There have been moments when I’ve found myself staring at the other end of extraordinary stories. My favorite until recently was a couple of years back.
He-Man and I visited Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in Eastern Germany. While there, I meandered through a special memorial spotlighting several women housed there (although, I’m not sure we could even call it that). I was drawn to a particular profile. Her name was Irma Eckler. She and her husband were committed to each other and their two children even though the law would not allow them to marry because she was a Jew. She eventually died at Ravensbruck and the information on the board offered very little about what happened to her family. Her face, her life, haunted me.
And then something amazing happened.
A few months later I was doing research and came upon a breathtaking photo. It was of a man standing in a sea of people. Every one of them was hailing Hitler. Except him. He stood there, silent and straight. With his arms crossed over his body, it was clear. He was intentionally refusing to follow the masses and refusing to sustain the dictator.
It was one of the most beautiful pictures I’d ever seen. And then I noticed the name: August Landmesser. Somehow, it sounded familiar. I wracked my brain for a moment then remembered. August was Irma’s husband. Her profile at the camp offered none of this information. To happen upon the rest of the story was serendipitous.
A couple of weeks ago, I had another one of these experiences. Only this time, it hit closer to home.
I have truly been blessed to have two wonderful women I consider to be my patriarchal grandmothers. One was my biological grandmother. The other, the one who helped raise me.
My grandfather was among the liberating forces who went into Italy after the dictator Mussolini was overthrown. Grandpa recalled the anguish that came from seeing the utter devastation WWII brought to the country but also how tender it was to see the American flag rising above the rubble. Serving in this capacity, seeing all the destruction first hand, left him broken.
After the war, he returned home to Utah, met my grandmother then married her. Shortly after, he was asked to serve a mission for his church. Remarkably, he was sent to an area near where he labored as a soldier. The service he rendered brought music to hundreds of people in war torn Belgium. He often said that as the war broke him, that mission saved him.
After two and a half years, my grandmother joined him and they toured Europe together. Among their adventures, they went to the Heckel factory in Germany and purchased a bassoon. Their signatures are on the ledger still used today. That beautiful bassoon now belongs to my brother who plays it professionally.
The time my grandpa and grandma spent in Europe was precious. But they couldn’t have possibly known how precious it really was. After spending a decade and a half together and adding four children to their family, my grandmother died of Lupus. My grandfather eventually remarried my sweet grandma Marge.
During my first semester in college, I lived with Grandpa and Grandma Marge. Once I got bored while writing a paper and explored the desk in my bedroom. Inside, I found old letters from the time my biological grandparents were apart. That night I learned what a real love letter looks like and that they really, I mean really loved each other.
(Fast forward 20 years to now)
My grandfather has been gone for a few years now. And I still love visiting that house and my grandma Marge. One morning, she invited me to her home to investigate an old Samsonite suitcase she found in the deepest regions of her storage room. After lunch and a quick visit I headed back home to dive into this newly found treasure.
You would never guess, in a million years, what was in that suitcase…
100,000 one dollar bills?
An old, crumbly map to the family jewels?
Inside among precious trinkets and mementos was my grandma’s 65 year old underwear. And we’re not talking grannie-panties either. These were beautiful, sexy, my-grandparents-had-swagger pieces of lingerie.
Suddenly, I felt like I was part of a Paul Harvey ‘Rest of the Story’. Decades ago I read love letters. 5 years ago I went to the Heckel factory where they purchased our family’s most prized possession. Two weeks ago I found another piece of the puzzle of their life together.
Mingled with the awe of this discovery and a bit of discomfort rifling through another woman’s unmentionables was the feeling that there was a message hidden within. What was it? What would YOU put in an old dusty Samsonite for your posterity to discover generations later?
It’s been easy for me to build up the grandmother I never knew as this fictitious, larger than life caricature of the person she was. I know so little but every so often, I get to learn more.
She probably spent mornings making breakfast for her family. I’ll bet she sang lullabies to her kids as they fell asleep. She probably even had bad days and yelled at them sometimes. But I’ll bet she played hide-and-seek with them too. And when she was hiding, she probably made out with my grandpa in the pantry.
In the movie ‘Ever After’ an old woman tells the story of Cinderella to the Brothers Grimm. She leaves them with this statement:
“My great-great-grandmother’s portrait hung in the university up until the Revolution. By then, the truth of their romance had been reduced to a simple fairy tale. And, while Cinderella and her prince *did* live happily ever after, the point, gentlemen, is that they lived.”
While my grandparents’ time together was brief..shorter than the time He-Man and I have had, they were happy together. I feel like the message hidden in that pile of nighties and satin lingerie is ‘Love him. Choose him everyday and love him completely’.
That’s not a bad lesson to send from the grave.
And so, I’ve decided to someday fill my own Samsonite suitcase with treasures too. This, for the sole purpose of astonishing my posterity. I hope they marvel at the sight of it all. Maybe I’ll throw in an iPhone and a bottle of sparkly OPI nail polish…or maybe a strand of pearls…once I feel old enough to wear them. That won’t be all though. I want to make ’em blush too. So if you need me, you’ll find me at Victoria’s Secret.