Ernest Raymond, my mother’s father, was not a mystery to me, or anyone who knew him. He was a charmer until his dying day. When he was in his 80s, more or less blind and bald, my grandmother would leave him sitting on a bench outside when we went shopping. Almost every single time, we’d come back to find him surrounded by young women who were laughing at his stories. Nana used to grab his hand and tell him it was time to go. “You’re tired, Ernest”, she’d say briskly. “No, I’m not”, he’d protest as he was led away to the car.
Like me (and Mom), he had green eyes and crooked pinkie fingers, and I have to keep reminding myself that he wasn’t my blood, being my mother’s adopted father. But just as she always regarded her parents as simply her parents*, I regarded them as my grandparents.
Ernest Raymond was born on May 11, 1896, so he was a mere 18 years old when the Great War started. He was also a naive farm boy from New York state, unlike my urban paternal grandfather from the slums of London.
But both Ernests were stationed in France**. My mother’s father told me that his feet literally rotted in the trenches, and he saw his boyhood friends blown to pieces in front of his eyes. He was the only survivor of his unit, simply because he caught the measles and was in the infirmary when everyone else was being blown to pieces.
After the war was over, he had a week in Paris before being shipped back to the farm. That was it. Obviously it’s not as bad as the jeering and harassment that my friend Paul and other Vietnam veterans received on coming home, but Ernest didn’t get any help readjusting to civilian life, or dealing with the horrors he saw in battle.
He grew up to become a teacher, and then a high school principal (unfortunately for my mother, of the high school she attended, since it was the only one in her small town). He and my grandmother were married for more than half a century, and like Ernest Victor, he and his wife adored each other until the end of their days.
I used to sleep on a cot in my grandparents’ room when we visited my mother’s parents, and I know for a fact that my grandfather suffered from nightmares nearly every night. In some ways, I think veterans are always fighting a battle, even if we can’t see it.
*Mom was about three when they adopted her. They always told her, “We chose you out of all the children in all the world. Other parents just have to take what they get.” No wonder she never cared about her biological parents, or felt stigmatized by being adopted.
**I recently came across his infantry drill book from the war, with his own notes in it.