67 Years Ago

It was cold in Portland, and my grandparents were young—twenty two—and newly married. When they heard the news, they left their little house together and walked. They didn’t talk, and they didn’t know where they were going. They just walked and walked. They ended up, long past lunch time, at my great-grandmother’s house, all the way on the other side of the city.

That was all my grandmother told. I remember hearing it as a little kid, too little to begin to understand. I remember the first time I asked about it: Why did you walk so far, Grammy? Her answer was no more clear: We didn’t know what else to do. I was eight. Why not? She told me, Because we knew your granddaddy would have to go to war. Leaving me to imagine—which I still couldn’t, yet—what it meant for them to know that.

My granddaddy did go to war, and came home safely, thanks to a bout of the measles that landed him, at a key moment, in the hospital rather than on the battlefield. My grandmother spent the war in Denver, operating a cash register at a grocery store. When it was over, they danced in the streets. They told us all that, every time.

But these days when I think about that walk, I think about it unsoftened, without the ending. I think about two people just starting their lives together, already having seen some tough years, and suddenly knowing the shape and length of their lives would depend on something utterly beyond their control. I think about their silence. I imagine rain.

If my grandparents were still around, I’d ask them what came next—not years later, but that afternoon. I’ve imagined it: My great-grandmother’s house was warm. She made them soup and bread. She’d lived through her own hard times. They stayed quiet. They felt some kind of comfort sitting at her table. She drove them home. It could be true.

I want to ask them, What did you do when you got home? I suspect the answer is so unnotable as to be a little scary: they did just what they always did in the evening, just like we do, these days. Swept the floor. Read a little, maybe. Went to bed. Knowing—and not knowing at all—what would happen the next day, and the day after that, and after that.

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