Yesterday we got the phone call everyone of middle age and beyond comes to expect: my father-in-law died after a long struggle with a degenerative illness. He lived 89 years, a full life by any account.
As a young man, Bennie left his father's farm in Tennessee to become a pilot in the Second World War. He flew the P-47 and the P-51, single engine fighter planes used to bomb roads and bridges. I once met a distant cousin of his when we lived in Wisconsin. He told us how Bennie had been revered by the young men in the small town where they grew up. A pilot! An honest-to-god hero who went to war and came home, his only scar a case of malaria.
A strong, silent type, Bennie never spoke much about the war, but later in his life, he opened up more, as if sensing the impermanence of memory. Tears welled up in his aging blue eyes as he spoke of those comrades who never came back from their sorties over Italy and Germany. He never forgot them.
He came back from the war, married, and over twenty years fathered seven children. Of those seven, three have earned PhDs, another an honorary PhD, a few have masters, and between them, they've raised (or are still raising) 17 children, with another expected any day. Family reunions are massive affairs, but the babies are never without a pair of arms to hold them—usually from among the males in the family.
When my first daughter was born, we were living in the same town as my in-laws. Whenever we visited, we were met at the door by my father-in-law, arms outstretched, not saying a word. It took me a while to figure it out: he actually wanted to hold the baby, but strong, silent types don't ask. So I learned to place my precious baby in her grandfather's arms, and he would hold her for the duration of our visit.
In my family, men didn't hold babies. That was women's work. But it was just the opposite in my husband's family. The men didn't talk much, but they all held babies, silently cuddling them close. There is no doubt Bennie passed this trait on to his four sons—even the youngest, twelve when I met him, thought nothing of picking up my baby when she cried.
We moved further and further away from "home", yet upon our return, we were always greeted like the prodigal son—in the biblical sense, although instead of a fatted calf, it was usually a brisket Bennie had going in the smoker. After a while, we became vegetarian, and when Bennie learned this, he seemed baffled at first: how could he show us he loved us without a piece of meat? But typically, without saying a word, he found a way: early in the mornings, he'd go to the farmers market and bring home bags full of whatever was in season. "Here, I brought you some vegetables," he'd say to me, handing over an overflowing cornucopia of fresh produce.
Those are the things I remember about my father-in-law, a man who didn't raise me but whose influence is seen in my husband, my daughters, their uncles and aunts, their cousins. They're all good people, raised by a good man.
When I visit World War II cemeteries, I can't help but think of my father-in-law as I look at the rows of crosses, each inscribed with the name of a young man. Most of those men never became fathers, grandfathers. Some may have fathered children, but the chance to raise them was stolen by a bullet in a battlefield. And then I think of my father-in-law, who dodged those bullets and raised a family and left a living legacy. He was one of the lucky ones, and those who survive him are lucky to have known this gentle quiet man.