Michelle Gillett: The details keep families alive
"What color were my father’s eyes?" my sister asked me. We have different fathers, hers died before I was born and I have no idea what color his eyes were. Our mother kept a framed photograph of him on her bedroom dresser.
It’s a formal portrait that I studied often, staring into the face of the handsome young officer in his Royal Air Force uniform, his cap tilted slightly over his brow, a small mustache, grown no doubt, to make him look older.
It is a black and white photograph, my sister reminded me, so it doesn’t reveal his eye color. But I had been sure it was a color photo -- I could see his brown uniform, his sandy hair and mustache. "His eyes were blue," I told her. They could have been hazel -- some shade between green and brown, I remembered they were light-colored from my frequent inspections. At least, I think they were light-colored.
My sister has little to remember of her father; she was three when he was shot down over Benghazi on a night mission, his plane and body never found. It must have suddenly occurred to her that she didn’t know the color of her father’s eyes. Our mother died 10 years ago, so she couldn’t ask her. I am not sure why she thought I would know, but she was relieved when I told her they were blue.
My father’s eyes were blue, I know that for a fact. He lived to be 94 -- more than three times as old as my sister’s father. After he died, it became evident that our mother couldn’t live alone anymore. She had colon cancer, and although it was slow-growing, she was getting more frail. My sisters and I decided it made sense for her to move in with one of us. My oldest sister and her husband were retired and living in California in a spacious house that had a first floor bedroom and bath, and a beautiful garden. "I never thought I would end my life on the west coast," my mother said as we were going through her papers, letters, and old photographs to pack up for the move.
I couldn’t imagine her dying on the west coast either but didn’t tell her that. I had never lived more than a few hours from my parents. Now I would be 2,600 miles away from her. She passed me a letter from her father who died six years after she left England. It was full of family news -- they had given my sister’s pram to my aunt who had just had a baby, my grandmother’s garden was thriving, he missed her and my sister. The small black and white photographs she pulled from the box showed family members posed in groups, a few of them with my mother and my sister’s father standing next to her holding their baby daughter in his arms.
My sister came from Calif-
ornia to help with the last of the packing. A few days later, I drove her and our mother to Bradley airport where we had requested a wheelchair. I helped my mother settle into it and went with them to the security line, then watched as they walked away, my tall sister leaning over a little as she pushed the chair. They had come full circle from their arrival 55 years earlier where I picture them standing together at the ship’s railing watching the New York skyline come into view as the morning fog lifted, unveiling sunlit buildings -- a sight my mother said was her favorite in the world.
"I finally worked up the courage to open the box," my sister said over lunch a few weeks ago when I was in California. "What box?" I asked her. "Mummy gave me a box of letters and photographs, and I finally opened it."
I didn’t ask her why she needed courage to open a box of family memorabilia that had been in her attic for 10 years. But maybe she needed courage to face the sadness the contents might stir up. Unlike our mother, my sister had not wanted to come to America to start over, and had grieved over leaving our grandmother whom she adored, the pets she loved, her toys and books.
"You know that photograph of my father in his uniform? It’s the only one I have of him. But in the box, there were more of them and one was framed. I took it out of the frame and found a letter stuck behind it."
"From your father?"
"Yes, the last letter he wrote before he was shot down."
"What did it say?
"It was loving and thoughtful. He sounded so kind. He said not to worry. He asked all about me."
For my sister, the letter was like hearing her father’s voice. What do any of us need but details that anchor us to the important people in our lives.
My sister needed her father’s blue eyes, his kind voice, in order, as I recently read in Takashi Hiraide’s "The Guest Cat," "to confirm how precious someone was and how irreplaceable."
Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.