Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ted and Ginger and Dianne

My grandfather served on the USS Salute in 1945. That year, on June 8th, she sank, broken in two pieces after striking a mine in pre-invasion activities off Brunei Bay. Each year since 1985, the sailors of the Salute meet during the week of that anniversary. They bring their families, exchange tall tales, and tell the stories of their childhood and their service to a historical volunteer. The last couple of years the interviews were filmed. We sit in the meeting room and watch the stories unfold, each the same and each quite different. As the years pass, the men age and are slowly lost to sickness or to time.

For the last couple of years, they held the reunions here in Oklahoma. I’ve been close and lucky enough to attend. This year we all traveled to Bartlesville, an oil-boom town in the northeastern part of the state. My grandfather and my mother grew up there, my father and I just across the county line to the east. It’s familiar country, a place sprung from Delaware and Cherokee Indians, hard-scrabble pioneers, back-breaking work and the bounty of a part of the state deemed “Green Country”.

I’ve never been close to my grandfather. Ted is a small, handsome man who’s led a hard life, mostly by his own choice. When he tells stories of the war, he speaks of women he chased through California where he was stationed, the buddies who accompanied him, and his repeated instances of being absent without leave, which he casually refers to as “jumping ship”. His first wife, my grandmother, was Californian by way of Illinois. Ginger, as she was called, caught rheumatic fever as an adolescent. Her heart badly damaged, her parents moved the entire family out west for the sunshine and the clean air. That’s where they met. He tried to marry her when she was just seventeen, but her father blocked the union. Ted went to war. Ginger waited.

When the Salute sank, my grandfather sustained a head injury, spent about two weeks unconscious, and woke up state side. With his medical discharge in process and a keen sense of his own mortality, he picked Ginger up, took her to Arizona and married her there. Ginger stood four feet, eleven inches with blonde hair, pale skin, and light eyes, a lovely, tiny young woman. My mother was born in California in April of 1946. By May of 1949, Ginger’s rheumatic heart failed. She died at the age of twenty-two leaving behind her husband and a three-year-old daughter.

My grandfather quickly remarried a woman who preferred to pretend his first wife did not exist. I know very little about Ginger, only hearing how my grandparents met for the first time last year, after the second wife died. Ginger is a cipher, a beautiful face in a black-and-white photograph, an almost entirely unknown quantity.

My daughter, at twenty, stands about five feet, two inches tall, with blonde hair, luminous pale skin, and hazel-green eyes. She is a lovely, tiny young woman. In the hotel this past June, as the reunion group lingered over breakfast, my daughter came to visit. I was upstairs in my room, still preparing for the day, so she went down to the lobby with the old sailors and their families. My mother asked my daughter questions about college and my daughter, an animated student of theater and French, began telling stories. My grandfather watched her with obvious delight. When I came into the room a bit later, she rose to hug me and the conversation lulled. My mother overheard my grandfather say to the sailor next to him, with a smile on his face, “She reminds me of my first wife.”

My daughter, unbeknownst to her, gave my mother a precious gift that day: an idea of what her mother may have been like. It’s a sweet and precious debt, one that will never be repaid.