Meeting Their Misfortunes
There was before and there was after. By now, the details feel mundane. I had a brother and then, one bright August morning on Rt. 80, near Bloomsburg, PA, I didn’t. His car slid under a flatbed truck parked by the side of the road. We presume he fell asleep at the wheel, blinded by the rising sun. He had fought with my mother and father the night before—their discovery of marijuana the presenting crisis. In 1975, lots of teenage boys were smoking dope. Mom wanted Dad to take Rod’s keys, but Dad wouldn’t. I fell asleep to the vibrations of their anger. My mom and Rod made up the next morning, and she waved him off, back to Philadelphia. A little later, mom and I headed to New Jersey. About an hour into the drive, we passed an accident—blue and red flashing lights, rescue vehicles, a flatbed truck, the flash of a white car. Later, my mother said she knew.
We had heard the phone ringing as we unlocked my grandmother’s front door in Montclair. Grammie had died in April. We were meeting my dad and sister to clean out the house. Mom answered, pulling the curly wall phone cord toward the kitchen window.
“Mrs. Klotz?” our Irish housekeeper’s voice trembled. “Mrs. Klotz. The police called. There was an accident. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I pretended to be your sister, Mrs. Klotz.”
“What is it, Margaret?” my mother’s voice gentle.
“It’s Roddy, ma’am. He’s…he’s…oh, Mrs. Klotz—“
How could I hear this? I think I was tucked close to my mother, listening. In the face of tragedy, Margaret worried that she had impersonated a relative.
Shock seeped into us. My mother leaned against the cold enamel sink.
“It’s just like Uncle Jimmy, Mom, isn’t it?” The words tumbled from my mouth. Now I understand it was not the time. Mother’s face was marble. The 1950’s red and white accessories mocked us—colanders, teakettles, whisks—unseemly implements for mourning.
My Dad and sister were en route. My mother didn’t cry; she looked as if she had been erased. She called the practical nurse who cared for her own mother, instructing her to unplug the radio and TV, so Grannie wouldn’t hear anything until Mom could get to Haverford and tell her herself. Grannie had had four sons in WWII. Three came home. I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother, just a little older than I, losing her brother at Anzio.
We climbed the stairs to Grammie’s bedroom, passing the little glassed-in porch, half way up the flight where I had loved to read on the chaise. Mechanically, we emptied drawers.
How long were we alone? An hour, two? My mother told my dad on the threshold. He staggered, caught himself. We headed back to Haverford—more than two hours away. Now, I wonder how they got into cars and drove that afternoon? There was no other option. We were numb, Mom and I, tears sliding down her cheeks as she drove.
Our house smelled musty, as if it had been shut up, though it was full of family and a host of “courtesy” aunts and uncles, whispering. Once inside, Mom looked to the mantel for the picture of Rod’s graduation she had placed there in June.
“Where is my son?” she erupted. “Where are the pictures of my son?”
“We—we—put them away,” stammered a well-meaning someone—Aunt Sue, perhaps, Mom’s best friend.
“Put them back,” Mom demanded.
And then? Partial memories, fragments.
I didn’t know my brother well. He’d been at boarding school for four long years. I thought of a time when we had both been sick as children: Mom had a meeting; we’d been left in the guest bedroom to watch I Love Lucy on the tiny black and white TV. Companionably, we drank orange juice and meticulously counted the chips in each Chips Ahoy from the sleeve. Long gone, those times we’d sailed his bed across the carpet sea. Our camaraderie in the bowling alley at the Merion Cricket Club, whose back entrance stood at the end of our lane was fading, too. On Saturday mornings, Mr. Gallagher let us help open up. I’d fill the bowls with hard candy. Mr. G. taught us how to bowl, his patience infinite. Here was a sport at which an asthmatic boy could excel. In Mr. Gallagher’s alley during 7th and 8th grade, Rod was a champion. I, his sidekick, warmed in the circle of his affection, which, when we were by ourselves, felt huge. Once Dickie High or Geoff Drayton was near, he ignored me, occasionally tormenting me with taunts or, once, running through the house waving my training bra.
