One of my grandmothers--The Partner's father's mother--was a German who immigrated to the United States just before Hitler came to power. She told the story of her arrival often, but more often than that, she talked of the ship that took her back to her homeland a few years later on a short trip with her young American daugher, Evelyn. Imagine a yearning for home and for family. Imagine the soil of your youth beneath newly calloused feet; imagine your father's voice. Imagine leaving, again.
I put her words into mine and let it unfold like this:
"The ship ride back to America was fun, but I still wish we hadn’t taken it. There were parties every night, filled with rich, drunk ladies and handsome men. Life for those few weeks was all rollicking card games and booze.
The ship was Evelyn’s playground. I wouldn't know she was near till she’d sneak up behind me, low and wiggling, and peek out from between my knees. Sometimes, when I retell that trip, it is as if Evelyn wasn’t even there. I should have held her more. I should have caught that head between the swell of my calves and never let go."
Back in New Jersey, Evelyn drowned in a pond. She was six. My grandmother--again, she was not really mine, but my husband's, though I don't look at it that way--grieved for her daughter and for Germany. What had she escaped? What suffering had she exchanged for this?
Our grandmother was 97 years old when The Partner and I watched her die in her comfortable Connecticut bedroom. The Partner's parents let me join in the most private of goodbyes even though I was not yet officially part of the family. It was the first time I saw him cry.
Two years later he cried again, the only other time. We gave our newborn daughter the middle name of Evelyn.
This is our American dream. This is our Memorial Day. This is the life I'm thankful for, in all its stained fabric and unrippable weave.