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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Visit

          It is October 1997, Bob and I are taking mom and dad(Jean and Sal) to visit mom's brother and his wife, probably the last time they will be able to see each other. Both my parents are in their eighties and are unable to make the trip alone, my sister lives is Massachusetts so the trip for her is not practical. Bob and I are moving next month from Pennsylvania to Missouri. My medical bills make it impossible for us to live comfortably on the east coast where both our families are, so we are going west where we can afford to live a modest life.

         My parents live in upstate New York and my uncle and aunt live near the Jersey shore. We planned the trip because we felt it would be the last time we and my parents would have the opportunity to see Uncle Frank and Aunt Helen. My cousins would meet us there too.

         Aunt Helen and Uncle Frank live in a three bedroom condo/townhome in a senior community. All the streets have well manicured single level dwellings some shrubs near the houses with a touch of grass for color. There are no people out walking on the sidewalks, there is no auto traffic. The sidewalks and streets are clean. It is a very quiet community. When we arrive at nine a.m. we are greeted by Mirna their caregiver, a small Latino woman about my age with short dark hair, Uncle Frank is in the bathroom and Aunt Helen is still asleep. The kitchen is to the left of the entry, it is more a kitchenette, everything, sink stove, counter and frig line the wall and small table with four chairs in the middle of the room. The kitchen, dining area, and living area is an open floor plan, with a generous amount of space for each. Photos of the family dot the walls. In the living area is a large screen tv, couch, coffee table and Uncle Frank's electric lift recliner. The men shake hands and the women hug and kiss everyone. My mother makes a fuss over her younger brother. We sit at the table while Mirna goes to aid Aunt Helen who since her stroke can no longer walk, speak or use her right hand.

          Uncle Frank, like my dad had a stroke and has Parkinson's Disease. Both men have speech difficulties and gait problems, Uncle Frank needs a cane to get around. They are veterans of WWII. Dad's tour was spent in Paris, a truck driver delivering supplies to the front line and driving around a general. When he enlisted he was married to my mother  who was pregnant with my sister. He didn't have to go, he was married, but he wanted to do his part to fight to end the war. Uncle Frank was with the 102nd Texas Engineers. His tour went from Africa, Anzio, Casino, to Rome on up to Buchenwald. Uncle Frank received the Silver Star for dressing up as a peasant and leading his men and a bunch of sheep through a mine field. His photo with General Mark Clark pinning the silver star on his chest was always  atop the television set in Grandma and Grandpa's living room. Both General Clark and Uncle Frank have big grins on their faces. I remember Uncle Frank telling us, when I was a kid, "You know why  we're both smiling? because he said General Clark commented, "I don't know whose nose is bigger yours or mine," and Uncle Frank would laugh out loud at the joke. That was the only time ever I heard him speak of the war.

     The family always spoke lovingly about Uncle Frank and his search of  Europe for his brother-in-law Jimmy, who was missing in action. Uncle Frank found Jimmy at a prisoner of war camp near Buchenwald. Everyone seemed to have a magical relief about Uncle Frank finding Jimmy. It was a special treasure the family shared. Whenever together Jimmy always sat in the chair at Uncle Franks left side he was mostly quiet protected by uncle Frank. Besides being brothers-in-law they were buddies.

     Today, I am sitting opposite Uncle Frank, he's still a head taller than me, he still has a clarity and sharpness in his eyes. His face has changed though, medication has given him the swollen moon face, but the nose is the same. He walks with a cane and his hands have the stiffness and shake of Parkinson's. Yet, as I look into his eyes, I still see his powerful character,  his inner strength, determination and will. He was always big and strong and now in his eighties as I am looking into his eyes I see he is still strong and powerful though his body is weakened. He calls me "my Naena" using the nickname my brother gave me and he softens.

Then he begins to tell me about when he found Jimmy at the POW camp, I can see him move back in time. He says, "I didn't find Jimmy, I was looking all around for him but I didn't see him. When I was at the camp I heard my name "Frank, Frank", he said,  " I turned around and I didn't recognize him, he was so skinny and  encrusted with filth." Then, Uncle Frank raises both his arms and hands and says, "I picked him up with both my hands", and I could see the picture in Uncle Frank's eyes,  he is tenderly and gently picking Jimmy up from the floor, carrying Jimmy by his arms. He says "I carried him to a building and placed him on the floor in the center of a room. I got some gasoline in my helmet, then I got a dirty rag and dipped it into the gasoline and wrung out the rag and gently started to clean him." As Uncle Frank is speaking he raises his right arm, the dirty gasoline soaked rag between his fingers and ever so gently he strokes at Jimmy's face to clean him. Then, the tears well up in Uncle Frank's eyes, the image of the POW camp and Uncle Frank's stroke to clean Jimmy's face, is gone, we are back, in the present sitting at the kitchen table.


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