“Don’t bite, Ann,” Mother counseled, herself the survivor of four brothers. “When you react, he just teases more. Don’t give him the satisfaction.” Good advice, but hard to take.
At home the busy-ness of death took over.
In the dining room, Aunt Marim decreed, “Be strong for your mother. No dramatics. Stiff upper lip.”
There was a funeral. His classmates found their way to Bryn Mawr, filling the rear pews, boys somber in blue blazers, girls in subdued shades, solemn, hushed, marveling that one of their own had been struck down. We sang, “O God Our Help in Ages Past. I sucked a Crysto-Mint lifesaver, floating above the prayers. They rolled his coffin out to I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.
Another service in Eagles Mere occured the following week with Stairway to Heaven sung poorly by the congregation. Rod’s summer friends presented Mom with an eighteen-month-old Blue Spruce, which she planted. I look at it out the kitchen window each summer day as I cook for my own family.
My cousin and uncle went to claim the smashed up car. Under the front seat lay the tuition check for Rod’s upcoming year at Penn.
An avalanche of sympathy notes cascaded in, meticulously recorded by Aunt Sue and acknowledged by Mom. I found them when Mom prepared to sell the house we had grown up in, carefully tucked into the bottom drawer of a little bureau in the third floor bathroom, Rod’s bathroom. I wish I’d thought to keep them. Perhaps they would have evoked my brother in more detail, helped me hold onto to more than a fourteen-year-old’s understanding of her big brother.
After all the friends and relatives retreated, the endless casting on and off of sorrow, the dropped stitch lost.
I remember waking up, having forgotten that Rod had died, then recollecting. The gruesome nightmare was my life.
A few years later: college. A place where no one knew me. Lying awake the night before, I thought about what I would say if anyone asked if I had siblings. Would I say I have a sister and a brother? Just a sister and deny my brother? Speak the whole ugly tale?
Sophomore year, we went to see Harold and Maude, and, at the end, as Harold’s Jaguar soars over the cliff, I fled the lecture hall, sobbing against the wall, alone. Before my friend, Seth, came out, I pulled myself back together, shaky.
“What happened?” Seth asked.
“My brother,” I stammered. “He died four years ago. I couldn’t...I can’t…I’m sorry.”
Awkwardness subsided into pizza. Recently, Seth, now my husband of thirty years, divulged how shocked he’d been, how unprepared. How could he not have known, he wondered? How had this huge loss in my life happened before we knew each other?
My husband loved my mother fiercely, filling in for the one who wasn’t there.
Portrait of Jimmy and Charlie
My mother was the youngest of six. Lulu, Sam, Bill, Jimmy, Charlie, Mom. Portraits of Jimmy and Charlie hung in my grandmother’s dining room, little boys I never knew. Charlie came to a bad end in Boston when I was small and Jimmy died at Anzio as the Allies pushed the Germans back to take Rome.
Jimmy, about six, gazed out on the left, soulful in a red sweater, straight brown hair parted on the side, with a book in front of him. Charlie, four, is on the other side, wearing in a blue turtleneck, golden curls framing his face, clutching a worn rabbit.
Now, I have Jimmy in Cleveland and my sister has Charlie in Eagles Mere—it feels wrong to separate them, but I am glad Jimmy is with me.
So many tales about Jimmy. Why the search, the investigation, the obsession with his story? Because history repeats itself. Boys in our family must beat the odds. If I can crack the code, can I keep my own son safe?
What of that earlier loss? The boy who died at 22 at Anzio? He is as mysterious as my own brother, but he, too, was once alive, writing home to his mother almost every day, recipient of one Purple Heart, then returned to action, where, on his death, he earned another. I framed it in a shadow box. I didn’t want it lying forgotten in a drawer.
My oldest cousin says Jimmy fled Princeton to enlist in 1942 because schoolwork wasn’t going well. Mom would have been fourteen, my age when Rod died. He ignored his parents’ plea that they pull strings to get him into Officer Candidate School.
