Some things you hold onto, even if they are a reminder of trying times.
As previously detailed in this column, my Grandma, Edith McElrath, died last month, at the age of 99. She was an amazing lady, and I miss her every day. I’d like to offer a sincere “thanks” to all who sent cards, emails, text messages and other notes after her passing. They meant more than you know.
But even in death, there is discovery. And in my Grandma’s passing, I recently discovered an interesting artifact, one I had not seen before.
A day after her death, I was with family members at Grandma’s house in the Abbeville countryside, where we were greeting various friends and neighbors who were stopping by to offer condolences. As the afternoon grew to evening, my Dad enlisted my help in finding some paperwork that was needed for the funeral.
He grabbed the old metal file box she kept in a closet, and it turned out to hold a trove of memories. A tax receipt from six decades ago. My grandfather’s honorable discharge orders from the Army. At one point, Dad pulled a single piece of paper from the box, read it, then handed it over to me.
The sheet he handed me, still white but yellowing at the edges, was 73 years old. It had been delivered to my grandfather in 1946. At the top, in navy blue, was the faded seal of the President of the United States of America.
Just below that, my grandfather’s name — Jack McElrath — was typed, clearly done by a typewriter. There’s something at once crude and elegant about words produced by a typewriter. The letters are bold, certain, and yet ever-so-slightly uneven across the line. There was a certain assurance about words typed on a typewriter. A permanence.
The letter read as follows:
“To you who answered the call of your country and served in its Armed Forces to bring about the total defeat of the enemy, I extend the heartfelt thanks of a grateful Nation. As one of the Nation’s finest, you undertook the most severe task one can be called upon to perform. Because you demonstrated the fortitude, resourcefulness and calm judgment necessary to carry out that task, we now look to you for leadership and example in further exalting our country in peace.”
The letter was signed by President Harry S. Truman, and says “The White House” in small lettering in the bottom left corner.
I’m absolutely certain that scores of soldiers received such letters at the end of World War II. Still, I couldn’t help but be moved, holding something directly connected to history.
I never met my grandfather, Jack. He died in 1960, long before I was born. But I’ve always felt as if I knew him, through hearing my Grandma and my Mom and my great-aunts talk about him. It’s funny how stories get passed from one generation to the next, and repeated, until they become part of family lore.
Like so many men from his generation — carpenters, school teachers, factory workers — my grandfather was called upon to go fight in World War II. He was gone for the better part of three years, stationed mostly in Germany, and some in France. My Grandma talked often about the crushing uncertainty while he was gone, about the anxiety that would creep in if there was an unusually long gap between letters from him. My Mom recently told me how Grandma would talk about how unnerving it was to see the Western Union man come down the street, because that meant there had been a casualty of war.
Of course, the events of World War II have been at the top of mind for many lately. Last week marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The men who served in that war have been called the Greatest Generation, and it’s hard to argue. We are losing more and more people from that generation all the time. It won’t be long before we will have lost all of the veterans who served in World War II. Hard to imagine, I know. But such is time.
I never met my grandfather. But I do know him. His memory lives on in stories.
And in letters.