Monday, November 11, 2013

A Day of Thanks

Ahhh, November.  It's the month of Thanksgiving, so naturally social media is filled with "30 days of thanks."  And naturally, I fell for it, trying to post daily one thing that I could think of that I was actually thankful for that day.  Cutting back on my social media time has made it more difficult to post, yet not so difficult to think of things I'm thankful for.  Today being Veterans' Day, my thoughts and thanks go toward my grandfather, Sgt. Michael Hreha, a decorated WWII veteran.  While I'm thankful for his service to our country, I'm much more thankful for the life and memories I have of him growing up.  He was a kind, gentle and patient man who loved unconditionally and found joy in the simple and everyday.

I have an immense amount of respect for him.  He was in the first wave of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, landing on Omaha beach, a member of the 29th infantry division.    He was wounded twice, and when he took his last breath of life at the age of 89, still had shrapnel in his chest.

He didn't speak much about his time in the war.  One of the stories I do remember involved him getting shot from behind, and being saved by his bible...and shovel.  My mother had not yet been born when he left for the war, and she was two when he returned.  When he did return, she greeted him by pushing him back toward the door, saying "No man!  No man!"

How extremely heartbreaking it must have been, to spend that many years away, miss the birth and first two years of your first child's life, witness God knows what on the battlefield, escape death, be wounded, and return home to rejection from your baby girl.

It didn't last long, as my mother grew up adoring her father, but still.  It couldn't have been easy.

And I'm sure the years to come were difficult.  He most likely was dealing with PTSD, and in retrospect, I'm not sure he was over it in the 1980's, when I was growing up.  I remember grandma telling me one day when there was a terrible thunderstorm that grampa always went into the bedroom during thunderstorms because the noise reminded him of the war.  She said his friend was killed on the battlefield.  I always imagined it like a football field, with rain coming down and his friend being struck by lightning.  I'm sure it was just as intense, but I think it played out a little differently, and after reading the history of D-Day, I imagine there was more than one friend he watched die in front of him, or next to him.  Because he never really spoke of that day, I wonder how many hands he held as lives slipped away right before him.  I wonder how many times he was convinced he was dead, or going to die.

And I wonder how, after all of that, could he have been such a sweet, loving man my entire life.

As a parent of two small children, some days all the patience I have won't fill up a postage stamp.  After experiencing the sudden, unexpected death of my father, followed closely behind by the death of my dear grandmother, I found expecting postage-stamp sized patience was probably expecting too much from me.  I imagine grampa probably had the same trouble in the days and years following the war.

But I wasn't there, and I didn't know him then.  I didn't know him as Mike Hreha, or Sgt Hreha, or Dad.  I knew him as Grampa.  Who he was and what he did prior to becoming Grampa is important, as it shaped him into who I remember, but it is not as important to me, since who he was when we were both alive together is the most important thing.

I remember snuggling with him on the couch as he watched TV, with my head in his lap, resting my ear against his belly, the rhythmic up and down that corresponded with the breathing that I heard from the inside (a little rattle in his chest, thanks to smoking), lulling me to sleep.  I remember that he always smelled like tobacco, and it was always comforting.

I remember living down the street from my grandparents, having him walk me home after spending the night over there, and trying to keep up.  He always started out on his left foot, a habit from the military, he said.  His palms were rough, and the hair on the back of his hands was jet black and wiry, some strands standing straight up, at attention.

I remember watching him stand over the hood of his car, just looking, tinkering, changing a spark-plug or two.  I remember watching him build a fence, paint the shed, lay concrete, and turn the carport of our house into an extra room.  Grampa could build anything.

I remember bringing broken things to his house: toys, electronics, tools, furniture, you name it.  He would fix it.  He was the king of splicing.  Just about every item in our house that had a plug had a new plug spliced onto its cord when it stopped working, thanks to us kids pulling the plugs out of the wall by their cords.

I remember every piece of artwork I made getting a frame, and every puzzle I completed getting painstakingly glued, piece by piece, to a piece of cardboard or plywood.  I remember getting my hair cut off outside in the back yard when I had lice.  I remember countless pick ups and drop offs at school, work, play practice and cross country meets.

I remember Grampa's laugh -- it started as a wheeze, and would shake every part of him as he "heed" and "hawed" over and over again.

I remember Grampa building the dome for the new church, and seeing his picture with it in a supermarket tabloid of all places.  Who says they don't write the truth?

I remember jumping off the self-propelled merry-go-round contraption at the park, falling backwards and cutting my forehead at my eyebrow.  Grampa picked me up, and stopped the bleeding with his handkerchief.  As we pulled into the driveway, mom and Gramma were there, pale as ghosts, since the handkerchief was pretty bloody.

"It's OK, Mommy," I replied, "Grampa bought me a cheeseburger!"  He knew exactly how to make me feel better.
I remember the poem he wrote about me, and how much I loved and hated it when he wrote it, and how the hate dissipated as time passed, and I find myself reciting it whenever I need a laugh and a little encouragement.

I remember playing Uno with him on the back porch during hot summer nights.  No matter how many times we played, he never quite understood how the game worked, and always ended up with tons of cards in his hand at the end of the game.

I remember swimming in the pool as he got the grill started.  I remember the delicious smell of lighter fluid, charcoal, burgers, chlorine, Hawaiian Tropic and sunshine.  I remember eating the burgers while listening to WNDB, "The Music of Your Life," and Gramma insisting that the song about watching the girls go by was his favorite.

I remember how much I loved his delicious sauteed cabbage dish that I have yet to figure out how to replicate.

And my most favorite memory, or group of memories, will always be when he would pick me up from dance class on Saturdays when I was in elementary school.  We always stopped at McDonalds.  He'd order a cheeseburger happy meal with milk, and two hamburgers and two coffees.  We'd get it to go, and at his house, we'd all sit down at the table.  Gramma would pull out her green, plastic placemats with leaf designs that I spent much of my childhood tracing with my finger.  She'd open up my happy meal and pass me my cheeseburger and milk.  Then she'd dole out the fries.  She'd take two (she was on Weight Watchers), and split the rest evenly between Grampa and me.  I loved sharing my fries with Grampa.  He always seemed genuinely grateful to get those fries and I loved making him feel that good.

I don't remember seeing Grampa get mad or yell.  I was pretty sure he was incapable of such things.  I know it happened, and if I dig hard, I could probably find one or two examples, but that's not what I want to remember.  I want to remember how he hugged me, how the stubble on his face would scratch me when I kissed him, how that one stray eyebrow hair always stuck out, and how his toenails were so long and thick.  I want to remember how he would always crack a smile when Billy sang "Go go go Grandpa!" to the Godzilla song.  I want to remember the way his hands looked when he started his car, the Galaxy 500.  I want to remember the skinny legs and boney knees that came out of his swim trunks, the only time he ever wore shorts.  I want to remember his wheezy laugh.  And I want to remember his love.  He had a lot of it, and I am ever so thankful that I got it.

So on Veteran's Day, and every day, I am thankful that I got to be part of Michael Hreha's life, and I'm thankful he got to be part of mine.  I love you, Grandpa.

And because you're probably wondering about that poem, here it is.

Dawn Stringer
was a singer.
She sang like a bird
that nobody heard.
She danced on a stage
and she was a rage.
She also smoked a pipe
that nooooobody liked.


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