“I thought you’d want these,” Seth handed me several brown paper bags, each filled with letters from Mom’s brothers and V-Mail copies from Grannie to all four of her sons. He’d been cleaning out my mother’s condo. Sitting on the carpet, I wept. These were old griefs, a war long-finished. Now, a mother myself, I wondered how Grannie had managed to get up each morning, with four boys vulnerable in that iconic war. Not for the first time, holding missives in boyish script, I considered how my own mother managed after Rod died. How did she make coffee, send me off to school, teach me how to drive only two years after the accident, pretend we would be okay?
Donuts and Coffee
A snapshot in an Acme bag. A print I can’t ever remember not knowing; it hung in Mom’s powder room for years. There they are: Jimmy and his brother, Bill. Winter, 1944, Naples. Jimmy had been sent to the Italian front in September of ’43. Though the snapshot is black and white, I can see the dusty green khaki of their uniforms. Bill, stationed in North Africa, had arranged for Jimmy’s leave. There they are, grinning.
Jimmy, wearing a helmet, dunks a donut into Bill’s white ceramic coffee mug. Bill holds his own donut, one bite out of it, midway between cup and mouth—is he about to re-dunk? In Jimmy’s left hand is another donut. Hungry boys.
It is a three-donut, two-uncle picture, the last picture his family ever had of Jimmy, who “met his misfortune” in May as the American boys moved off the beach head at Anzio to push North toward Rome. He died May 24, the first day of the fighting, but in this picture, he is smiling as if he has the greatest secret, his smile so like my mother’s, his eyes laughing. His teeth are gorgeous. The tip of his right ear is visible under his helmet—vulnerable, unprotected. The helmet changes him, makes him look less like the serious young man in the posed formal portraits I have seen--his Haverford School yearbook photo, the color snapshot my grandmother took in their back yard the day he left. Under the helmet, his face is young, handsome, even a little mischievous—that wide smile, head turned ¾ to the camera. There are three chevrons on his sleeve. After months on the beachhead, Jimmy was committed to the unit with which he served and died. When I started going through all the family memorabilia, I found this picture in a newspaper, prints of it tucked in with letters. Now that I know it was his last likeness, I understand how precious it must have been to those who loved him, mourned him.
It must have been chilly—both are wearing jackets and Bill’s is buttoned. They both look right at the camera, happy, glad to be there, to be with each other. Their fingers are similar, long and narrow. Jimmy played the piano—at the concert level according to my mother. I wondered why we didn’t have a piano growing up. My mother said she couldn’t bear the sound. The music room in my grandparents’ house once held Jimmy’s grand piano, but when I was little had only a sofa, a TV and a rolling cart of blocks that we parked under a corner cupboard.
Coffee and donuts. What could be more American? Who took the photo? Did they suspect it would be the last time they saw each other? I look hard for fear, but they are relaxed, shoulders down, at ease. What did they talk about? Friends from home, the Main Line? Girls? Jimmy’s girl, my Aunt Joan, married Jimmy’s Princeton roommate after the war. Each Christmas, she laid a spray of Juniper on Jimmy’s grave.
Did Bill and Jimmy wonder how their parents were holding up? Swap news about their siblings? Did they talk about what was coming? There is no sorrow in the photo, no hint, except that they were both in the Army and it was 1944 and Jimmy died too young. He looks out at me, and I think, “I know you,” which is an odd thing to think about a dead uncle I never knew. It’s as if he’s about to reach across 70 years and hand me the donut. Generous—there is something generous in his grin. What a gift to have this picture instead of one of his wounded bloody body. This is the image that sticks.
It is Regatta Day, a lovely late-July Saturday in Eagles Mere, the sky cerulean, clouds floating, unhurried, over the lake, wind ruffling the water. A postcard day. Twenty Sunfish glide like bright-winged birds, tack, crisscrossing rounding the buoys, moving down the lake and back again. Atticus, our son, lies on his belly in a yellow lifejacket, trailing fingers in the water, looking longingly at its cool wetness. His sail is white, no markings. He is crewing for Hilary, who was born a Heistand. Our two families have been connected for generations. In genealogy, we trace names, relationships. On the Eagles Mere beach, I trace features. Sometimes I look up and see a face I recognize, the curve of a jaw or a tawny mane of hair pulled back, only to realize that it’s that child’s parent who was my contemporary.
