“Almost there,” I tell my squirming toddler. “See? Playground.” We stumble through the door of Chick-Fil-A. She squeals, seeing only the indoor playground. I pause, seeing only the man beside it.
A wrinkled man sits in a corner, alone at the table beside the kiddie area. White tufts of hair peek out from beneath a blue cap embroidered with yellow words, in proud capitals: WW II VET. He looks small beneath the bulging cap; somehow it accentuates his age and the empty chair beside him. Spotting a wedding ring on his finger, I wonder who should be sitting in that chair. My heart gives a painful hiccup, thinking of my grandfather, alone in the world now these thirty days, since my grandmother passed. He, too, is eating lunch alone today.
In a painful rush, it hits me: We’re losing them.
We’re losing them all, one by one, the whole World War II generation—“the greatest generation,” Tom Brokaw has called them—and they’re taking their memories with them.
My daughter wiggles and grunts, trying to launch herself out of my arms. I hold her tight, speared by worry: How can I help her understand the ones who came before? She won’t even remember her own great-grandmother. Soon there will be none left who remember firsthand: none who grew up as children of the Depression; who experienced Pearl Harbor as a personal horror; who huddled around radios, hanging on every word of FDR’s Fireside Chats; who lost friend after friend to war. And soon their stories will fade into hearsay and legend, distorted by retelling and mis-memory, made distant by time and generational differences.
I brush against the man’s table on our way to the playground, and my daughter’s escape efforts grow frantic. Seeing us struggle, the man stands to open the door for me. His back is crooked, his steps awkward, but somehow he stands tall. Gallant.
“Thank you,” I breathe, releasing my daughter into the glass-walled playroom. She giggles her delight and beelines for another toddler, nearly strangling her with a let’s-be-friends hug.
“I remember the days,” he says with a knowing smile.
I smile back and let the door swing shut. “How many children do you have?” I ask, knowing full well what I’m getting myself into. And that is all he needs: He is off, regaling me with descriptions—where they live, what they do, how often they visit. I keep one eye on my daughter, happily playing with her new friend, and with the other eye, I study mine: His grin, sunny and crinkled, topped off by pale blue eyes snapping with humor; his timeworn hands, fiddling with a rectangular object on the table.
“My wife was British, a war bride,” he says, his chest puffing out, as if this is—was, I correct myself, he said was—one of his favorite things about her. “I brought her back here with me after the war.” He reaches for the rectangle in front of him and flips it over. A man in uniform and a woman in white beam up at me from stone church steps, radiant even in grainy black and white. The picture is so similar to my grandparents’ 1946 wedding photo that for a moment I cannot breathe. I give my friend a nod of admiration for his bride, wrestling down a wave of sadness.
“They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest,” Mr. Brokaw wrote in his book The Greatest Generation. “At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting, often hand to hand, in the most primitive conditions possible.”
And somehow, in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty, many found love and clung to it. This man found love and made it last.
“I lost her two years ago,” he says. The blue eyes turn red-rimmed and glassy.
I want to reach out and squeeze his hand, but I don’t even know his name.
We’re losing them.
A thousand words clog my throat—My grandfather served, too. Flight engineer, US Army. Twenty-seven missions out of Saipan in B-29 bombers. Every time they flew, they almost ran out of fuel on the way back. His hearing was never the same. My grandmother and her sister shared the same wedding dress in the summer of 1946, war brides both. I spent the happiest summer nights of my teenage years in my grandparents’ house—they’d pull up a chair for me between their recliners, and we’d read for hours in companionable silence, eating peanuts and popcorn—but now my new friend is telling me where he met his wife, how she laughed, the way she burned his toast.
And I realize: Today is not my turn to tell stories. It’s his. And so I store my own history down inside, pull up a chair, and sit at his table. I pick up his picture, admire his bride, and let him take me back in time.
A muffled giggle escapes the play place. Taking my eyes off the man’s gnarled knuckles as they gesture mid-memory, I catch sight of my daughter’s happy curls bouncing. In my mind, I make her a promise: I will tell you the stories.
I will tell her about this man, the man from Chick-fil-A. I will tell her about his British bride, so adored, so missed, that her husband carried their wedding photo everywhere, years after her death, and showed it to strangers.
I will tell her about her great-grandfather—my grandfather, Frank: How when he was a boy the milkman rode a horse—a horse!—and delivered milk to back doors in glass bottles, and on icy mornings the tops would pop open. How when he grew up, he went to war, and although many of his friends didn’t make it home, he did. How one balmy spring night in 1946, when the whole world was just daring to live again, to love again, Frank fell in love with Jane, a spunky redhead with a laugh as big as New Jersey.
How they almost called off the wedding on account of that laugh, because one rain-soaked afternoon Frank got his finger trapped in an umbrella, and the madder he got, the harder Jane laughed, until finally he stalked away with the umbrella still clamped to his finger. How he eventually forgave her (it would make a great story for the grandkids, after all), and a few weeks later she walked down the aisle in Westfield, New Jersey, beaming over a bouquet of hydrangeas. How as newlyweds they were the first couple in their town to get a new car—no one had seen a new car for years—and everywhere they drove that car, a black Chevrolet Fleetline with silver trim, a crowd gathered.
How they finally saved enough to move out of Frank’s parents’ home, and their neighbors helped them build their house, because that’s what neighbors did. How Frank shouted in his sleep for years, still haunted by nightmares of battle. How they moved to Florida and hoarded shoeboxes full of soap, because you never knew when a Florida hurricane, or another Depression, or wartime rations, might hit again.
How they had four daughters, twelve grandchildren, and friends beyond counting. How they grew old together and pulled up an extra chair and made space between them for their insecure granddaughter, and when she was with them she wasn’t lonely, she wasn’t insecure. How way back when, first they saved the world, and then they saved a girl.
My daughter won’t get it, I know—can we ever truly grasp the lives of those who came before? appreciate the extent of their sacrifices? fathom the depths of their losses, the heights of their joys?—but I hope when it’s my turn, she’ll pull up a chair and listen. I hope she’ll hang on every word of my stories. And not just my stories—her grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ stories, too.
Frank and Jane’s stories.
The Chick-fil-A man’s stories.
The stories of the great generation we lost when she was still learning words.
And maybe she’ll realize that their story is my story is her story, forever intertwined. And maybe we’ll help the greatest generation live on after all.