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When she was a little girl she used to swim just off Rye Beach. She would swim; it really wasn't swimming, in about two feet of water with her hands on the bottom, holding herself up. Her grandfather would watch and pretend that he thought she was actually swimming while she was really walking on her hands, placed flat, under water. That summer was a strange one, for her and for the rest of the country. It seemed always on edge, waiting, anticipating.
It was the summer of Juno and Sword, of Omaha and Utah. Rye, New York was three thousand miles away from the rumble and bark of heavy artillery on the beaches at Normandy. The Ardennes and The Bulge hadn't happened yet. In the early heat of summer, Paris waited to be liberated and Rye slumbered in a state of suspended past tense, in a previous decade, in a kind of genteel, middle class 1930's. Everyone was over forty and the town slept along, with young children playing on the beach guarded by grandparents or older aunts and uncles, who stood just knee deep in the water, talking to each other for hours on end.
It was a summer of rambling, unfinished beach cottages commonly referred to as "bungalows." It was a summer filled with Aunt Liz's peculiar fruit punch served from amber tinted glasses with whorls in them. Every meal except breakfast had a tablecloth, and Elaine remembered sleeping on an old iron bed in the vast wastes of an attic made rustic by unfinished studs and exposed siding.
While Rye dozed through the heat haze of August the old Marshall Petain was spirited off to Alsace by the Nazis, as the Vichy government disintegrated. Petain's elderly, impassive face haunted a France that was slowly returning from the ashes.
It was the summer when a woman named Madeleine scratched on the walls of a Nazi prison at the town of Fresnes, just outside Paris, Thirty years old, three little girls, condemned to death on 22 June, 1944.
Elaine thought of that spring and summer with mixed feelings. Her parents seemed to withdraw from her, and her recollection of them at the time was faint and troubled. Somehow she had been left to stay with her grandfather and his sister, Liz of the famed fruit punch. Her mother returned once for her birthday with a doll as a gift, which for some unknown reason made Elaine burst into tears. She couldn't think why except for a sense of loss associated with it.
That childhood summer was endless as all the summers of children are. She recalled taking a speedboat ride with her grandfather in a shiny, varnished Gar Wood that must have had at least twelve cylinders worth of engine. She sat on a real red leather bench seat tucked into the deck. Her grandfather sat with her while the driver sat far forward, across acres of polished wood.
Elaine dimly remembered her Aunt Liz as a gentle spinster wearing brooches and lace over a sagging bust. She piled faded hair on her head and held the errant strands with real tortoise shell pins. Aunt Liz's many freckles hinted that in some past age her crowning glory was actually red.
During one of those early summers Elaine developed a paralyzing fear of thunderstorms, and when she thought about her father it was in connection with those awful storms. It had something to do with the noise, and it was her first separate memory of him. To rid her of the fear he made up a ritual game. It required some confrontation, but within the limits of comfort and security. They sat together on the porch on one of those swinging couches people used to call gliders. She wasn't sure, it must have been in Rye, certainly her parents never had a glider, but it was just the kind of thing her grandfather might have. Her father had challenged the storm. Gliding back and forth with his arm over her shoulders and his foot used as a pusher, he taught her to command it above the din.
Together they shouted, "Come thunder, come rain," as if by incantation they could magically control and conjure the storm. By degrees she overcame her fear, which turned into fascination.
Once Elaine walked in on her grandfather at his prayers, and the anguished vision of him on his knees rocking back and forth in some kind of torment had frightened her terribly. It had seemed very late to her and everything was magnified by her child senses. The feel of still, summer darkness, even the sound of night insects was overwhelming. She had no idea why she might have walked into her grandfather's bedroom, but there he was on his knees uttering soft, garbled words. It was as if he might be crying and she thought she must have said something because he turned at her quickly and gave a cry, calling out for her Aunt Liz.
"Take the child to bed," he said and her aunt ushered her off to the attic bedroom with a shooing gesture. Mysteriously Aunt Liz stayed with her all that night, sitting by her bed, humming to herself and sewing in the half-light of a small lamp. Elaine clearly remembered Aunt Liz's face in profile, bending to her work. In the morning it was as if nothing had happened.
