August 15, 1918
Near Amiens, France
There is good news on the war front! We continue to push the Germans back. Morale among the men is higher than I have yet seen. There is an unspoken sense that the end of this terrible conflict might be in sight.
Please do not worry about me. Having made it through until now, I feel confident that I will come home alive and well.
Congratulations on your appointment! “Professor of Agricultural Science, University of Kentucky.” It sounds quite grand.
Best to Louisa.
Saturday, June 11, 2016
The sound of a gun salute echoed through the morning fog that feathered the hills of Arlington National Cemetery. Somewhere on the grounds, some soldier – or sailor, Marine or airman – was being laid to rest.
I turned my attention back to the marker in front of me.
DEC 2 1949
NOV 17 1980
Beside me, Pete re-folded the map he’d been studying. “This is a gorgeous setting.”
It was a lovely site, with trees scattered around, deep enough in the cemetery to feel tranquil, separated enough from the tourist traffic to feel secluded. I said, “I wish it wasn’t so far from home.”
“Your dad didn’t consider one of California’s cemeteries?”
“Not at the time. Being buried at Arlington is an honor. Besides, my grandparents were still living, and this was much closer for them.”
Footsteps sounded behind us, and I turned to see Jeff, Val, Kevin, and Kristen approaching. Kristen had never been to Arlington before; Kevin had been showing her the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and other sites of interest. Now they stopped, Kevin and Kristen on my left and Jeff and Val to Pete’s right, and contemplated Mom’s headstone.
We stood quietly for a few moments, then Kristen said, “Pete? Val? Why don’t we see more of the cemetery?”
I smiled; Kristen was giving Jeff, Kevin and me some time alone. Val understood. “Good idea. We’ll be back soon.”
They wandered away, consulting Pete’s map. The three of us stood for a minute, then Jeff lowered himself next to the marker. “Hi, Mom.”
I bit my lip and sat down beside him. Jeff was the only one of us that had vague memories of Mom; he’d been nearly three when she was killed in a car accident.
Kevin sat on my other side. We said nothing for a few minutes. Eventually I asked, “Do you all ever dream about her?”
Jeff said, “Hardly ever.”
Kevin said, “Maybe once a year, I dream about the accident. I’m the first cop on the scene, and she’s reaching out to me, and I can’t get her out of the car.”
“Oh, Kev.” I wrapped my arm around his shoulders. “I had no idea.”
“I know that’s not the way it happened, that she was killed instantly – but you can’t help your dreams, right?”
“No.” I rested my chin on Kevin’s shoulder for a moment. “How long have you had them?”
“Since the academy.” He snuffled, and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
Jeff chuckled. “Sarge would have your hide if he saw you do that.”
Kevin smiled. “I know.” He took a long, shuddering breath and composed himself. “Do you dream about her?”
I said, “Yeah. But they’re good dreams. Usually I’m sitting on the beach, and she comes and sits beside me, and I tell her stuff.”
Kevin’s expression was bleak. “I’d like that.”
I gave him another one-armed hug and let go. “Do you remember our grandparents?”
He grunted. “I remember Sarge throwing them off his property.”
“I remember that argument, but I don’t remember why it happened.”
Jeff said, “I do. I had a broken arm. Remember when I fell out of the tree in the Fortners’ back yard? Kev was scuffed up from a collision at home plate in Little League, and you’d just started playing youth rugby and had bruises all over. Our grandmother saw that and went ballistic. She told Dad she was suing for custody again.”
“I know that was the last time we saw them.”
Jeff said, “I doubt we’d have seen much of them if Mom had lived. Remember the video I made, where Mom says her mother is full of shit?”
I chuckled. “Yeah. You think she wasn’t close to her parents?”
“I have that impression, though I’m not sure why.”
Kevin said, “If she had been, Dad would have made an effort to keep them in our lives. I bet she’d have been thoroughly pissed to know that they tried to take us away from Dad.”
Jeff smiled grimly. “You know it.”
We sat for a while longer. Kevin slowly traced the engravings on the marker with his finger. I looked around at the trees and flowers and felt at peace.
We were in Virginia for two purposes. First, we were going to the Library of Congress for an exhibit. In honor of the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, a 1921 skirmish between coal miners and mine operators in Boone County, West Virginia, the library was displaying a collection of photos of people and places in the area from the time around the battle. I’d seen one of the pictures incidentally, in the office of my fellow UCLA librarian Sheila Meadows; Sheila’s grandfather was pictured. Each man’s name was handwritten on the picture at the man’s feet. One of the names was Jarrell.
I knew that my mom’s maternal grandfather was a Jarrell who’d been a coal miner in West Virginia. I knew nothing else except that he’d died young. I hoped to get more information about the picture and to learn Jarrell’s first name. If I had his first name and approximate age, I might be able to find records that would show whether or not he was a relative.
Our second purpose was a Brodie family reunion, culminating in my cousin Tyler’s big, fat, gay wedding at the Army-Navy Country Club in two weeks. All of my cousins were coming, even the one in Germany. No one was bringing their kids. Jeff and Val had left my nephews with Val’s parents. We were free to have all the adult fun we could stand.
We were staying at my Uncle Dennis’s house in McLean. Denny’s fourth wife, Toni, had only met my branch of the family once, at Pete’s and my wedding, but had graciously opened her home to the horde. Toni, a petite Southern belle, didn’t know quite what to make of Val or Kristen, both of whom towered over her and, without the dampening influence of my nephews, swore as much as any of us guys.
After about fifteen more minutes Kevin stood, grabbed my hand and hauled me to my feet. “It’s time to go.” We were meeting Dennis at the Pentagon Metro station. He was going to give us a personalized tour of the Pentagon, his workplace.
As if on cue, Pete, Val and Kristen materialized at the edge of the grass. We joined them and walked away; I cast one final glance at Mom’s grave.
We’d come back before we left town.