The Way It Was| Part 6

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Lao Tzu

Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.

Introduction: Welcome to Part 6 of The Way It Was from Eshrink. In Post 5, Eshrink wrote about his memories of the late 1930s (pre-war for Americans, but wartime for Europe). He also described everyday life, the values and customs of the day, as well as working conditions that he remembers from his dad’s stories working at a tile factory. In Part 6: Eshrink will write about his first experience with death, which is one reason he posits that he remembers this pre-war period so clearly.

The Way It Was: Part 6

Death | Funerals | Customs

Meanwhile,  ”across the pond,” the German panzers were on their way to achieving their goal of world domination.  In October 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. I recall the name Neville Chamberlain being disparaged, but later learned that his sin was in attempting to appease Hitler in order to spare England from attack.

chamberlain and hitler dads blogIt seemed that everyone except him knew that there would be no stopping the Germans until they had punished all of Europe for Germany ‘s defeat in WWI.  Those dates are remembered by me since the death of my paternal Grandfather was during the Russian invasion of Finland, which happened three months after Germany conquered Poland.  As we listened to the news, I was enthralled by stories of how, although hopelessly outnumbered, a few brave Fins had held off the entire Russian army with soldiers attacking on skis.  That would not be the last propaganda we would hear designed to bolster our spirits.

FInns on skis fighting russians dads blogDeath

My Grandfather’s death was illuminating in several ways.  This was my first experience in dealing with death, and I didn’t like it.  I visited him with Dad just two days before his death.  He was on his death bed as the saying goes and suffering from pneumonia, which has been called the “old man’s friend.”  In years to come, I would hear Dad express regrets that he had not complied with his Father’s last wish to bring him a bottle of Muscatel wine.  As was the custom, when my grandfather died, he was laid out in the parlor for all to see. There was a steady stream of visitors to offer both regrets and food.  In spite of the sadness of the occasion, I was enamored with all those goodies the ladies left on the kitchen table.

The burial was scheduled for three days after his death, which I have been told is just in case of a resurrection.  Ostensibly, for the same reason, it was mandatory that someone stay with the body night and day during the “showing.”  In this case, his children and their spouses took turns standing guard.  I have since read that the custom actually originated due to the fear that rats might undermine the undertaker’s efforts and spoil the whole show.  This particular death is also memorable because it was the only time I ever saw my Father cry.

It was customary to “take leave,” an exercise which took me by complete surprise!  The entire family was herded into the parlor, the door was closed, and suddenly as if on cue, everyone began to sob.  It was so loud that I cringed, and one of my aunts, who was famous for fainting at every opportunity, slipped from her husband’s arms and fell to the floor.  Just as I thought of a way to escape, the sobbing suddenly stopped. Again, as if on cue, eyes were dried, the undertaker closed the casket, and we headed for church where Scud’s virtues were briefly extoled and we made ready for the short walk to the graveyard behind the church (grandad’s real name was Jesse but known in the community as Scud).  Most of his friends would probably not even know his real name.  One’s given name was only to be used by strangers.  It had been a tough day, but all that pie and cake back at the house almost made up for it.

One of my regrets is that I feel as if I had never known either of my Dad’s parents very well in spite of having vague memories of visits there.  Although Grandad apparently had serious problems with alcohol, it now seems to me that he has not been given credit for some major accomplishments.  My one fond memory of him was when he introduced me to sugar on my tomatoes, which converted me to a tomato lover.  At the viewing, one of his acquaintances referred to him as a “tough old bird” which might contribute to him becoming the subject of another blog in the future.   It seems strange that I remember Grandma’s sister but little about Grandma.  The sister hosted the annual family reunion at the large dairy farm where she lived in a grand farmhouse.  We looked forward to these celebrations as they were great fun.  There were cousins galore and an abundance of the participants’ favorite recipes.  One of the highlights of the day was the performance by my great Uncle, who was an award winning “old time fiddler.”

Pre-War America as I Remember It.

During those prewar days, Europe took little notice of my small part of the world, but we were very concerned about what was going on over there.  There was vigorous debate as to what extent the US should be involved.  FDR had managed to increase military spending, and wanted to sell weapons to England.  The isolationists were successful in their opposition to even peripheral involvement by US.  Their view was that we were safe from attack due to the 3,000+ miles of ocean between–an idea that was soon to be squashed.  FDR in one of his fireside chats announced that he was implementing a program he called “lend lease” in which we would lease rather than sell arms to England.   He thereby by-passed Congress and everyone knew that Hitler’s submarines would be gunning for any transport of arms to Europe, which would inevitably lead to war.  I was old enough to understand some of this, and listened to some heated debates on the subject.

Meanwhile, the Germans were gobbling up property as fast as their tanks could take it.  They were conquering France with little difficulty, along with lesser countries.  France had felt themselves impregnable due to the Maginot line; a series of fortifications lining their border with Germany.  Dunkirksoldier1It was a marvel of engineering which I had read about in history class, but its effectiveness was lost when the Huns simply went around it, picking up Belgium in the process.  With that they were able to surround the French and English forces leading to the disaster at Dunkirk as in the recent movie by that name.