As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 21, 2018.
The note from my uncle, the last one on my father’s side of the family, baffled me: “I have no information to share about my brothers’ military service or mine. I’m sorry.”
I had written to him on behalf of my younger brother, James, who served in the U. S. Coast Guard after graduating from high school. We knew that three of our uncles had fought in World War II, that one had gone to Korea, and that our father had been an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Beyond that, details were scant.
“Nothing but respect for what Dad’s family gave this country,” James had texted me last Memorial Day from Florida, where he moved after completing his Coast Guard duty. “I would love to know more.” That prompted my letter.
My younger brother’s relationship with our Walsh-side relatives, including our father, ended soon after our parents divorced. While my older brother, Rob, and I were able to forge connections, however rocky, with Dad as adults, James became estranged from him. All that remained across their chasm of separation and silence was a common thread of military service.
The next time I spoke with James, I told him about our uncle’s response to my request.
“How can he have nothing to share?” I asked with an annoyance I thought my brother would echo. But he was understanding.
“Without even knowing what his reasons are, I accept them,” James said.
For more than three decades after my uncle left Rhode Island, he and I exchanged letters and cards, including a Mass card that arrived several days after my father died. I tucked these correspondences away in the top drawer of my dresser; I knew they represented my last line of communication with Dad’s family. However, after sending James a photograph of the latest note, I tossed it in the trash.
Six months later, a letter arrived from a close friend of my uncle’s whom I knew of but had never met. I feared the worst, but Jeremy simply wanted to let me know that my uncle had moved to a rehab facility where “he has enjoyed himself with new friends and with the right people taking care of him.”
My brother Rob and I made the three-hour trek to see our uncle on a Saturday afternoon. Jeremy had mentioned in his letter that there were memory issues, so I brought along my parents’ wedding album. After gathering in the facility’s library, we opened the album to a black-and-white photo of my handsome father and his four older brothers, all beaming in tuxedos at the Pawtucket Country Club in 1956.
My uncle, gray and bearded now, but with the same sparkling eyes, pointed to the faces.
“There’s Donald,” he said. “And Dick and Vin. And that’s Jimmy and me.”
He looked up brightly. “We grew up on Grand View Street,” he said. “The North Burial Ground was down the hill, across North Main Street. My father used to point at that graveyard and say to us, ‘If you act up, we’ll put you on the sled and you’ll end up there.’”
My uncle let loose a familiar, hearty laugh I knew from long ago. Rob and I laughed, too, just as we would every time we heard the story that afternoon. The memory issues were real. “Five boys under one roof,” my uncle said, shaking his head and smiling.
The ride home was bittersweet. Rob and I were grateful for our uncle’s good spirits despite the cloud of his dementia. But then I remembered my annoyance at his note and felt a pang of shame. He had even apologized.
The next day, I called my brother James. I finally had some answers for him, though not the ones he had been seeking.