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By Debra John
BALBOA PRESSCopyright © 2011 Debra John
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAfter my mother's funeral, I returned to my home in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Even though my apartment was small and had only one bedroom, the location made it absolutely perfect for me. The beach was so close that I could walk to it within a matter of minutes. Most days I enjoyed walking on the beach, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face, listening to the gentle roar of the waves washing ashore, smelling the salt spray, and looking out upon the horizon with its white puffy clouds. On days when the waves pounded the shore with a thunderous roar, and I felt adventurous, I took my boogie board to the beach. Besides being loads of fun, it was a great way to stay in shape. As I held onto my board, I first had to jump through the crashing waves until I made it past the break point. When the perfect wave was upon me, cresting with its clear wall of water, I jumped onto my board, as if jumping onto a sled. While kicking my feet and paddling my hands at a furious pace, my board and I were lifted by the wave. It was an exhilarating ride back to the shore as I felt the speed of the wave, tasted the ocean water splashing my face, and heard the sound of sand scraping my board as I came to a sudden stop on the beach. I would then stand up and do it all over again.
Because the beach was only a few miles from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and I could see the launch complexes, I was able to watch the entire launch sequence from the ground up. Each time that a rocket blasted off from the launch pad, and then soared into the clouds, it created a tremendous crackling sound that became louder and louder as the winds brought it closer to me. If a rocket launched during the night while I was sleeping, the sound of windows rattling in my apartment was loud enough to awaken me from a deep sleep. Local residents, who had lived there since the Apollo launches to the moon, told me the vibrations from those launches were so intense that they cracked windows in cars and houses. Life was exciting on the Space Coast of Florida.
Shortly after I had relocated to my new home in paradise in 1980, I received a beautiful handwritten letter from my mother. The letter was written not long after her second heart attack, and two years before her stroke. At the time that she wrote the letter, my younger brother Mark was at the beginning of his singing career. My younger sister Dottie had just graduated with her Master's Degree and was looking for her first job at a bank on Long Island. My two older brothers were working full-time. My brother Billy was teaching art at one of the county middle schools, and my oldest brother Daniel was working for a computer company in England. My older sister Gail was living in another town with her husband Phil and her two children, Paul and Valerie:
Dearest Lisa -
We received your lovely letter and it seems you have finally found your end of the rainbow. I am so happy for you dear. Mark and Bill are all enthused about flying down there this summer and having a good time. I'm sure they will love it there when they visit you. You seem to be located right in the middle of all the clubs, shops, etc.
It's still cold up here and we can't get out to do much. I'll be glad when I can sit outside again. I'm still quite thin, 124 lbs, but at least I don't have any more swelling in my feet. I doubt if I'll be able to make any more trips. I still go to Bingo on Monday and take it easy at home.
Dad feels pretty good and is anxious to get out in his garden.
Dottie is home but she is waiting to hear about a job in New York City. Her friend from college has a job up there and they have put a deposit on an apartment for $625 a month. It has no furniture or even a rug on the floor. We loaned her the money but she'd better get a job soon. Her girlfriend has a chair and dishes. I think they are going to be stuck.
When you go to the Space Shuttle launch, don't forget to take some pictures. That should be very exciting. I know that Mark and Bill would love to see the Space Center. Mark is just starting to get enough jobs to get ahead. Next month will be a full one for him. His singing is getting better and better and everyone loves him. Daniel has been in England but will be home in a few days to visit for a week. Gail still comes by and asks about you. Everyone is happy for you dear.
Well dear, I don't have any more news so I'll close for now. Send some of your sunshine up here.
All our love, Mom, Dad & Family xxx
Returning to my normal routine after losing my mother was not easy for me. I missed hearing the sweet sound of her voice on the phone and being able to have conversations with her. She was always there for me when I needed advice or someone to chat with. Although I felt great sadness from losing her, I also felt extreme comfort in knowing that she was in Heaven. The words that she spoke to me—from her hospital bed—were all the evidence that I needed. Hearing her words reassured my belief that there is much more to our existence than our presence here on earth. Having my own piece of evidence that she was in Heaven also made the grieving process easier for me. It allowed me to keep my focus on the light of Heaven instead of the darkness of death.
