Some people are not easy to love or even like, their temperament or personality are just too abrasive. When someone like that is in your family, you love them and care about them the best you can, but the relationship is never close. My mother’s father was one of those people. He was cold and distant, generally unpleasant and unkind.
I never knew much about him, I knew he was religious. So much so that when the door to door missionaries came they avoided our house because my grandpa could out talk anyone about God. I knew he had fought in WWII with the army. I knew his father had been a drunk who abused his wife and children brutally before he died when my grandfather was a teenager, leaving him in charge of providing for his pregnant mother and 4 younger siblings. His mother gave birth to her 6th child after her husband’s death, but the baby died at 9 months in my grandfather’s arms.
Growing up he was always just in the background, he rarely spoke to us and if he did it was normally unkind. According to my aunts, he had always been like this and age had only made it worse. They had no real fond memories of their father and doubted they ever would.
As I got older, I began to be curious about him and his life? What had his life been like? Had he truly always been this way?
We didn’t find out the finer details of his life until he died, his life had been neatly sorted into boxes and folders, bits of paper and written on the back of envelopes. We found the normal things one would find sorting through a lifetime of paperwork, boxes of taxes forms and insurance forms, receipts and newspaper clippings. In his weathered maple desk, we found folders upon folders full of cards and letters, school programs and crayon drawings from his daughters. On the back of each folder, written in familiar shaky hand writing was a memory he had of his children, progressing through the years. We had been so sure that none of the items sent to him or given to him meant a thing but now, we weren’t so sure.
Over the next many weeks, we began to piece together his life in greater detail, slowly understanding him more and more. Among the things we found among his belongings were bundles of old photographs. It quickly became obvious that these had been taken by my grandfather during the World War II. Many of the photos were scenery shots, or photos of other men in uniform but there were photos amongst these rather mundane photos that gave us a glimpse into a previously unknown part my grandfather’s life.
The photos captured the horrors and misery of concentration camps in Europe. He took photos of the dead bodies littering the ground, the people who had been left to starve when the men running the camps fled and the horrible conditions people had been forced to live in. We had never seen these photos before and perhaps he had hidden them away for a reason. Perhaps he was afraid he’d get in trouble for taking them in the first place. My grandfather had gone from the horrors of his home life to becoming the provider for his family of 6, to a soldier who witnessed some of the worst atrocities against mankind. All before his 20th birthday.
This cold, mean man from my childhood seems much more human now and his story stays with me. I just wish I could have known who my grandfather was deep down, buried under the weight of the world and secrets he’d carried for 80 years.