There was the hurricane of course, with the lights going out and a clear image of her grandfather carrying a kerosene lamp. He had paced and paused for hours in an inner hallway. He would cock his head to listen as he concentrated on the sound of distinct things which made identifiable noise over the roaring wind of that night.
She must have stayed with her grandfather well into the fall because she was jumping into a big pile of leaves when her mother came, alone, to take her home. She hadn't seen her mother in a long time and they returned to New York City by train.
Exactly how or when it was that she knew her father was dead Elaine couldn't recall. Perhaps someone sat her down and told her, but she didn't remember it that way. The awareness of it just seemed to grow. All further memories of him simply stopped. He was no longer around. There didn't seem to be any overt display of grief, but neither was there a conscious effort to hide his absence by story or deception. Sometimes she would look at old photographs with her mother, and when she asked who were the people in the pictures her mother would say, "Oh, that's so-and-so," or "That's me with your father."
Somehow it was never mentioned, just how he died, or where. Elaine hadn't seen him in uniform, either in life or in a photograph, and yet she knew his death was involved with the war. His first name was Bill that much she knew because her grandfather always referred to him as Bill, Jr. to separate his son from himself. When Elaine tried to remember how her father looked she couldn't. The face in the old photographs was not a face she could attach to a living, moving human being.
Her mother remarried when Elaine was seven and all the bits of memorabilia that connected her father gradually disappeared, as if a slow process of evolution had taken place. Things didn't disappear they just metamorphosed until they became other things.
When Elaine was a teenager, visiting her grandfather during some school vacation, he produced a photograph of her father standing with her grandmother in front of the bungalow in Rye. That house had long since been sold and Elaine was fascinated by the familiarity of everything in the picture. Her grandmother died before she was born, yet the texture of things and even the angle of the shadows looked the same, unchanged, a part of her own memory. The picture was probably taken when her father was about fifteen or sixteen, around 1925. Both mother and son were laughing. Her father had his arm casually thrown over his mother's shoulder, and the two of them looked as if they were clowning for the photographer. With them was a large, black shepherd dog earnestly staring into the camera.
The faces in the picture were as much hers as they were her father's and grandmother's, and it was the first time that Elaine realized how much she looked like her father. For years her grandfather's aging friends had said, "She certainly has the looks of Bill, Jr.," or "The spitting image of young Bill."
It was true; she did look like her father even to the same expression when she laughed, irreverent, not taking anything quite seriously. He had wavy, light hair, not blond; it was hard to tell in the photograph. Their eyes were the same and her father's front teeth appeared to overlap just as hers did. She knew his eyes must have been very dark grey because in the black and white picture they looked dark enough to be brown.
It must have been around this time that she had screwed up enough courage to ask where and how her father had died.
"They said Northern France. They didn't say where exactly. That was all there was to it." Her grandfather's voice had thickened, and there was something in his expression and the way he spread his hands apart which deterred her from asking any more.
"Now this picture of Q'dee and Bill, Jr., that was a couple of years after he broke the leg. You know your Dad limped a little." Her grandfather loved to go on about anything and everything to do with her father right up to the beginning of the war.
She'd heard about the leg many times. Actually it was his thighbone broken above the knee in one of those spectacular compound breaks. He had done it playing Tarzan, or pirates, or something or other as he jumped from a roof in Rye. But Elaine wasn't sure that she remembered him limping.
"Oh it was only a slight limp," her grandfather said. "Sometimes you hardly noticed."
"Who was Q'dee?" she asked.
"Your grandmother, Philippa, of course. She had a lot of short names, but for some reason Q'dee stuck. Your Dad started calling her that from the word cute. I think he got that from some popular song. He took to calling her Cutie, and then it changed to Q'dee. Your Dad and I gave her a locket with the letters QD on it for her birthday. Don't know what happened to it after she died. Could be your Dad had it."
It was after this that Elaine developed an image of her father as a mud spattered G.I. dashing across the fields and hedgerows of northern France. He became larger than life, symbolic and unreal, a documentary figure caught in the distance. Maybe the dreams had started at this time too. The ones where she was standing mired in mud, trying to move towards a line of soldiers who straggled off away from her. Although their backs were to her, and they all looked much the same, she knew that if she got close enough one of them would have a limp.