Within the volumes of papers my father gave me of my great uncle’s, there are dozens of letters. Some of them are sweet, others beautiful or funny, and a few move me to tears.
I never knew Pete, obviously, but I’ve fallen in love with the man that he was, the great devotion to his wife that was so obvious in his letters home, and the fact that she was his whole world. The letters he wrote in while stationed first in Ireland and then in England in 1942 were full of sentences that started with “when I get home.” As 1942 drew to a close and the 1st Armored Division prepared to move into North Africa, the tone of his letters changed. The “when I get home” sentences stopped, and instead, he began paragraphs with “if I don’t make it home.” One such letter was dated just a scant three months before he met his untimely end at Sidi Bou Zid.
I don’t have the telegraph Ruth received notifying her of Pete’s death in 1943, but I have the official paperwork that came after it. One letter from 1947 is when Ruth had to make the decision on Pete’s final resting place because the temporary cemetery in Algeria had been deemed unsuitable. Four years after his death, when she had moved past the heavy, dark cloud of grief that would have weighed her down, she has to decide if she wants his body shipped back to the states. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for her – those flashes of the older, handsome man that became her husband, those moments in time captured in photographs of her beaming by his side as he stood, dapper and regal, in his Army dress uniform, those effluous declarations of his undying love that poured out in letters that had to cross the sea in order to reach her. All of those memories and so many more that I am not privy to must have overtaken her senses all over again when she had to make the wrenching decision of whether to have his body sent back to the states or not. I firmly believe that Ruth couldn’t bear the grief of saying goodbye to Pete again, and having his body shipped back to Indiana would have caused her to have to do exactly that. There would have been a funeral and all of those raw, jagged emotions that she had probably spent years trying to dull would have roared to life again. That new round of grief may have just been enough to shatter the tenuous healing she’d managed to do, so maybe that’s why she chose to have him buried in the sands of Tunisia.
The final letter in the collection is dated 28 January 1949, and it is the one that makes my heart ache most. It’s a straight-forward, stiff military letter – certainly nothing special. It solidifies Ruth’s decision to have Pete re-buried in Tunisia instead of sending him home. It’s the finality of it all, and I can’t help but feel the intense pain that must have ripped through Ruth when she read it. Every time I read this letter, the emotions hit me like a bullet. It’s a sharp, piercing moment of grief that honestly doesn’t feel like it is 100% my own as my tears come rushing out. At that moment, did she wish she’d made a different decision? She’d never be able to wander through the cemetery on a Saturday morning and place flowers at his grave. She’s never be able to stoop in front of the headstone, place her hand on the marble cross, and talk to Pete about her day. Did she regret her choice? The misery and loss that ricochets through me when I read this letter tells me that yes, she just might have. She’d lost so much and this letter is like the final page of a chapter in her life. I picture her, still so young, whispering one last goodbye to her great love. Her pain was real, and it seems to me that the fingerprints and tears of a young window are captured on the paper, a frozen, grief-stricken moment in time.