By late afternoon, three races later, the regatta ends. Atticus arrives under our beach umbrella, soaking, having swum in from the dock. The Captains and their crews are called to line up for the Captain’s Walk, processing to the porch in front of the Beach Desk, where the Commodore, in full Yachting regalia, awards medals—one for everyone. Atticus is in the middle of the pack. In front of him, Barry Brogan, John Brownback, John Houstle are all called forward, each one captaining a boats as they have since the 1970s when they sailed with and against my brother, Rod. And suddenly, embarrassingly, my eyes are swimming in tears. There they are, men I have known always, grizzled, greying. Barry is still “a tall drink of water,” as Mother used to say. John Bownback’s grin and bandana suggest a pirate. John Houstle’s 19th century handlebar moustache is astonishing.
“Where are you, Rod?” I whisper to myself. “You ought to be here. Atticus should have crewed for you.”
Rod Klotz. His name is hand-painted in black letters on the white board that records the winners of each summer’s big races. The white boards hang on the bathhouse, a grid of names. And there in ’73 is my brother’s name. Rod last sailed this lake in 1975. Forty years ago. He is a phantom brother, a ghost sailor now. Newcomers in Eagles Mere don’t know we had a brother unless they glance up and connect his name with my last name on those boards. His absence startles me, notwithstanding the fact that he’s been gone a long, long time. I am sad and mad, wishing I could see what he might look like now.
He is buried in the Eagles Mere Cemetery, though for 35 years, he lay in the graveyard of the Church of the Redeemer, where we grew up. After Mom and Dad died, we moved him up here, so that all three of them could be where my sister and I are together every summer. We put Rod in between my parents, as he had been the night before he died. His death changed us, ended my parents’ marriage, which to be clear, had been foundering for some time.
As a schoolteacher early in my career and in the summer drama program we ran here in Eagles Mere, I studied the boys. Would my brother have cocked his head like that one? Laughed at my jokes like this one? Like me, Rod had eczema and asthma. Like me, he was uncanny at backgammon, rolling what we call Vauclain Doubles whenever he needed them. He had a quick temper. He wore his hair long. He was almost as tall as our dad when he died. He had a crush on a girl named Mimi. He’d made a movie that final spring at St. George’s—I can’t remember what it was about, have no idea where it is now, but the soundtrack, Yesterday, Cat Steven’s Fathers and Sons, Stairway to Heaven, are Rod’s songs. The cassette was playing when he crashed. I listen to those familiar lyrics forty years later—messages I’m still trying to decode.
It’s not time to make a change
Just relax, and take it easy
You're still young, that’s your fault
There’s so much you have to know
Find a girl, settle down
If you want you can marry
Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy
I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy
To be calm when you’ve found something going on
But take your time, think a lot
Why, think of everything you’ve got
For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.
But he isn’t here, of course. Though here, particularly, I sense him, remember that last summer. And here in Eagles Mere, his gang—Barry, Sean, Pie, Bubba, Jimmy, Tim—have all grown up, grown older. They remember. And I remember that they knew him. I wanted him to be next in the Captain’s Walk.
Atticus and Hilary did not place at the Regatta. They enjoyed each other’s company; Atticus felt at ease on the water. After Rod died, I rarely sailed—the Sunfish made me the time we’d spent on the lake, me, his willing crew; he, the skillful skipper. No big brother taught him how to tip the boat on purpose and right it again as mine once did. After Rod died, I rarely sailed—a little with my husband, but we sold the Sunfish. It made me miss my brother, the time we spent out on the lake the summer he died, me, his willing crew; him, the skillful skipper.
My son stands on the steps, his hair swept to the right as Rod wore his, his smile shy, not his uncle’s competitive victory grin. In this line up of Captains and Crew, my little boy sparks memories I thought I had forgotten. My tears subside. I am glad to be here, to grieve and to go on.
I’ve poured over Jimmy’s letters, trying to breathe life into this boy. He wrote home almost every day. He wasn’t a great speller. I imagine each envelope arriving, proof that he was still alive. With Rod’s accident, we had no warning, but Jimmy’s last letter is full of foreboding. In it, he says goodbye. Is it because I know how things ended that I sense this? That it was both uncensored and typed makes me shiver. All the other letters were handwritten. This one seems more formal. Did the higher ups know the impending battle would be a blood-bath? That the boys who had been stranded on the Beachhead for three months would not survive? The idea enrages me.
