Sunday, May 28, 2006
We never met.
He was the oldest cousin of the clan. I was the youngest.
He was a promising musician. People spoke of his talent and his potential. He was handsome and personable. Everyone loved Johnny.
There was a war raging across the sea. He, grandson of Polish immigrants, was called to duty. He served with the Ninth Infantry Division in Africa. He was wounded, awarded a medal, and sent home on leave. I was not yet born.
He was my father’s nephew but seemed a younger brother instead. We were a very close extended family. My parents had been childless for many years. Johnny felt their excitement over my upcoming arrival and was happy for them. He returned to his regiment with a sad heart. My mother told me that he had a premonition that he would not be coming back.
He continued to write my parents as his division was re-assigned to the European front. By now, my birth announcement and first baby pictures were being sent on. He got the letter and wrote back, wistfully hoping to see me one day. I think my mom was right. I think he knew that he and I would never get to know each other. And, yet, I think we did.
He was a staff sergeant and his unit was among the first in those hellish bloody days after the Normandy invasion to slog up the French coast and into the French countryside to liberate towns along the way. He was point man and died in a burst of machine-gun fire in the streets of St. Lo. He was buried in the Normandy American cemetery in France. His final laurels included the Silver Star and Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster.
When news of his death was delivered to the family, my uncle ran screaming into the backyard, almost out of his mind with grief. This was the firstborn of the family’s new generation, the golden boy. Everyone loved Johnny. I’m sure that my mom and dad were just as grief stricken.
I wonder, as an infant, if I somehow internalized the family’s sorrow. If somehow Johnny and I crossed paths spiritually as he, the oldest cousin, left and I, the youngest cousin, arrived. Two souls meeting briefly.
As I grew, I found myself strangely attracted to this missing cousin. We would visit his parents’ house and I would sit at the piano that was Johnny’s piano and play from the music books that were Johnny’s. I would look at the handwriting in the books, his handwriting. And I would feel as if I knew him, as if he were there, sitting next to me on that piano bench. My musical ability continued to grow. I thought that maybe it wasn’t so much my talent as Johnny just sharing his with me, that I was playing and carrying on a part of Johnny which had been so vibrant and so suddenly extinguished in his youth. He was only 26 when he died.
He came to me once in a dream. I was now in my early 20s, staying with my parents at another uncle’s country house for the weekend. It was early July. There was much laughter and teasing and giggling before getting to sleep. My father’s family was full of fun. We all settled down and sometime during the night, I had a vision of a closed coffin with a skeleton dressed in an army uniform sitting on the floor, leaning against it. A spectral hand was reaching out and motioning for someone to come closer. I just knew this was Johnny. It didn’t frighten me so much as make me worried about just who he wanted to join him. Of course, I told the family the unnerving dream at breakfast. None of us could be sure of the interpretation. Until …
We returned home to find out that my aunt had suffered a massive stroke. Her prognosis was not good. This would have been Johnny’s aunt too. Our fathers’ sister. She lingered for a week or two and then died. She died on July 16, 1964. Twenty years to the day that Johnny was killed in France.
Johnny, may you rest in peace. Thanks ... for the ultimate sacrifice ... and for the music.