Remembering a Veteran

In 2003 I wrote a piece about my grandmother’s brother and gave it to her for Christmas.  The next Christmas she gave me his purple heart.  When she passed away a few years ago, I inherited the rest of his medals and his dog tags.  On this Veterans day, I wanted to share a little bit about the young man I never met who still touches my heart.

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There is a picture that I keep beside my bed. In a clear plastic frame is the Army photo of my great-uncle Henry. The picture is faded from black and white and has browned. Every night before I go to bed I see a young man, sitting so straight and regal in uniform, staring back at me with clean, dark eyes. In that frame, a man I never knew, a man who was gone long before I even existed, sits on my bedside table.

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I don’t claim to know much about him, though I want to. I want to know the stories about Henry Jones that can make my grandmother laugh with the voices of days gone by and cry over memories of a brother who is no longer here.

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I know Brother, as my grandmother fondly refers to him, had red hair. That is probably the first thing I ever learned about my great-uncle. My grandmother wanted so much for that trait to carry on to one of her children, or grandchildren, and she now holds hope that one of her great grandchildren will one day have red hair just like Brother’s.

Most of the memories our family has of Brother come from the pictures that sat on the table in my grandmother’s den. In one picture, Brother is crouched down, one hand on a football, poised as if ready for a touchdown instead of a snapshot. He was a mighty fine football player, in high school, in Jr. College and at the University of Alabama. That is, before he went off to war. That is the second picture our family recalls of Brother. The same picture that sits on the table by my bed. A young man, proudly showing off his newly acquired Army uniform. His eyes thoughtful and innocent; not knowing, though surely not completely unaware, of what his future in the armed forces meant.

These are the pictures we bring to mind when we hear stories of Brother. What we fail to see is the Brother as Mammo remembers him. We only know of him through a couple of black and white photos in pretty frames and familiar stories. But she brings to mind the red-headed boy who teased her when they were younger; as the protective younger brother when she started dating; as the strong fellow who could hold her on his shoulders so she couple jump off into the lake; as the one she played on the farm with; the cousin in the family with the big heart and free spirit. She remembers more about him than just football and the War. She remembers how he fell in love with a girl and married her, keeping it a secret from his own mother so he could continue playing football. She remembers working together in their father’s store. She remembers summers playing outside and evenings spent gathered as a family.

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She has other pictures; pictures of a boy in his Sunday best, hair slicked down, sitting between his sister and neighbor, holding a dark lab puppy. There is the picture of Brother with his wife, both smiling, standing side by side, love and secrets hidden in their eyes. There are other pictures that tell of their childhood together. Faded pictures that attempt to capture the memories that will never leave her. Only she can remember his smile now, only she can remember his voice and the strong arms that hugged his older sister.

There is one final picture. A young man is kneeling down behind a white cross, one of many, this one bearing Brother’s name, Henry E. Jones Jr., and his military ID number. This young man has place tulips on this simple grave, his eyes sorrowfully downcast. You can read the pain and loss on his face, the same pain and loss I see so often on my grandmother’s face when she remembers her brother. The expression on his face is nothing resembling the photo of his friend, my grandmother’s brother, my great-uncle – whose face was pure, young, playful, thoughtful, and loved.

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There is a man whose picture sits beside my bed. Every night I see those eyes, that face, and know that there is so much more to him than the uniform and formal picture try to capture. Thank you Mammo for sharing Brother with us. Thank you for helping us to know the special man in the picture.