Certain members of my family are still angry with me over this blog, and they’ve made that clear in various ways. It’s funny – a few family members are so completely against my publishing this information and don’t want it ‘getting out there’, but at the same time tell me that it’s all nonsense and none of it is true. So which is it? Why would you be so angry with me for putting out fake information? Why the panic if none of it is true? I may have gotten a partial answer this weekend.
I got a call on Saturday, from my great aunt. She was my grandfather’s cousin, so I guess that makes her my great aunt – something like that. We always called her Great Aunt Rita, in any case. I never knew her well – we saw her a couple times a year when I was a kid, like during big holiday get-togethers, but we were never close. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t even realize she was still alive. In this technological age we live in, it’s so easy to talk to strangers around the world, while we also lose touch with the people who matter most.
So Great Aunt Rita had been talking to this relative, who had been talking to that relative, etc…, about my blog here, and she said she had a story to tell me. She lives in a nursing home in Massachusetts now, and Saturday we had a pretty big snow storm here in Providence, so I headed out to the nursing home on Sunday, around lunch time, after the roads were mostly clear.
My great aunt looks good for someone of her age; she turned 91 in November, she said. She has a lot of trouble getting around, as one would expect, but her mind is still sharp and her memory is good. She even recounted things about my childhood that I had nearly forgotten. We made pleasant small talk for a good half hour and I was enjoying myself, talking to her about the past, but there was also a constant lurking apprehension over what she had brought me there to tell me. She must have sensed it, because she finally asked me to shut the door to her room. Even with the door closed, she lowered her voice and spoke quietly, so I had to focus on every word of her story.
I assumed she would tell me something about my grandpa Joe, since they were cousins and hung out together a lot when they were young. It wasn’t, though – not directly, anyway. It was a story she was told by her father, who heard it from my great-grandfather many many years ago, just after the end of World War I.
The story Rita told me was second or possibly third-hand and close to a century old, and there was no detail related to what actually happened to my great-grandfather behind enemy lines in Germany. When the tale is added to what I learned in the partially burned letter I found in my grandfather’s steamer trunk, however, this story takes on a sinister feel, and I can only imagine what unholy things occurred deep within that German forest.
It turns out that my great-grandfather Wilfred’s safe return in World War I caused something of a controversy, both because the initial reports were that all men were killed, and because Wilfred and his three companions showed up in England, over five hundred miles away from the attack, and across the well patrolled stretch of the English Channel. The story my great aunt heard was that they were unable to account for how they made it back into friendly territory, or how they made it to England without either air or water transportation, which would have had to be military at the time. The four men were separated and questioned by military police and military intelligence for nearly a full week, according to Great Aunt Rita, and their stories were all identical – that they escaped from the attack, met in the woods in Germany, and then five days later they woke up in a burned-out monastery in England. They had no memories of anything that happened in that five day span. The army was somehow able to verify the men were, in fact, part of the convoy, and they had specific information related to the attack, so the military knew they were not deserters, but I guess there was some concern about ‘collusion with the enemy’.
Eventually all four men were cleared and their lack of memory was diagnosed as ‘shell shock’ from the terrible ordeal of the attack, and all four were eventually re-assigned. My great-grandfather swore he had no memory how they reached England from Germany, and he has no idea how they lost five days of time… but my Great Aunt Rita said that her father told her there was something unusual about my great grandfather’s story (more unusual than magically appearing in England) and that her father said that it was clear Wilfred was leaving something out. When pressed for more detail, my great grandfather crossed himself and uttered something unintelligible. He is supposed to have said – again, third hand and nearly a hundred years ago – that his survival was a miracle, but it had nothing to do with God – at least not any God that ‘civilized men’ were familiar with. She said they never spoke of it again, but the conversation so intrigued her that she never forgot it, and other relatives talking to her – complaining – about my Blog brought the memories back.
I know that in her generation, and the generation of my great-grandfather, they were much more god-fearing, much more open to angels and devils and the supernatural, but the idea that my great-grandfather called his survival a miracle, but then said it had nothing to do with God… to me, that’s really chilling.