The Navy trained Uncle Carl in Norfolk, Virginia, then shipped him to Okinawa, along with an Armed Forces hymnal and a field organ, a three-foot-high console whose keyboard spanned four octaves. Players powered the organ by pumping two wide pedals, and the organ gave out a surprisingly robust sound. (I know because during the 1960s, Uncle Carl bought at a junk store a field organ precisely like the one he’d played on Okinawa.) Uncle Carl’s job was to provide music at church services held behind battle lines. “You had to play loud,” he said, “and had to be ready at the drop of a hat to pound out ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’
“World War II,” he later would say, “was the best vacation I ever had.” Then he’d wink, lewdly, add, “All that delicious fresh seafood, you know.” Years later, someone told me that “seafood” was in-crowd gay slang for sailors.
While Uncle Carl, as my mother and grandmother put it, was “fighting in the Pacific,” the two women, again, to use their language, “worried themselves sick.” My mother was at Eastman School of Music getting her master’s degree and taking singing lessons, so I don’t know what form her worry took. I do know my grandmother did much vigorous hand-wringing, twisting of apron corners, that her mood rose and fell with arrival or non-arrival of Uncle Carl’s V-mail.
She kept a world map thumbtacked to her bedroom wall. She’d put her fat finger in the blue Pacific and say, “That’s where my boy is, out in all that water.” Sometimes, she would shake her head, say, “That’s a goddamn lot of water.”
My grandmother was the oldest of ten children. All she ever said about her parents was that her father, A.J. Brooks, beat her and that her mother made her “slave” right alongside her, helping raise the children that came after her. My grandmother never said one kind word about her father or mother, nor did I ever hear her mention her brothers and sisters. Not one word.
Like others raised in her era (she was born in the late 1870s), she did not have a sentimental attitude toward children. Days passed when all she called me was “Young’un.”
“Young’un,” she’d say, “go get the mail.”
To get to the mailbox, you walked down a graveled driveway to the gate and took down the gate rails. Hail stones had battered the mailbox, and cattle rubbing against the pole to which the box was bolted had loosened and tipped the pole. They had left tufts of their stiff russet hairs on the pole.
If three days passed without a letter, I kept my distance. A disagreeable woman at best, my grandmother turned fierce when she worried. For the slightest slip-up, say, breaking an eggshell when I gathered eggs, she’d slap you so hard your ears rang. She was short and fat, and when she had hitting you on her mind, she moved fast. So I always hoped that when I stood on tiptoes to get into the mailbox that she’d have a letter from Uncle Carl, or at least a letter from my mother, of whom, alas, she was not as fond.
I wanted to love my grandmother. I didn’t. When I was older and my grandmother had been dead for years, I said to my mother that I had been miserable with my grandmother. My mother looked up from photographs of my children, costumed for a grade school play, that she had been studying. She turned her face toward me, the heart-shaped face lined and drawn downward, but still beautiful. She scooted to the edge of her chair. She inhaled. I could hear the warm air enter her. A small woman, five feet tall, slender and delicately boned, she was wearing an expensive knit dress, the yarn a clear red. She inhaled and her diaphragm enlarged, as singers’ diaphragms will. When I was a child, this slow enlargement frightened me. It was like something an animal does before striking.
She spoke in these moments with the careful enunciation she gave to a Puccini aria or Schubert lied. She grew cautious with dental consonants, fitted them tidily between the easy, open vowels. She said — sang, really — that I should thank my lucky stars my grandmother took me in. She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. “Do you think,” she trilled a thrilling crystalline vibrato, “that your father’s new wife would have taken you?”
Evenings after my grandmother and Bushels and Buckles herded cows into their stalls, milked them, strained and separated the milk, filled the cows’ feed boxes with feed and hay, got chickens gathered in, and hasped the hen house door against skunks and coons, my grandmother turned on the big cathedral Philco, settled deep into her plush easy chair, turned up her hearing aid high as it would go, and grabbed up her mending or fancywork. She’d say, “Shut up. I want to hear what they say.”
“They” were Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Lowell Thomas, Gabriel Heatter, Richard C. Hottelet, Walter Winchell. Even young children recognized the voices. We might not know, and I didn’t, what a world war was, but we knew the news these sonorous voices carried into our living rooms was about whether Japs or Nazis were going to stick bayonets through you. We listened and watched our grownups’ faces; their frowns or smiles or tears told you if news was good or bad.
My grandmother’s bedroom was crowded with heavy, carved furniture — wardrobe chest, vanity table, two smaller chests, and four-poster bed. Across the surfaces she’d scattered doilies she’d tatted herself, and atop those doilies she’d set out bric-a-brac she’d picked up in her travels — a hollowed-out armadillo, a pottery log cabin incised in gold with “Land of Lincoln,” a metal oil derrick, a wooden music box in the shape of a steamer trunk. The music no longer played. Roosevelt’s photograph hung on her bedroom wall. The photograph had been hand-tinted and had that odd pastel haze you see over pictures of saints. Tucked into the corner of that photograph was a smaller photo, torn from a newspaper: Winston Churchill flashing the V-for-Victory sign.