Memorials promote powerful, personal encounters with moments in history. I recently created my own memorial to commemorate a time in which my newly married parents were separated during World War II. The assemblage of photos and letters documented the years 1942-1945, when my father, JJ, was setting up radio communications in Iceland while my mother, Wanda, worked in an ammunition plant and then, later, stayed at home raising a newborn son (my brother, Joe).
The centerpiece of the memorial was a newspaper clipping that featured a story about my mother’s drawing of my father holding his newborn son. The idea that prompted the drawing was that JJ had never seen or held the newborn. Wanda created the drawing by viewing a photo of her husband in uniform and then adding the baby in his arms. When Wanda sent this drawing in the mail, the army “censors” discovered the drawing; they then shared the drawing and story with the St. Louis newspaper. A photographer at the newspaper created a photo montage; using a photo of my father dressed in his army uniform, the photographer combined it with the baby’s photo.
The collaged photo appeared alongside my mother’s drawing. In the newspaper story, she explained, “You see, he has never seen, much less held his 11-month-old son. So, to fulfill his desires as best I could, I sketched this picture of him holding his own flesh and blood.” Wanda also added “We write each other every day and the mail arrives on an average of once a month, so, at times, I get as many as 30 letters in one day.”
In addition to this newspaper clipping, the memorial contains several letters that JJ wrote, including the letter that tipped off Wanda about his destination in the war. Before JJ left for army training, they discussed that letters would be censored (“Idle Gossip Sinks Ships” was stamped at the bottom of his army stationary). So my father devised a code: when he knew the location of his war assignment, the first word of that letter to my mother would indicate the country by the initial letter of the word. JJ’s letter dated on November 11, 1942 began “Incidentally, as you know all my letters in the future and as of now are subject to censor….” He intended to signal that he would be stationed in Iceland, but my mother in a panic thought the letter “I” stood for Italy and that JJ was headed to the fierce combat.
A final item that I included in the memorial was a harmonica. As the story goes, when my father arrived home to be welcomed by my mother and the 2 ½ year-old son, a son he had never seen in person, my young brother clung nervously to my mother’s dress, fearful of this tall, strange man with the booming voice. My father crouched down and dropped the duffle bag from his shoulder. As he unzipped the bag, he brought out a shiny harmonica, blew across it, and handed this magical, musical object to his son, winning him over.
This memorial was created as an example for a student writing contest that the library is sponsoring this fall, inviting students to create their own memorial or collection of things that have a special significance. Students will then be encouraged to write a short essay or poem about how this collection is meaningful to them or suggests a special moment in history. In creating my own memorial, I rediscovered the importance of the bonds of love in the face of separation, and I realized that creativity can defeat challenging hurdles. Memorials can help us connect to our shared humanity; as author and historian David McCullough often states, “history is about people, history is about being human.”