When I used to call her, my father sometimes talked on the phone, but only long enough to say hello or to ask how I was. Because he had a habit of not talking much to his children, my conversations with him were always short and to the point. My brothers and sisters and I were always close to our mother, but it was not the same when it came to our relationship with our father. After fighting in World War II and the Korean War, he decided not to become close to his children. The reason he often gave us was that he did not want us to miss him when he died. Another reason that he gave had to do with something that happened to him as a child. His father always favored his younger brother over him, which caused him to feel unloved and unwanted. Not wanting the same thing to happen to his own children, he chose not to have any favorites. He achieved this goal by not spending too much time with any of us.
Since he was the only person that I could speak to when I called home, my conversations with him were better than before. Instead of just saying hello, he was more open to my sharing things with him about my personal life. The only problem was that I had to call him early enough in the day—before he began drinking alcohol. According to my brothers and sisters, who still lived in Maryland, he had become even more difficult to live with since my mother died. He loved her dearly and found life difficult without her. Instead of asking those who loved and cared for him to help him through the healing process, he turned to alcohol for help. Because he was drinking more often than he used to, his drinking habit became worse with each day. It was his way of dealing with the emotional pain that came with losing someone near and dear to his heart. My older sister Gail sent me a letter during this time that describes how his personality changed for the worse since the death of my mother. This is a short excerpt from her letter:
I call Dad every day during the morning. He's all right then but has started getting drunk every night and back to his old mean self. He threatened to disinherit Mark because he didn't come cut the grass in 100 degree weather, and to disinherit Bill because he would not come pick him and the car up at the Elks Lodge. He hasn't started on me yet but I expect him to eventually. If he keeps it up he will drive all of us away from him and he won't have anyone.
Because my grandfathers died before I was born, I had only grandmothers while I was growing up. My paternal grandfather, whose name was Joseph, lived from 1883 to 1942. During the prohibition era in the 1920s, he and my Grandmother Mary ran a bathtub still operation in their basement. It was a pretty common thing in the state of New York during that time, along with bootleggers, speakeasies, moonshine, and rum runners who smuggled supplies of alcohol from Canada across state lines. On more than a few occasions, my father and his mother had some heated discussions about her home-based operation—usually prompted by her complaints about his drinking habit.
My father would become angry with her, defending himself by saying things like: "Don't you dare criticize me for my drinking! When I was just a young boy, don't you remember keeping me home from school to help you put caps on your liquor bottles? And did you forget about the speakeasies you used to have all the time?"
Whenever I heard some of these arguments about bathtub stills and speakeasies, it made me wonder whether or not my grandmother was a wild woman in her younger days. She lived with my parents throughout their entire marriage, except for the few years that they lived in Frankfurt, Germany. She was an intelligent woman who was sweet and loving toward the children. Because my father was in the military, he asked her to live with us so she could help my mother with the children while he was away. I always had the impression from my mother that she wasn't too thrilled with this living arrangement.
She told me several times while I was growing up: "When you get married, don't ever let your mother-in-law live with you. If you do, she'll try to run your life for you." My mother was always giving me advice. She was never afraid to speak her mind about any topic.
My maternal grandfather, whose name was Arthur, lived from 1891 to 1934. He died from a stroke when my mother was only 18 years old, leaving my Grandmother Maria with very little money to support the family. To help out with family finances, my mother had to work a full-time job. She worked in the Electronic Tube Department at the General Electric Company in her home town of Schenectady, New York. In 1941, a photo of her working on the assembly line was featured on the front cover of their Factory magazine. They chose her for the photo shoot because of her natural beauty and the colorful apron that she was wearing that day. In the photo, she had naturally curly brown hair, but as a young girl her hair was blonde. She also had a fair complexion and hazel eyes. Because my mother was athletic, she was chosen to play on the company's basketball team. In the summer months, she worked part-time as a lifeguard.
Before meeting my father, my mother met a man named Daniel. They worked together for four years at the General Electric Company. Tall, blonde, and handsome, he was an extremely intelligent electrical engineer with dreams of starting his own company. She talked about him often while I was growing up, telling me how they went skiing together in the mountains of New York and how much they loved each other. He turned out to be who she referred to as "the love of her life." She was heartbroken when he had to move to California to start his own business and then quickly married another woman. When they could no longer see each other, she promised to name her firstborn son after him. In a nutshell, he was the man she could never have but always wanted. My mother met my father two years after Daniel moved to California. Although she loved my father, she often told me that the happiest years of her life were those that she spent with Daniel.
