Memories written on paper, but held in the heart

There was only one time that I saw my mother-in-law cry. She was a dichotomy, a woman who loved unconditionally and a tough cookie.

She was a nurse when World War II began. Within a month after Pearl Harbor, she told her parents she wanted to join the Army Nurse Corps. They told her ladies didn’t do such things. She was a lady, but she was also a patriot.

Her unit did not ship out to Europe until December 1943. Their destination was Stockbridge, England. She kept a journal overseas. Entries were sporadic, often cryptic, many only a sentence or a phrase.

“First night overseas. Slept in a hut with only two little coal stoves.”

She picked up a 3-week-old black and white dog in England and named her Vicki, short for Victoria and fed it bits of her meals.

Her outfit, the 25th General Hospital, was responsible for setting up and opening field hospitals. They cared for the wounded, mainly Allies, but also prisoners of war. Many of those she tended to died.

“Got sick. Left England with few regrets.”

In July 1944, the month after D-Day, they crossed the English Channel, arrived at Utah Beach set up a 1,000-bed tented hospital near Lison, Normandy, France.

“I’ve worked all around this week – mostly with prisoners – two half days with our boys.”

Another entry reads: “That d—- (she used dashes) Hitler. He should be hung from a toe until dead.”

When the German offensive began, they moved to Belgium.

She mentioned receiving a package from home, noting every item it contained and wrote, “I pray to God things will revert to as near normal as possible when we go home.”

Early in 1945 she wrote, “The more I think of it, the more I liked France in spite of the mud.”

Jan 14: “Here’s hoping the buzz bombs don’t start here. It is wonderfully quiet.”

Feb. 10: “Enjoyed 10 days of work. The boys were swell.”

March 13: “Bombers really coming back today. It was a wonderful sight.”

March 14: “More bombers today. Germany must look like a sieve.”

A few days later from Aachen, Germany: “Talking about sieves – Aachen looks like one. Very few people on streets.”

The most personal entry was written May 7, 1945: “I walked across a meadow so peaceful and beautiful that I had an indescribable feeling of loneliness. I don’t believe I have had a more deep sense of being alone than I did at that moment. It lingered for a couple of days, too. Victory here was expected any moment and there is no one on this side to whom I mean much. Needing companionship, as I always have, it is more wanted at a time like that than any other.”

She smuggled Vicki onto the troop ship heading home, hiding the dog in her overcoat.

Not long after returning, she found the companionship she had longed for and married. In 1950, expecting their first child, she told the obstetrician she’d like to have the baby without drugs. She’d learned of the Lamaze method overseas.

The doctor told her that was not possible.

She said it was possible.

He said if she wanted to try a crazy thing like that, she could get a different doctor.

So she did.

She lived a good and full life and was never easily rattled. When she was concerned about something, she’d let you know, but in a measured tone. Or she’d simply chew her bottom lip.

As she aged, her memory began fading. Eventually, it was easier to remember things long ago instead of things in the recent past.

One day, someone found her box of World War II memorabilia and placed it in her lap. She opened the box, exposing a bright array of red, gold, and blue on emblems, patches and insignias. Soldiers had torn them from their uniforms and given them to her as tokens of gratitude for good care in dark days.

Her eyes welled and soon she was sobbing, memories unleashing a torrent of tears.

It was a deep and sorrowful moment of remembrance.

Traditionally, every Memorial Day at 3 p.m., many Americans have paused for one minute to remember those died in service to the country.

In this age of vitriol, division and polarization, we could all use a moment of unity, a moment reflecting on the sacrifices of others that have enabled us to live free.