to take him up on his request.
As I wrote this journey, and as I explored my deepest feelings and thoughts, I often felt that my work on the letters, the words I typed and the organization of subject matter was not my creation but rather the result of energy channeled from my father to me. Once I began, I was powerless to stop until I had peeked into every corner and examined every barrier that stood between us. The letters provided an insight into the man I called my father, in the years before I knew him. They speak the words of an innocent young boy as he was forced to take on the responsibilities of an adult. I chose to explore the letters he wrote during the period of August 11, 1944 (just before he went overseas) through August 23, 1945 (when he returned to the States). I was born in July 1944, one month before he left home aboard the Ile de France for England.
I searched the letters to see what I recognized in this young man that seemed out of character with my father as I remembered him. What could these letters tell me about the experiences he went through that could have contributed to shaping his future attitudes and reactions towards life? I struggled to envision what my life, and my own personality, would have been like if Dad did not have to endure the traumas of war. Most importantly, I hoped to approach the barriers we both erected between us, with hammer and chisel, and begin chipping away at those walls, even at this late date.
This book is in honor of 1st Lieutenant David Leitman, U.S, Army Infantry and his wife Roslyn, my dad and mom.
The Well of Grief
Those who will not slip beneath the still surface on the well of grief
turning down to its black water to the place that we can not breathe
will never know the source from which we drink the secret water cold and clear
nor find in the darkness the small gold coins thrown by those who wished for something else - David Whyte
Thank you for the historical gift you left us by writing what you saw and did during the war. I have seen many movies and read books and magazine articles about combat, and World War II in particular, but your accounts had a special quality that can only be achieved by being, as they say, "up close and personal". From reading your letters I have a new perspective on the life of an infantryman and the effects of war on soldiers, civilians, and property. To have this record in our family for the future Leitman offspring is a priceless treasure. You will never be forgotten!
Your accounts were especially valuable because of the way you presented them. It is very clear to me that you were just attempting to provide some information to a worried wife back in the States about what was happening to her husband, and in doing so presented a personal view of the realities of war and army life. Your letters contain no glorification of battles, no pleading calls for sympathy, no concentration on death and the destruction of cities, no berating of the enemy and no cheering for the good guys. They do contain, however, an eye witness account of a soldier who was lonely for his wife and baby back home. Tired, cold, and utterly uncomfortable, you wrote the story of a brave young soldier who was fearful of what the next day would bring to him, always hoping the Russians in the east and the American Air Force and soldiers in the west would hurry up and bring this conflict to a close so he could return home to his family.
I hope Richard has been behaving himself properly. Somehow, I can't get the feeling that I ... know him at all. It seems to me that I just took one look at him and I had to leave. It didn't even leave the impression with me that I'm a father even though I know that I am. In a way, you are more fortunate than I am having Richard with you. Perhaps there will be some features about him as he grows older that will remind you of me. I know that I won't be able to recognize him unless you send me pictures but I can never forget the sweetest person I ever met. I can't forget your face, body or your swell companionship and friendship which you have shared with me. Darling, take care of Richard and yourself. Don't change anything. I want to return and find you exactly as when I left.
England September 6, 1944
Dad, on a personal note, I am sorry that I never took the time or gave you the respect and honor you deserved for enduring and playing out, so heroically, this chapter of your life. I admit to you that I was caught up in finding my own way in life, and angry at you for bullying people, especially Mom. I resolved to punish you by ignoring or minimizing your war stories and your war experiences. This was an immature way for me to react. Instead of calling you on your improper behavior and honoring you where you deserved it, I just blocked you out, accomplishing nothing and missing the opportunity of learning who you were and establishing a loving relationship with you.
I have tremendous sympathy for Vietnam veterans and our young boys now fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the challenges they face upon returning to civilian life. I can understand the stress disorders that flow from their experiences during these horrible times in our history. I can feel the unresolved turmoil a soldier goes through by killing another human being in battle and the fear that next time he could be the one whose life was cut short. I feel some shame for not having served alongside my friends due to my student deferments, followed by job deferments, which allowed me to do that. I know that I would do the same again and seek the easiest way to continue living my life as normally as possible, avoiding the army at all costs. Although difficult for me to admit, I don't think I could have endured the hardships you suffered in the armed forces; I was too soft, too afraid, and too self centered to be of significance to our country as a soldier. So Dad, since I can have all these emotions for strangers, why could I not muster just a little understanding for you?
Excerpted from Dear Roz by Richard Leitman Michael Hollander Copyright © 2009 by Richard Leitman. Excerpted by permission.
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