May 12, 1944 Anzio Beachhead
Dear Mother and Dad,
This letter will not be censored by the Company officers…
Much of the time, I have had the position of platoon leader because we have had no officer. I am now acting platoon sergeant and hope that I can handle the job of mortars and machine guns.
I had a pleasant talk with the chaplain the other evening. He taught at Bucknell…A fine man, with progressive, but not radical, opinions…
As to the matter of the Air Corps, I decided against it. I just couldn’t see leaving this unit now, much as I would like to, my conscience wouldn’t let me. Yes, I realize I might have been able to handle a more important job, but even this job is important and most necessary. I know that I am doing my share, so nobody can every say I haven’t! I have learned to realize that I must give myself a little credit, to establish confidence.
I do not have many moments of despair or homesickness because I know that you are there behind me, and moreover, I just can’t afford to make myself miserable. The few free moments I have are put to use writing, reading, or talking to keep up on the news and the war situation.
I enjoy letters more than words can tell…It’s a funny thing over here, but every man wants to show off his pictures...One man looked at Dad’s picture and was sure he was a Senator. I was very much amused. They were much impressed by my family, so I was all smiles!!
Well, I am afraid this letter must stop. I only hope it is God’s will that I will be able to see my dear Mother and Father again, and I really pray for guidance and knowledge to do the best of my ability. I think of you both very much and pray that you do not have too much anxiety.
Your loving son,
Fifty-two years later, his words are tender, young. How could he not have been afraid? Raised Episcopalian, as I was, he knew prayers and hymns by heart. I hope his death was instant, but if he lay, broken, I hope words he had heard all his life comforted him. “I must give myself a little credit, to establish confidence.”
How long did it take for that letter to arrive? Was it a huge gash in their enormous grief? Where was my mother when they heard? On the tennis court? Laughing with friends? Taking pictures? Surely, they had heard about the battle. Did they stay up late, fretting, fearful? I imagine them in their house. I move them around--dolls in a dollhouse--imagining where they stood or sat or cried. Grannie had a kneeler, a prie dieu, in her bedroom. Did she place it underneath Jimmy’s little boy portrait and seek refuge in her faith?
At 22, Jimmy was in charge of disciplining the men of his platoon, those men he liked and wouldn’t leave. Some years ago, I tried to find anyone who might have known him in his unit, but most died with him that day, and now, I fear, any who lived are most likely gone---he’d be 96. I like that he stood up to his parents, in the most respectful way. His bravado shines from the fading paper—he does not give in much to despair or homesickness; he hopes he will see his parents again.
A General friendly with my grandparents wrote, offering his condolences, commending Jimmy’s courage in “meeting his misfortune.” It is rare, he noted, for parents to know that a son’s death was for something truly important, but this battle was that, he offers with kind pomposity. In the pile of tea-colored letters, I find the small black-bordered note that Grannie wrote to Bill, her second son, who had so recently been with his younger brother, Jim. She urges him to take comfort in hymns and in Episcopalian prayers.
Jimmy was killed in the first assault. When did his coffin come home, draped with that flag my mother cherished, the one we store rolled up on top of the front windows in the dining room?
I never saw Rod’s body. Mom and Dad said no. Forty years later, I realize in their shock and grief, how wise they were. I thought I wouldn't believe Rod was dead without seeing him. I didn’t understand his death would last long past that anguished conversation, that his absence would become braided into the tapestry of everything since. I’m glad I remember my brother alive. In the early years of his death, I’d torture myself, imagining grisly injuries. Now, I am content to see him in my son—the same two big front top teeth, the same brown hair swept to the left-- to recall his face in photographs, in the stories we tell about how much he loved baseball and what a good sailor he was.
Musician, sailor, echoes. In speaking their names, we keep alive those we’ve lost. Jimmy, Rod. Rod, Jimmy. Two young men, gone too young, threaded through my life.