Many generations have survived pandemics, wars, and political strife. I’ve looked back at how generations of my family used our need for connection with each other to stay whole and survive.
When I was a very young girl, I escaped to the attic to find out information about my relatives. There were steamer trunks my Italian grandparents had used to travel to the US in the early 1900s. At that point, they were full of old photos and artifacts from my parents, grandparents, aunts’ and uncles’ lives.
I would spend hours looking at pictures, trying on dresses, and holding each item in my hands. I could see photos of everyone so many years younger and wondered what secrets these images, old dresses, scraps of material, baby shoes, and other everyday items held. It was my favorite place to be, and it was part of my ongoing need to gather information about the past.
The War Albums
My favorite images were from my father’s photo albums from when he was in Europe during World War II for three years. He had three albums of photos. I could spend hours looking at these photos and making up stories about who Dad was, what happened to him, and how I could relate the essence of what I saw in the pictures with the man who was my father.
How My Father Survived World War II
My father’s approach was unique for his time. Instead of being caught up in the fervor of nationalism, it was clear to him how the Army used working-class men as cannon fodder in the war. “The Red Ball Express.” was a movie about one of the platoons in which he served. When we watched it on TV, I asked him which character he was in the film. He answered, “the guy who peeled the potatoes.”
As a young girl, I felt crushed that he wasn’t one of the “hero” characters. As an adult, I admire him for being honest even though he knew it wasn’t the answer I wanted. It taught me that jingoistic responses were of no value when you are talking about living through wartime.
Many years later, one of my brothers scanned the albums and gave me the files. On a whim, I set up the photo albums as a screen saver. I was sitting with a friend when the photos started rolling onto my computer screen. My friend and I paused and talked about the images. She loved seeing them and asked a lot of questions.
Later I looked at the photos one at a time. I already had a pattern from my childhood: Who are they? Where are they? What relationship did they have with my dad?
What Emerged from the Photos
Initially, I saw each picture as a separate story. And then I paused. Something new came to me. These pictures tell the story of a family with a son in the theater of war during WWII. The images were from two locations–Europe and the US. Some were the pictures my father took of his experience in Europe (mostly England). My father worked as a carpenter transforming rail cars into hospitals throughout England. He was mainly on the periphery of the war in small villages that had train stations.
On the back of one photo, my father’s friend documents that his friend kissed the woman he loved at 11:30 pm on April 23, 1943, during an air raid in Swindon. When I read the back of the photo, what came to me was the joy at finding happiness despite the horror. Almost all of the pictures were of my father being with people on bike rides, in the countryside, dressed in his uniform and street clothes, smoking cigars, working on the railroad, and fixing things. He documented what made him happy. That’s what he sent home to his family.
He had lots of pictures of his fellow carpenters. Each image of a person had a name and address written on the back in a handwriting that was not my dad’s. Most likely, the script belonged to the person in the picture. These were relationships which both partners wanted to keep for longer than the war. Others had commentary from my dad about why the day was essential to him.
There were no pictures of dead bodies, destroyed buildings, or any evidence of war. They could have been a series of images from someone who spent a few years abroad. But it was not. My dad only chose to document his experiences that were pleasant and life-affirming.
He once told me as I was going into surgery to treat cancer that he knew what fear was. My father said he was fearful that he would die each day for three years when he went to war. Dad assured me that there was a way to be with both the fear of the moment and the hope that everything will be okay.
The pictures tell that story. My dad chose to get to know the people he had never met, form strong connections, and enjoy every minute he could. He also documented them to help him keep going. After D-Day, he went to France and participated in one of the most dangerous assignments—he drove gasoline trucks that refueled tanks across France, Belgium, and Germany under fire and mostly without sleep. There are no pictures of those times. Maybe the memory of these pictures kept him going. Maybe there was no time to take new ones.
How the Family Survived World War II
His family’s pictures told how, when my father was in the war, his brothers and sisters started their families. They had had four children while he was in Europe. My father’s twin sister took on the role of the family communicator.
Below is a picture of my grandmother and my oldest cousin. The note from my father’s sister tells him his niece was a timid person. I love this short note and photo because it included my father in the family’s life. He got to see a picture of his mother and his niece, find out something about this young girl’s personality, and also how the family was improving their multi-generational home.
Many years later, when one of this aunt’s daughters became a nurse in Vietnam during the war, she did the same thing. She documented the family’s life so that her daughter could stay connected. This time they used audiotapes to communicate. My aunt would play the tapes from her daughter for us when we visited. Our nurse mostly talked about what she did when she wasn’t a caring for the wounded.
My favorite picture is the leading photo that I have spent many hours examining over the years. It is a picture of my grandmother’s birthday party (the lady in the back row with the flower on her lapel) in the garden of her brother’s house. Someone took the photo specifically to send to my dad to let him know that they held space for him. There are people you can immediately see in the picture–his parents and aunts and uncles. One can see parts of other people. This photo is full of wanting someone far away to feel loved and remembered.
How We Can Survive
These albums documented how one family used the available means of communication (photography and letter writing) at the time to support each other through a challenging time. They limited their communication to things that brought normality to their lives and shared their stories to reassure each other. Twenty years later, my aunt and her daughter used audiotapes. Now online videoconferencing is giving us a medium to hold onto ourselves and those we love as we enter the second year of this pandemic. I thank my father and Aunt Virginia for teaching us how.