Surviving World War II was merely the beginning for Phyllis and James Moquist.
I wasn’t invited to sit in on the very end of life stuff for my grandfather on my mother’s side. But over a Thanksgiving weekend in 2000 I saw the end of the man I’d known. By then, I was in my mid-20s and had retreated to their home via train for a long weekend because I had just been broken up with, lost my job and currently didn’t have a mailing address. I disguised this not-having-a-whole-lot-to-do station not-so-cleverly from the rest of my family under the pretense that I wanted to spend more time with them. But, since they were my family, they knew this not to be true. They knew something was up.
My grandmother especially. Today, all 92 years of her has spent a lifetime collecting the detritus of her family’s problems and storing them in some giant pocket she hides from view. I imagined once, as I glimpsed a homemade apron her own mother passed down to her, that all our family things live there. Maybe she’ll have it buried with her or maybe she’ll have it redistributed—this wealth of inequity and lingering and regression; questions our conversations do not reveal—when she leaves. I do not know the plan. She won’t say anything about our inheritance.
She sort of called me out the night of my arrival as I tucked in on their couch underneath a blanket that I marked as “mine” when I was five when I got sick all over it. It was purchased in Peru in the ‘60s during their travels and has a giant figure stitched into it that looks like an 8-bit video game villain but is really some symbol of hope or trust or maybe problems from a forgotten village. It sits folded nicely in my closet and I spy it on certain mornings when it peeks out from underneath the laundry pile as I’m getting ready.
“Your grandfather wants you maybestay,” she said, well ahead of her day with the short-hand neologisms and the sarcasm. “But if you have somewhere else to go…”
My grandparents were of few words even though they bathed in them. They were two-paper/two books-a-day people. The library was an every-other-day stop, more frequented than the grocer. By grandfather seemed to read with revenge on his mind. He read in English and French and German. He could understand a little Latin and taught himself Italian by reading up on his coins, some of them Roman dating back to the time of Caesar—which he often spoke of as if he lived in it. And for a time, I thought he had. I never considered him brilliant because he didn’t ever really describe just how he could sit there for hours and look at one stamp or justify to me why it was the right thing to polish his shoes twice for every time he wore them. These are the mysteries of that man that still concern me. There was a vague notion, and it persists today, that he had figured men should spend their free time in pursuits trivial but enriching to the interior life.
My grandmother once said her “unfairly handsome” husband wasn’t always the most attentive or, what they call today, present father. It had to do with a lot of things, she supposed. His own father, a professional gambler who would die alone and destitute in a trailer run aground in the Las Vegas desert, was a Swedish gentleman with light eyes and a mild temper. His mother, a rigid Irish woman with painted-on features, could barely force herself to pretend to warm to my grandmother or her children. Her terse beauty and casual lilt both ill-suited to hide a hardened woman. My grandfather moved between Richmond, California where he was born, to Tacoma, Washington where he grew up, to the Central Valley, where he became a young man. He was drafted into the Army moments after he and my grandmother, herself of German stock uprooted from the farm in Minnesota during The Depression, found themselves hurtled together. They lived separately for four years.
She didn’t expect him to come back and neither did he. There are full stories she scrolls through in her head to give us but a snippet. The night he returned, his overcoat was filled with money won from other soldiers on the train home gambling their discharge bonuses. And oh, so many condoms. She said it just like that.
In the six decades to follow she managed their relationship and, just as she does with the emotional stuff, did the physical heavy-lifting during the child-raising years. Neither my mother or uncle profess to having had a “hands-on” father. My mother got through with good grades and sharp features and my uncle grew his hair long and played guitar. But my grandfather gave “everything he had left” my grandmother would say. I used to think that meant everything beyond the worries of his job selling potatoes in the dusty, chemical back offices of sheds in places like Shafter and Wasco and Lamont—but in the end, it was more about what he had to give after his childhood and the war.
Watching those sepia World War II movies fashioned around the time of his departure from the likes of Spielberg, Hanks and Eastwood, I never identified my grandfather in the bunch. He was the one out of frame, joking or reading or drawing or gambling or drinking or writing letters. One evening in my pre-teens as he was rubbing his boots with Kiwi cordovan, he showed me a gun, a Walther P38, wrapped in a rag and stored at the bottom of a shoeshine box kept in a part of his closet that was protected by booby traps and secret doors. “This,” he said, “was pointed at me.” And then he wrapped it up and put it back.
There were sparks of a follow-up story that weren’t revealed until that Thanksgiving weekend. A man, a German POW, being transported on one of the trains my grandfather helped drive across France, stashed a gun on board. He pulled it out at an opportune time and apparently there was some kind of exchange or some kind of struggle or some kind of negotiation. It was not difficult to disarm a starving man, my grandfather said, deflating the drama I was after.
There was an Austrian man my grandfather corresponded with for decades following the war. They’d both raised families. Perhaps they were connected by thirty seconds of conflict we don’t have the luxury to revisit with drones and faceless enemies hell-bent on ratings-grabbing statement killings via Twitter. Face to face, meeting your own reflection in the milky eyes of your enemy, motivations cloudy with the anticipation of regret for what you’re capable of in such situations. And from that conflict, maybe a ray of clarity of what a single bullet would mean for all the years to follow. Somehow, an understanding was reached. Or maybe the Austrian was too weak to pull the trigger.
Veterans Day started as Armistice Day in 1918, the symbolic end of World War I. The war to end all wars. My grandfather pointed this out to me when in fourth grade I presented him a flag made of construction paper and dyed red, white and blue cotton balls. He refused to pin the flag to his fridge and instead folded it consequently and carefully placed it underneath a stack of the week’s papers. He told me he didn’t think much of the day to mark the end of the war that was closed out in such a frenzy that another war was inevitable.
He said, if I remember something on Veterans Day it should never be about him but that wars persist as long as people do, whether it’s for a righteous cause or not.
Then he went back to his book.