I’ve been thinking about my paternal grandmother a lot lately. My grandmother, my memaw, Marie Louise Oberdan, was a force of a woman, and the older I get, the more I understand and empathize with her.
Dan and I watched Thirteen Hours the other night, and my grandfather, Obie (from Oberdan: we called him that, too), served in World War II, not Benghazi, not in an era where we see war footage too often, so there may be no apparent connection to my memaw.
But in Thirteen Hours, John Krasinki’s character, Jack Silva, is frequently on the phone or FaceTime with his wife, Becky Silva (played by Wrenn Schmidt). When Obie was at war, my grandmother didn’t have that. We have his letters to her, but they are few in comparison to the correspondence from the war department, informing my grandmother that he had been shot in the upper thigh, that he was in the hospital, that he would recover, that he was being flown home. Watching Thirteen Hours made me sympathize for the first time, a little bit, in some terribly simplistic way, with the fear Memaw must have felt in those long days between mail deliveries. Of course, she tracked the mailman every day for the rest of her life.
I assume my father and aunts know and have understood this for a very long time, but as a grandchild, we never talked about that: what my memaw was doing while my grandfather was in France. We were told the idyllic stories of how Obie, the second—after his older sister—to be born in US, was always late back to camp because he was visiting his cousins in Marseilles, how his cauliflower ear was from when his tank was blown up but everyone walked away, how he told every grandchild that he loved them the most when he showed us his Purple Heart. But during those stories, Memaw was somewhere else, not in the room, not chiming in like she always did. I never noticed until now, when I scrutinize my memories for her.
This morning I woke up and burnt our first panetone—Italian holiday bread--of the season in the oven, and now my house smells like hers did in the morning. (My mother was wonderful in that even though she divorced my father when I was four, she let me spend so much time with my grandparents.) In fact, my house smells like Memaw’s a lot: the burnt panetone, the coffee, the spaghetti sauce.
I mentioned earlier that she was a force; she wasn’t always nice. But this isn’t about that. This is about how as I grow older, I understand her more.
Two Fact Updates for Posterity: (Thanks, Yvonne, for the encouragement and reminding me M is smiling.)
*Obie wasn't flown home but to England. He was hospitalized there for 6 months, and then to France and Germany.
*Also, Obie cauliflower ear was from wrestling before the war. There is a dashing picture of him somewhere that I wish I could post. I didn't learn he wrestled until high school, maybe, when my grandparents were moving out of the apartment and distributing photos to us. As a kid, I thought weird ear + tank + deafness all went together.