This is the second in a series of blogs in honor of Memorial Day.
How do you properly convey the story of someone you never met? Whose experiences and memories you only know about from what was handed down to you.
My grandfather, Walter Sheridan, passed away when my mother was only a teenager. I have treasured the stories that I have heard from my mother and grandmother, and I remember them as if they’re precious artifacts carefully stored and archived in my mind.
When WWII broke out, my Grandfather, Dorchester born and raised, was assigned to be an MP. Where he ended up though, seemed above and beyond the normal MP job description. He was a personal MP to General George Patton.
Protecting a General who seemingly had no desire to be protected must’ve been quite a job. There are a few great General Patton stories passed on from my Grandfather that proved just how difficult the job was. Something holds me back from sharing them here however, as if if I ever shared these stories I would somehow be breaking an unspoken trust.
My Grandfather fought through France into Germany. He was at Bastogne, entrenched outside the thick Ardennes forest in the coldest winter in decades. He saw the horror of concentration camps. Once, at the end of the war, while driving a jeep through the German countryside, he turned a corner and was shocked to see an endless wave of Wehrmacht troops. Desperate not to be captured by the waves of Red Army soldiers pouring across the remains of the Third Reich, at the sight of an American the German troops immediately surrendered. Needless to say, he needed more backup that day.
Once the war was over, like most veterans, he didn’t talk much about it. He worked hard to provide for his family. He built a cottage on Cape Cod by his own hand so his family could have a quiet summer escape. He delighted in cars and when he got the chance, would gently close his eyes, relax and sit back in his favorite chair, listening to his daughter play the guitar he had given her one Christmas. He loved country music, but hearing her play the folk music she much preferred never failed to make him smile. He passed away too soon, because cancer is never fair and doesn’t care if there’s still so much left to be said.
I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the American Cemetery in Luxembourg a few years ago. Unlike the American Cemetery in Normandy with its wide space, chapel full of stained glass and a statue entitled ‘the Spirit of American Youth Rising’, the Cemetery in Luxembourg is tightly enclosed, a large somber rectangular monument looms over the space and the dense forest circles the cemetery from all sides, protecting its occupants even in death. General Patton is buried there, laid to rest among his men just like he wanted. I stood in front of his grave and thought of my grandfather, a figure who seemed so close at that moment even though we never met.
I walked around Bastogne by myself, in almost a silent pilgrimage. The many war memorials are the only things that betray that something horrible once happened in this picturesque Belgian village. I looked carefully at every building, every signpost, the impenetrable looking forest. Had my grandfather been here? Had his eyes laid on this same land? I made sure I took it all in, the colors, the serene Belgian countryside, and tried to freeze the moment in my mind as if it could connect me to him.
So, Happy Memorial Day Grandpa, because I never got to call you that. Because you are not forgotten and your youngest daughter has made sure to pass on her treasured memories of you to her own children. I feel your spirit on the shores of Normandy, in the thick Ardennes forest and in the beautiful German countryside. This small tribute to you is not enough, but its the best I could do.