My parents met when my mother was playing a pinball machine. When I was growing up, I remember her joking about winning him as her prize for playing the game. When my father proposed to my mother, he was serving with the US military as a 1st Sergeant. The ring that he gave her had a quarter carat natural blue diamond—a remarkable stone so rare that most jewelers today have never seen one. He paid for the ring with fifty dollars that he won at a poker tournament. He loved to gamble, and so did my mother. Whenever she had a few nickels to spare, she walked two blocks to the local drugstore where she played the mechanical slot machines. Occasionally, she won the big jackpot and came home with ten dollars worth of nickels in her pocketbook. She also loved to play bingo at the Elks Lodge and the Moose Lodge. She was lucky at bingo and won most of the time when she went. When I became old enough to play, I went to the bingo halls with her, even though the dense cloud of smoke in the room caused my eyes to sting and water. When I watched the other women in the room, I could never figure out why they had to smoke like chimneys while they played the game.
My mother told me the reason she married my father was because he was fun to hang around with and he had a love for music. He played the piano, the banjo, and the accordion. He was also tall and handsome. With his jet black hair and well-trimmed mustache, he was a spitting image of Errol Flynn. According to my father, he married my mother because she was beautiful and she loved to dance like he did. He often bragged about her athletic abilities and how she was the star player on the General Electric basketball team. Evidence of my father's love for my mother is reflected in a beautiful poem he wrote to her a year after they were married. It was written during the time that he was fighting in Northern France under General Patton during the Second World War. He was a member of the Fourth Armored Infantry Division. When my mother received the letter, she had just given birth to their first child together, my sister Gail.
That you and I were wed
And when you asked if I loved you
This is what I said.
I love you madly darling
But I'm jealous as can be
Do you think that you can always
Look at no one else but me?
And from the answer you gave me
Twas plain as plain could be
That you cared nothing for anyone else
Your love was all for me.
So life goes on and here we are
Three thousand miles apart
How in the world can you ever know
The things that are in my heart.
In the morning when I wake dear
My first thought is of you
I wonder where you are today
And what you'll have to do.
Then at noon I'm thinking of you
When the sun is way up bright
And I think she's had her breakfast now
Wonder what she'll do tonight.
Then at night as I sit here so lonely
Wishing that you were here
A grand warm feeling comes over me
And I'm sure that you are near
I may not be able to see you
Nor actually hear what you say
But I know you're here beside me
And have been all through the day.
Your appreciative husband
Portions of another letter, which my father wrote to my mother, were quoted in a local Schenectady newspaper. As published in the newspaper article titled, "Local Soldier Captures 8 Germans," this is his humble account of his experience. He wrote the letter using paper and a typewriter left behind by hastily departing Nazis.
I've taken quite a few prisoners—eight alone and the rest with a lot of help. The bunch I took were pointed out to me by a Frenchman. They were sleeping under a tree behind a cemetery. I kicked one of them and they all jumped up with their hands in the air. Guess they were waiting for someone to surrender to anyway, so there was nothing to it.
As a child growing up, I looked at my father as someone who was mean and difficult to live with. When I became older and realized what he had to live through during the war, I came to understand why he drank alcohol. It was his way of melting away the traumatic memories from fighting in the war. Knowing this, I was also able to forgive him for how he treated me while I was growing up. After my father died, my sister Gail gathered up all the family history records. She showed me a newspaper article published in the Schenectady Union-Star with quotes from my father. The article is titled, "Comical Experiences, Not Funny at the Time, Says GI." When I read the article, it showed me a side of him that I never knew existed when I was a child. I was utterly amazed and extremely proud that he was able to maintain his sense of humor amongst all the horror that comes with war. These are some of his comical experiences from the war:
When a person has a little time to sit back and think, there are a lot of funny things that happen during the war—things that don't seem funny while they're happening.
Excerpted from Amelia's Gift by Debra John Copyright © 2011 by Debra John. Excerpted by permission of BALBOA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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