By Bruce Robison
Across the top of her bedroom bureau my grandmother had something of a prayer shrine: rows of carefully arranged photographs, the family across generations. My sister and I loved that our baby pictures were at the front, near our parents’ wedding picture and a snapshot of my dad on his high school graduation day in 1945. There was one of my grandfathers, who died before I was born, wonderful in full Masonic regalia. There was a childhood snapshot of Aunt Virginia, my dad’s older sister, who died when I was five. And there were many more: our great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins, some well-known to us, many unknown — all together, the living and the dead. Grandma would stand there with us sometimes and take up the pictures one at a time and tell us stories. Sometimes when we came into the room we would see her standing there looking at them by herself.
At the center of the collection was a larger photograph of my great-uncle John Christopherson, the youngest of my grandmother’s six brothers and sisters. It was a formal portrait, heavily framed, taken I was told at the local drugstore near their home in Stanley, Wisconsin. He was 19 years old, in dress uniform, home on leave from training and ready to depart the next day on the train , on his way to war in the fall of 1917.
My great-grandparents, Danish immigrants, had come to this country as teenagers. He was a dairy hand, she a “homemaker” — sewing, cooking, cleaning, tending the summer garden, raising all those children. They were poor, though my grandmother said she didn’t realize it at the time. And my great-grandfather was also something of an amateur theologian, despite his limited English, composing long essays of Bible commentary that would be printed occasionally in the Letters section of the local newspaper. I’ve wondered if perhaps my tendency to preach over-long sermons might be a trait I inherited from him.
In any event, the story of that photograph was a sad one. John had been a young man of great promise: the only boy in the family to graduate from high school, movie-star handsome, good at sports, popular, doted on by his older sisters. His mother’s baby. But then, what my grandmother and great-aunts would say every time his name came up was simply: “He died in the war.”
I wanted to hear about a battlefield scene, full of action and heroism. But the details were unspoken. What happened, I learned later, was less than cinematic. He got sick while crossing the Atlantic in a troop transport, spent about a week in an army infirmary in England, then died and was buried in a military cemetery.
Not an unusual story. About 55,000 American troops died in conflict, on the battlefields and in the trenches, during America’s two years in the Great War. And in those two years another 45,000 troops, so nearly as many, died of “Spanish Flu” — one of those statistics that resurfaced with interest in the past year, in reference to our current pandemic.
When I was older my great-aunt Bert told me a little about the day the telegram arrived. From the stress in her voice, you’d have thought it happened the day before yesterday— an electric charge changing everything all at once for all of them, the whole family, tearing their lives apart.
My grandmother wasn’t at home when the news came. She had already moved away, in her early 20s, and was working in Washington, D.C. as a stenographer for the Department of the Navy. They didn’t reach her by telephone until the next day.
There was a service at the Stanley Lutheran Church. Then, as I understand it, my great-grandmother retreated to her bedroom and more or less stayed there for the duration. My great-grandfather continued to work but was marked by pain and with an ever-deepening sense of isolation and bitterness. Today I suppose we would say they both suffered from severe depression. My great-grandfather’s theological essays became longer, darker, more and more difficult and obscure — until finally the editor of the newspaper told him they could no longer accept them for publication. He died a few years later.
Aunt Bert, who had been engaged to be married, broke off her engagement and moved home to care for her mother. She remained there for over two decades, life on hold, until her mother died. Then in her mid-40s she moved to Minneapolis and got a job as an office manager. She never married.
When the war ended my grandmother left Washington and instead of returning to Wisconsin, as she had originally planned, moved west to Los Angeles — away from all that sadness, I guess — found a job, and met a husband. One day it occurred to me as I was looking at the picture: If John hadn’t died, I would never have been born. So many things would have happened differently. A stone drops into a still pond. The ripples roll out farther and farther, troubling the water all the way to the shore.
A few months later, and just about a year after John had posed for that drugstore photograph, the war ended.
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, in whose hands are the living and the dead; We give thee thanks for all those thy servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country. Grant to them thy mercy and the light of thy presence, that the good work which thou hast begun in them may be perfected; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord. Amen.