Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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Reading between history’s lines

bad-homburg-vor-der-hohe-d974I recently unearthed a little treasure from family history that’s supremely timely as I wrap up European scenes in my newest novel, The Munich Girl.

Four small pages of stationery with my mother’s initials at the top are filled with her distinctive British handwriting on all eight sides. A prolific writer, she gathered these snapshot recollections from years when my parents and then pre-schooler sister lived in post-war France and Germany. God bless her. We think about doing such things so often. Now I’m a real beneficiary because she actually did.

“I decided then that you’d probably grow up to be a tactful, diplomatic person,” she describes of the time when, on her very first airplane flight (from London to Bordeaux, France), my sister, then 4, made polite conversation with the two travelers seated across from her and my mother. My mother describes them as “dressed in the full regalia of those who live in Arab countries.”

Among many vocations, my sister was eventually a staff member for three Congressmen and a U.S. Senator, which afforded numberless opportunities to practice both tact and diplomacy. Our mother had a knack for being prophetic that way.

A Pretty Meadow near Ashdown forest 174

Photo: Kathy Gilman

She recalls “Tu et You,” my parents’ nickname for the rustic French farmhouse where they were billeted as a young couple. “Toilet was directly off — almost still within — the kitchen,” she writes. “The septic tank, it turns out, was directly under the toilet,” as she had occasion to discover when said toilet malfunctioned and the horse-drawn “Vidange Rapide” (“quick drain”) cart came to the rescue. The operator, she records, consumed a sandwich during the repair, all while periodically jiggling the leaky hose he was wielding. His verdict: “Too much tissue.” Apparently none was the preferred quantity.

Each weekday, from the time my sister turned 5, two military police would arrive at the house shortly before dawn to escort her to school via military staff car, a ride of an hour each way. I cannot imagine what this meant for my mother’s peace of mind. It explains a lot about why my sister’s probably one of the most unflappable travelers I know.

On some of those schooldays, my mother and a very-pregnant neighbor, also a military spouse, went to the nearby market town to do laundry. My mother handled the French-speaking, at which she was quite adept, and the neighbor provided the transportation. My mother was tasked with planning their route, which she did very carefully, as the neighbor’s Studebaker had no reverse gear.

1011701_514541095267076_944692049_nOn one of those days, Henri the gardener decided to “repair” the coal stove and inadvertently dislodged the stove pipe, which collapsed and blanketed everything in sight, including Henri, in soot. My mother notes that he did not stick around to help clean it up.

On New Year’s Eve at the luxurious Grand Hotel in Bordeaux, the elegant doors to the rooms for “hommes” (men) and “femmes” (women) opened into the same restroom. “And the very fancy chicken entrée still had most of its insides,” my mother notes. As she so often did, she came home afterward and sat on my sister’s bed and shared the evening’s details, including descriptions of the most fashionably dressed women.

Next stop in their tour of duty was Frankfurt, Germany, where most military families had maids, in part because so many postwar Germans needed the work. Ria, the first, asserted her influence with furniture: “Every weekend, your father would rearrange the gigantic German furniture, including piano, and every Monday, Ria would put it all back. ‘Nein, nein — das ist besser’.”

Harriette favored “snail and Crisco sandwiches,” and Olga, who had been a Russian prisoner of war (and suffered who knows what atrocities) hadn’t seen a flush toilet before and thought it a fine device for cleaning vegetables, my mother was horrified to discover one day.

My father, who tended to be the family storyteller, regaled us with stories like these for years and no matter how many times we heard them, they sent tears of mirth rolling down our cheeks.  LAFS6377506

My mother’s dry summaries, rendered with British wit, certainly did too. Yet there’s something that speaks volumes between their terse lines. My father, more often than not, came home to hear about these experiences, while my mother, with a battlefront whose local dialect kept changing, actually lived them.

Humor was obviously a very big part of how she managed that. And while she may have had to dig deep, some days, to find that humor, the effort itself is still a kind of healing balm, even all these years later.

Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details.

http://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-ebook/dp/B00B5MR9B0/ref=tmm_kin_title_0/181-3985550-85


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Families who learn that home is the whole world

My sister-in-law, Happy, and I share a piece of personal history: If it weren’t for war, we might never have been born, let alone been Americans. In my case, a U.S. Army officer fell for a British girl who’d barely survived the Blitz, Happy’s life began in Vietnam, in the midst of a whole other war.

Both of our fathers were Army career men. But while my experience of military family holds memories that tend toward nostalgia, Happy, who’s watched her husband deploy to Iraq, and, multiple times, to Afghanistan, experiences military life in more current and challenging ways.

It’s part of a subculture many know little about, which I finally came to recognize as my own when I saw Kris Kristofferson’s film, Brats: Our Journey Home, about growing up military. All of those years of seeing myself as a citizen of the world yet feeling like a misfit when I came back to the States suddenly made sense. Like any overseas living, the military takes you out of the culture you’ve known, immerses you in situations where you must find ways to get along with others then once you return “home”, things can never be quite the same, Our shared experience of military-family life in childhood is unquestionably a foundation in the bond my husband and I share. So are whole perspectives and ways of being that this experience forged in us. index

Happy once told me that gender equality is a de facto reality in military families because when your spouse is away for months at a time, every need your family faces comes down to you. Back in the days when my mother kept the home fires burning — or, more accurately, kept starting new ones in different places, that inescapable pattern of military life – she relied on the same thing that Happy does: an indomitable sense of humor. It’s vital in a life fraught with potentially immense ups and downs. It’s also proof that no matter what life throws your way, the stable stance of a good nature helps you keep level ground beneath your feet.

Each time Happy’s husband Will has deployed, she hasn’t wanted to answer the phone. She’s already had to live through the latest version of a harrowing conversation about what they’ll do if he doesn’t return. I remember my mother shuddering when a U.S. Army staff car arrived in our neighborhood, heading for someone’s home with ghastly news. You felt the most awful combination of relief and survivor’s guilt as it passed you by.

On the other end are the anguished days between that call that tells you the deployed family member is coming home at last and the day they actually arrive. It would almost be easier not to know, for the uncertain fear that torments you during those tenuous days, Happy says.

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Peden Barracks, Wertheim, Germany, circa 1960s. Once, the gateway to “home”, for my family.

The first night the refrigerator’s icemaker started making funny noises, her husband’s response from the floor above was a regular recon mission as he took the stairs slowly one at a time, freezing in place and braced for action on each one. Happy learned early never to climb into bed after he’s already asleep. He can’t help the inevitable fight-or-flight reaction that months of constant vigilance and inadequate sleep have trained into him. She doesn’t want to put him in a position like that. She knows how badly he feels afterward.

Families like hers make sacrifices while their loved one is in active service, and continue to make them long afterward. Many bide with situations a lot of us couldn’t begin to tolerate, and often do it gracefully and willingly. A lot of them don’t have enough money, while the service they’re rendering is truly immeasurable.

Military commissaries once had a slogan printed on their grocery bags that said: “Military spouse — the hardest job in the military.” Through the years and now, the generations, I find these to be some of the bravest and most generous people I know. LAFS6377506

Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details.

Find more about the book at:

http://www.amazon.com/Life-First-Sight-Finding-Details/dp/1931847673/ref=pd_sim_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1FYGVM9S5BGBZH2TJHR4