My grandparents were married in 1943.
Grandma worked at an ice cream shop during her late teenage years. One day, she told me, a charming young man with red hair and a goofy smile pursued her. I remember the curve of her lips as she relayed the story, how she shook her head gently while recalling that she refused his requests to spend time with her because he was two years her junior. He was persistent and charming, and she soon acquiesced. After a short but suitable courtship, they wed.
It wasn’t long before Grandpa headed off to war. Grandma had Aunt while he was away. We're nothing if not capable - the women in my family. There’s some element of calmly accepting the circumstances and finding a way to make them work. They were happy – Grandma and Aunt – though Grandma told me she missed Grandpa terribly.
I remember holding on to the railing with one hand when I was quite young, my other fingers curled around hers as we descended the stairs. She removed a box from storage and withdrew a stack of letters. Unfolding the flap of an envelope beginning to yellow with age, she took out a single sheet of paper. Cradling it gently in my hand – I was always careful with other people’s possessions – we proceeded to the globe.
“See this?” she asked, pointing with a perfectly rounded nail that, try as I might, I still can’t replicate on my fingers. “That’s Italy. And that island?” We squinted together while she waited for me to nod. Sicily is small on globes.
While keeping her index finger on Sicily, she helped me put mine on Peoria. And we looked at each other – my wide-eyed stare meeting her smiling one.
“That’s really far,” I breathed, turning the globe gently again so I could see her finger and thinking it very far from where mine rested.
“It is,” she agreed, pulling me on her lap.
“Since he was far away, and Aunt and I were here, we wrote letters. He’d tell me about how life was there, and I’d talk about what was happening here. And in a way, we were together when we’d write and read and wait for the next letter to come.”
I looked down at the paper in my hand. Carefully unfolding it, I remember examining the blue ink on the fragile yellow paper – translucent from design or age, I’m not sure – and finding it beautiful. Too young to read longhand script, I handed the page to Grandma. “Read it,” I requested.
Smoothing my hair back as I snuggled into her, she did. I curse that childhood version of myself for not paying closer attention. The dim light in the basement is insufficient to illuminate each memory clearly – only glimpses of shapes, feelings, and impressions remain of some moments. Still, I wish I’d memorized the words.
I do remember ducking my head into a giggle when she got to the part about how he missed her, how pretty he remembered her being, how eager he was to return home so they could be together.
“He liked you,” I said, smiling up into eyes that are identical to my own.
She laughed, and that I remember with perfect clarity. How her shoulders would shake a little, her teeth emerging in a full smile.
“Yes, he certainly did. I liked him too,” she concluded in a whisper.
We put the letter carefully back in its envelope, and I continued to marvel that it had come from so very far away. It was replaced in the box, because you always put things back when you were finished with them, and we likely played with one of any number of toys with which they spoiled me.
When Grandpa walked in the door at the top of the stairs, we decided to make the climb from the basement to meet him, my smaller voice calling a happy greeting. Grandma would have held my hand, helped me navigate the steps covered in bright orange carpet. But Grandpa jogged down and swept me up, making me giggle in delight and bury my face in his neck as we bounded up the stairs to the sunny kitchen.
It’s a good memory. I hope – if you’re so inclined – that you had time for one of your own today.