Tuesday, January 30, 2018

My Grandmother's European Tour

During World War II, my grandmother, Mary Bailey (later, Bowen), was in Texas serving in the Army as a nurse. My mother was five years old at the time, and left back in West Virginia in the care of her grandmother, Addie Bailey. My grandma was away from sometime in 1943 until September 1945; my mother remembers this specific return date, and remembers the extended family members living at her grandmother’s during this time. Only one man was around, one of her uncles who had a deferment; the rest had been drafted. This story of my grandma’s service was something I heard as a child and in the way of family stories, didn’t appreciate more fully until I grew up and had kids of my own, and no longer had her around to ask about these many months away from home. I do know and remember that she was very proud of her career, which continued in private practices after she returned, and of her service in the Army. As well she should have been.

Recently I was going through photographs and mementos with my mother, things both from her boxes and those moved over from my grandparents’ home. I’ve always had an interest in family photos and thought I had seen all of them, but some of these items I hadn’t. My grandparents have been gone for over a decade, but my uncle had been living in their place until his passing, a couple of years ago. So.
We came across some papers regarding a trip my grandmother took in 1962. Apparently, the professional organization of nurses to which she belonged planned a European tour. She traveled with them for a month, making stops throughout Italy, France, Germany, etc. My mother was already married and out of the house but her brothers—my two uncles who were born after the war—were fifteen and sixteen. We found the many letters my grandma wrote home, detailing her impressions (loved Capri, underwhelmed by Florence, etc.). In some of them, she mentioned her disappointment about not having a letter waiting for her at one of the hotels on the itinerary she’d left my grandfather and the boys. Apparently, they’d been given the directive to send these letters, so they’d be waiting at her stops. This is so like my grandma, I can’t even tell you. Overseeing everyone, being very clear about what is expected of you, making you feel your importance in her life while also being good to herself. There were a few letters from the eldest of her sons: telling her about a new girlfriend, hinting to the fact that he’d been promised a car when she returns.

I loved reading my grandma’s impressions along her journey and seeing her familiar, steady handwriting. I love that she made a few notes about souvenirs she wanted to purchase along the way. And I love, most of all, that she had the gumption to make the trip in the first place. Like my grandma, I’ve always loved travel and also like her, I’ve been known to be good to myself from time to time. My kids are about the age my uncles were when she went on this trip and I can’t even imagine doing something like that at this stage. In some ways, it was easier to go away when they were a bit younger. I don’t know if that’s because it feels like there are so many more things to keep a handle on these days, or because their time as children is so dangerously nearing its end. At any rate, I know this opportunity must have been difficult for her in many ways, but also very rewarding. Like her time in the Army. Like anything worth doing in this life, which has a way of presenting opportunities and challenges arm in arm.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka