Hi again everyone, I am very slowly completing my 3rd novel Armour, and since everyone has been so patient in waiting for its release, I am sharing it, one chapter at a time, as it nears completion. Here is chapter 1, from Lloyd Tafford’s POV.
lloyd christopher tafford
The late 1940s to 1950s
My sister Lilit paved the way, Mom says. So, I am an easy birth. I slide into the world effortlessly on that silent February morning with hardly enough pain for her to remember. When I was old enough to enjoy stories of how my Dad made an ass of himself, Lilit told me this one: While she was five months pregnant with me, Mom used a little of her hard-earned money and secretly purchased a long-playing record of Peggy Lee so that she could listen to a song she loved called “Maestro, Please.” It sounded scratchy after a while because whenever my Dad came down the stairs, Mom hastily pulled the needle away and turned off the player. One day, Dad caught her.
“How much was this?” he cried frantically, as if an atomic bomb was hurtling down at us that very instant.
“It was only a dollar and seventy-five cents,” Mom replied calmly.
Dad swore God’s name in vain and tried to grab the vinyl disc from Mom’s hands but she pulled it away in time. Tall and thin but with a noticeably large abdomen because he’d been drinking since he was in his teens, he swayed clumsily. “How you expect to feed Lilit when you’re throwing your money ‘round like that?” He swore again.
“I work two jobs!” Mom’s eyes, as exotic as Sophia Loren’s would be on the silver screen later on, narrowed as she smelled his breath. “And you drink, Samuel! You work six months of the year and sit on your ass the rest of the time drunk. Are you telling me that after I work like a horse, two jobs, can’t even see my own daughter half my life, I don’t have the right to buy myself one long playing record?” In the light thrown off by the old lamp, spit sprayed angrily from her mouth. My dad backed down, but not without his own passive-aggression.
“You’re just flushin’ good money down the shitter, Claudia!”
But Mom is not a wimp. I have Armenian, Native American and Sicilian in me. It’s a wonder I’m not the most hot-blooded person alive. “Go stuff yourself, Sam! I’ve heard of Armenians being skinflints, but your mother never gives me shit about buying things. In fact, why am I not married to her? Huh? She buys me little gifts all the time! She’s nicer to me than you ever have been!”
“Women always buy too much shit they don’t need,” Dad slurred.
“Really?” Mom rolled her eyes. “What about your fuckin’ hootch? Talking about flushing money down the shitter!”
“Shut it, Claud, before I kick your ass!”
“I’m pregnant, Sam. You’d hit me in this condition?”
“I don’t give a good goddamn about that baby! Just another mouth to feed!”
My mother was on the verge of crying, but she gulped her tears stubbornly. “Well, I don’t know why you’re concerning yourself. You won’t get full-time work, and you certainly won’t feed any family we have. You won’t even change a diaper! Your ma and I do it all, Sam! You’re fucking useless!”
And then they just went at it. Sam drunkenly swung at Mom, and she just lost it and jumped him, pregnancy and all. And it was not just a tussle. Fists were flying. Chunks of dark brown hair flew around. Blood splattered. But wonder of wonders, she didn’t miscarry me.
Even after that fight left Mom with a black eye and a busted lip and Dad with a lot of nail marks on his face along with a very tender scalp, Mom saved up another couple of months and bought the very same LP.
I am born February 18, 1946, with a swirl of silky blonde hair, just like Lilit.
Grandma Negdar says that when Grandpa Christopher was a baby, he was a towhead. Like a cherub. Later, his hair became red as fresh carrots. Sam’s hair was yellow at birth, but darkened like Negdar’s. Both of my parents were born with lots of curly blonde hair, and I, too, was blonde when I was a baby. Claudia said I looked like The Bella Dorme in Palermo, in Sicily, where her ancestors came from. The Bella Dorme or Sicily’s Sleeping Beauty, was a little girl called Rosalia Lombardo. She was a beautiful little girl who died from pneumonia in 1920. Her father was crushed and asked a gifted man to preserve her body.
“He did,” says Claudia. “She rests in Palermo, and she’ll be beautiful forever.”
History was my mother’s specialty. It’s as though I’m barely cleaned of blood and smegma, the cord freshly snipped, my first poopy diaper changed, when I begin to question the atrocities that had swept over Europe in the years prior to my birth. My older sister Lilit has heard the radio broadcasts during her infancy and toddlerhood, and has asked frightened questions about “the enslavement of the world” by someone called “Hitler”. I am born in 1946, two years after my grandfather, Christopher Tafford, died from wounds sustained while serving in the United States Navy.
1946, the year after Hitler realised that “Uncle Joe” Stalin had had enough, and after a visit with Harry S. Truman, was invading with the Red Army. Der Fuehrer’s dream of a “pure race” was crumbling swiftly, and so the man with greasy looking dark hair, the frightening, piercing light eyes, and the philtrum mustache hastily married his lover, Eva Braun, before the pair of them committed suicide so that he could avoid the penalties he so deserved, whatever they may have been, after leaving behind a legacy of death so towering, so infamous, so mountainous as to leave a smudge mark on heaven itself, so that no country in Europe, or on earth for that matter, was left untouched, no generation from that time forward would ever forget.
Our mother, Claudia, has an uncanny sense of how much to tell us based on our development as children, but we inherited our voracious appetites for knowledge from her, and this gives her a curious mixture of exhaustion, concern for us, and an undeniable pride in the same. America had been marked by this horrific war as well, and for her kids to want answers surprises and pleases her, though she does question why she never sees other small children asking questions about the Nazis.
Well, it’s not as if we ask her as she is dropping us off to school or as we sit on the bus with her while she is picking up her work pay. In public, we are quiet, well-behaved children. At home, we are chatterboxes. Our mother was a proto search engine you could say, and her children fed questions into her hungrily. In the early days, her responses were like this: “War is ugly, children, and it doesn’t make sense.”
Claudia Addario Tafford is a remarkable woman, of medium height, slim, rough-hewn, of Sicilian, Choctaw, and Cherokee descent, with dark, wavy red hair, beautiful, sun-kissed golden-brown skin sprayed with freckles, and muscular arms made from hard labour. She is rarely seen without a red bandana around her head to absorb perspiration. We live in a moist, tropical climate here in the Ozarks, or the Deep South, whatever Arkansas is supposed to be. She even sleeps in her bandanas because our house has no air conditioner. We rarely see her unless she’s leaving for work at night, and she works six nights weekly. She works all year around, at different seasonal jobs.
But for all the time she spends away from home, working to support our household, she still takes all the time she can possibly take to answer our very adult queries. She spends one hundred per cent more time with us than our father does. Why are my older sister and I so interested, so obsessed, with the war that ended right before I was born? Why aren’t our minds on childish things, like toys and games and family-themed radio shows?
I suppose it’s because of instances like this: One night, perhaps in 1950 or so, as a Christmas “special”, our local radio station broadcast an episode of The Great Gildersleeve from a few years prior. It was a Christmas episode. I can’t remember which one in particular, but I do remember that the station neglected to omit the advertisements that originally aired with this show. At the very beginning, an NBC news announcer spoke about how Dublin, Ireland should be on the alert, or considering joining the Allies against Nazi Germany, because Dublin might be the next to be bombed or under siege or something.
Of course, this archived voice sent me and Lilit into hysterics, and Mom had to talk us down.
Why are we so hypervigilant as children?
I think it’s because we’re surrounded by people who still bear the marks of war, and our house is decorated with relics: a torn Navy Uniform, old sepia and white photographs of family we’ll never meet, collected bits of burnt metal in a jar Grandma Negdar keeps in her room, the shrapnel removed from her husband’s back after his ship was attacked by kamikaze pilots.
Then there is Grandma Negdar herself. Her stories of the long trek she and Great Aunt Sonia’s made from their homeland Armenia to Wales to America. When we are little, Grandma Negdar does not dare tell us about the gruesome crimes she witnessed and suffered, the ingredients of the nightmares she will suffer all her life, but she does tell us that bad men who acted a lot like Hitler killed many of her people. Then she cleverly diverts us by talking about all the delicious things her mother taught her to make, like yoghurt soup, egg-brushed bread with black sesame seeds, lamb stew, candied apricots, rice stuffed in bell peppers or cabbage leaves, and best of all, her walnut candy made with grape or pomegranate juice.
As we grow and develop, our mother and grandmother give us age-appropriate answers to assuage our fears.
Our father, Sam Tafford, gives no answers. He’s never served in a war. He hadn’t yet been born during World War I. In his adolescent years, he’d disappeared from home multiple times, worrying his parents sick. They had lots of work for him to do on the farm and he didn’t like work. In fact, he seemed to resent every rule they ever tried to set for him. His marks in school were terrible, and he was lured away from his studies by kids who liked to drink and gamble in the alleyways of Fort Smith. Earlier on, Grandma and Grandpa blamed themselves for Dad’s behavior and reasoned it was because he was lonely and hyperactive and had nobody his age to relate to. They wanted to give him siblings, but couldn’t.
Even before Grandpa Christopher went away to war, my dad had left home for a lengthy amount of time. They had sent the police to search for him with no result. It was a few years later that he finally returned, with my pregnant mother in tow, his alcoholism already well established. Young men were being drafted for the second war, but the Department took a thorough look at him. He was angry at the letter he’d received in the post and crumbled it up and threw it at them. “I’m a drinker, and I’m not going to stop! For you bastards or anyone!” he blathered at them. The recruiters evaluated his foul, defiant drunkenness, and decided he would be a hopeless waste of their resources. They could try to force him, but when he boasted of his history of running from his own family and not being seen for years, they figured he’d go AWOL multiple times, or vanish at port to go drinking or whoring. Why recruit a man who would be too drunk to do his duties?
I don’t know. Maybe a few years in the harsh real world, surrounded by war and tyranny and evil, would have cleaned Sam Tafford’s act up, humbled him a bit. Without that experience, he has no reference with which to speak of anything going on in the world. He doesn’t seem to care about anything…but himself of course.
“His papa would roll in his grave,” Grandma Negdar remarks with both sadness and rage as she observes Sam’s blatant narcissism. “He is not a true Armenian. I do not know what he is.”
Whenever one of us has a birthday, he comes to the party, for about fifteen minutes. Mom smells the fancy mens’ fragrance and just gives him a look. She knows what he is doing. She has one bottle of Youth Dew by Estee Lauder on her dresser. It’s a strong, spicy scent that she only wears on very special occasions, and since there really hasn’t been a “special occasion” with my father in years, the beautiful bottle full of dark brown parfum sits almost completely full for a long time. A ring of dust gathers arounds its base. It’s a gift from her parents that he still bitches about. In the meantime, being the tight-ass that he is, he boasts a larger, albeit, cheaper collection of scents which would grow over the years: Old Spice, Aqua Velva, British Sterling, Brut, English Leather, Hai Karate (every one of us laughs our asses off at that name and when we know he’s wearing it, we make the noises and poses and knock each other over like we see in the films. Honestly, who names a cologne after a form of martial arts?), and the one he must have really struggled to decide on. I can just picture him slowly, wretchedly, handing over those dollars, for that one expensive bottle of Vetiver by Guerlain. Mom knows that scent well. When he dabs on the Vetiver, she knows he’s seeing someone he likes quite a lot.
After he figures he’s spent a morally correct amount of time at whosever birthday party it is, he leaves, giving whatever child is having a birthday a perfunctory kiss, and a nose full of the heady citrus or musk. If the birthday boy or girl is lucky enough to receive a gift from Dad, it’s something from the five and dime down the road, bought with a few pennies and much resentment. Dad hates to part with money that could be spent on the drink. Gifts consist of candy like Slow Pokes, Mars bars, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Boyer’s Cocoanut Cups, Mallow Cups, Clark Bars, Atomic Red Hots, or big bags of Brach’s hard and soft candies…peppermints, butterscotches, caramels, nougats, rums, and my favourite, neopolitan sundaes. I love the coconut in those!
When he’s feeling extremely stingy with his coveted cash, he buys us bags of salted peanuts or a bottle of pop or a stick of chewing gum. On one of my mom’s birthdays, he gets her a pack of smokes, which he takes most of. I remember Grandma getting a bag of walnuts for her birthday. Dad doesn’t even gather them from our yard. They’re falling from the trees so fast that we can’t pick them up quick enough! He buys them off a neighbour down the road. So much for saving money. The candy’s not a “gift” for Grandma. He only wants to pig out on most of it. “Happy birthday, Ma,” he says, grabbing her around the shoulders roughly and giving her a quick, hard kiss on the cheek. “Now you can make some Walnut Rope for us!”
After Dad lumbers out the door, Grandma wipes his slop off her cheek and mutters, “We have walnuts all over the yard and he buys them. Lazy piece of shit! Sure. I make sojuk. Then I shove it up your ass and you can shit it out and then I let you eat it! I make you eat it!”
When my mom and me and my sisters laugh at her profanity, it restores joy to Grandma Negdar’s soul. I know it does, because when my mom remarks, “After he shits it out, let’s make him eat it again!” Grandma laughs so hard, she bends over and almost falls on the floor.
It does all of us good to see her laugh.
So that’s what our birthdays and gifts are like. Well, I guess we aren’t completely treated like shit. If Mom is off from work and isn’t too tired, she’ll take us out to the drive-in theatre to see a picture. I love John Wayne because he’s a tough guy in the Old West or in the War I’m so interested in. I love Cary Grant and Rock Hudson because they’re elegant, flirtatious, and…I have no idea. There’s something about those two that I admire. Lilit is keen on monster movies, like Dracula or Bride of Frankenstein. She especially likes movies from the ‘30s. Sometimes she likes silent films. She loves the makeup and fashion from those decades. Mom hates monster movies though, and finds silent flicks boring, so Lilit doesn’t get her way very often. Lisbet is more like me, and likes westerns or comedies. Sometimes we get candies, popcorn and soft drinks at the theatre, but often, Mom would rather stop at a diner and order us hamburgers and fried potatoes.
At Christmas, Grandma and Mom make tons of food. None of us give a crap about Thanksgiving, but Christmas is important to all of us, so it’s a splurge fest. Of course, Dad doesn’t care about anything to do with any holiday. All he cares about was getting plastered. He screams like a harpy at the money Mom and Grandma spend, yet contributes not one red cent to food or quality gifts. Amongst the many edibles at our feasts, Mom makes Sicilian food to die for…fancy aubergine pie stuffed with penne and tomato-garlic sauce…sublime cassata made from ricotta and marzipan. Meanwhile, Grandma makes her famous cabbage dolma, her walnut rope, and manti, which is tons of dumplings stuffed with tender lamb. I could list more food, but it’s too much. Just thinking about it makes me feel ravenous, even now.
We rarely invite my mom’s family to Lyra to spend holidays or birthdays. We rarely invite them to spend any time in Lyra, unless they can afford a motel. My dad is simply too impossible to have them around. With every passing year, his drinking has escalated, and he has become meaner and more unpredictable. He’s never liked Mama Loida, who I was sort of named after, because, according to him, she’s “loud and obnoxious.” Wow. A pot pointing his finger at a kettle who I’ve only heard speak gently. And he doesn’t get along with Papa Davide, who happens to almost have the same middle name as he, not since they quarreled over some gambling debts Dad still owes him. Dad is the embarrassment of our family. It’s more than obvious. I look at Mom and I see it. I look at Lilit and Lisbet, and I see it. I look at his own mother and I see it. None of us can stand him.
I feel bad for Mom. Her family has dwindled, especially during that war. She had three brothers, Carmine, Antonio, and Vittorio. Uncles Carmine and Tony served in the Navy, and Uncle Vic served in the Army Air Force. They didn’t have the comfort or privilege of being together, but were shipped off to different parts of the world.
And so, wisely, our mother saves each bit of information to impart as we become older and better equipped to comprehend. When my sister and I begin to attend primary school, we hear the inevitable chatter. The children are whispering of Hitler, who is dead now, but still scary looking in his pictures, his eyes mean, his face drawn in arrogance and hatred. He’s dead, but any picture of him scares me and I don’t want to look at him. The children talk of the untold millions of Jews who’d been separated from family, starved, and systematically murdered in the camps. We see a few Jewish pupils in our classes. Not many, but a few, but I feel intimidated. I see shadows around their eyes and hollows in their cheeks. The war may be over, but their scars are deep.
Time passes, and to children, time is hard to measure. All I remember is, the children stop talking and the teachers begin to talk instead, about pictures that have surfaced in the papers and magazines. Ugly pictures of innocent little Japanese babies with permanent scars nursing at the breasts of mothers with burns on their faces. Ugly pictures of men, women, children, babies…with bandages covering their burns, their missing eyes, their fried hair, their missing skin. Ma tries to hide the magazines, but Lilit and I are too curious, too determined. We’re not like our dad. We have questions. We want to know why the world is the way it is.
We learn the names of the bombs President Truman dropped on Japan the year before I was born, and we hound Mom, relentlessly, “Why did we drop Fat Man and Little Boy on Japan instead of Germany, because Hitler was in Germany, not Japan!” I remember Lilit being outraged when she directs that question to Mom.
And Mom looks very sad when she replies softly, “It’s very complicated, children.”
We notice that recently Dad had drunken too much and had threatened to hit her if she did not get into bed with him. We’re small, but we know, in our childish ways, how Mom got the rounded belly that meant a new baby is coming.
“Are you having another baby, Mama?” I ask with a small smile.
“Yes, sweetheart, I am,” Mom replies, barely able to smile back.
“I’m sorry, Mama.” I hug her around the neck. “I wish I could beat Dad up. I wish I could kill him. I wish he would drink too much and just die.”
She says limply, “Lloyd, that’s not nice, honey.”
“I know, but he’s mean to you. He makes you do all the work and have the babies and he doesn’t even care that it hurts you. I hate him, Mom.”
“One day, things will be so much better for us,” Mom sniffles. “I know they will.”
“When I get big enough, I’m going to get a job and help get us money for the new baby. I hope Dad won’t make you have more babies.”
Mom smiles and just hugs me. “You’re such a good boy.”
“I’m going to get a job too, Mama,” declares Lilit. “First I’m going to work in a diner serving hamburgers and malted milkshakes! Then I am going to go to work in a nice law office, real professional, with nice shoes and clean suits!”
“How exciting!” Mom laughs and hugs us again.
We are appeased for the moment, but as the gossip in school spills into town and into the evening news, Mom, her belly popping out a bit more prominently now, is forced to explain everything she possibly can. Dad could not care less. He is passed out upstairs in bed until nightfall, when we will all retire to our beds and he will shuffle and stumble out to drink away our pregnant mother’s wages.
Mom told us everything she could remember from an article she’d read at the doctor’s office that appeared in a magazine published at the behest of President Truman. “Sit down, Lilit and Lloyd. I’m going to try to explain why we dropped the two bombs on Japan: The United States might never have entered the big war if not for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. They came with planes and shot up a big fleet of Navy ships and killed a lot of Navymen. Many families were devastated and President Roosevelt knew we couldn’t just sit here and wait for another sneak attack, so we went into the war. We sent soldiers into airplanes, onto the ground, into the sea. We joined Britain and France and other countries to try to stop Hitler. Hitler was threatening to take over the whole world, even America. It was very frightening. Before the Pearl Harbour incident, America had only sent a few troops to help against Hitler, but once the Japanese attacked, we knew that if America didn’t get more involved, things would get worse and worse.”
I interrupt Mom, “But Hitler hated everyone who didn’t look like him. He hated the Jews, and a boy at school made fun of me. He said an Armenian is nothing more than a displaced Jew! He said Hitler is a hero and has followers who will kill everyone who isn’t pure Aryan for the Master Race! Why was Hitler friends with Emperor Hirohito if he didn’t like people who aren’t white?” I begin to cry. “That boy who said I’m just a displaced Jew says Hitler is still alive, somewhere in South America, or in a new bunker in Austria, and he’s going to rise again and kill until there are nothing left but blonde haired, blue eyed…”
“Shhh,” Mom tries to soothe me.
The waterworks are on full blast and I can’t make them stop.
“That awful man is dead, Lloyd.”
I’m crying so hard I’m beginning to hiccup.
“Lloyd!” Sometimes Mom must speak sharply to get through. “That man was a monster. Nazi Germany was losing the war. They fought hard for years. They were terrible and did a lot of horrible things, but finally, the Allies were winning. Joseph Stalin from the Soviets was a powerful ally, ready to invade Germany. Hitler was already aware that his dream of taking over the world was gone, so he and his girlfriend got married and then killed themselves. Hitler was like any mass murderer in history. He was a coward. He was not going to face justice for his crimes. He took the easy way out. But he will still have to answer for all of his crimes.”
“He’ll have to answer to God?” I ask.
“To God, to whatever comes after this life. And listen to me carefully: Hitler was an idiot. Deluded. He believed the Jews wanted to take over the world, so he was going to kill all of them, or so he thought. He hated many races, but not all of them. Somehow, he believed that some races, such as the Japanese and Chinese, could be included in what he would call ‘Honourary Aryans’. That means they would be a team when they took over the world. Japan was friends with Nazi Germany, but before that, there were many wars between Germany and Japan, so they weren’t always friends. There was once a powerful Japanese Empire in the century before the war, and Germany was afraid of a ‘Yellow Danger’. Germany was afraid of Japan before this big war happened. I think Hitler called them friends to suit his own needs. People use people all the time, then they betray them. As far back as history goes, people have been afraid of other people, and that creates hatred and war and murder. That’s why your Grandma Negdar had to run from her country and make her long journey. Because another Empire hated the Armenians. The English fled England because of religious persecution and came to America, then what happened? They began to persecute the Natives who had been here for centuries. It has been going on since the beginning of time, children.
“And the reason President Harry Truman made a hard decision to drop Fat Man and Little Boy onto Japan,” Mom rubs her forehead with her fingers. “…is because the war with Japan had become worse. Right before I got pregnant with you, Lloyd, the Nazis were vanquished. By then, President Roosevelt had died from the stress of throwing us into the war, so Truman had taken over. We fought and fought until Hitler was dead, and the Nazis had all but given up.
“But the Japanese were different. They were taught never to give up. They were taught that it was better to fight to the death than to ever surrender. The fighting in the South Pacific was growing more desperate, savage, barbaric, bloodier and bloodier. Under their Emperor Hirohito, the Japanese soldiers were trained to crash their planes into ships at sea to sink them. That’s what happened to your Grandpa Christopher. They tortured and executed Allied soldiers more and more. My brother Tony’s ship was taken down off the coast of the Phillipines in late 1944, when Lilit was just a few months old.”
This time it is Lilit who interrupts. “I’ve heard the word ‘torture’, Mama. What is ‘torture’?”
Mom has a bad headache. I’m glad she’s off work tonight. I know she’ll need some sleep later. “Torture is the most despicable, cowardly, evil thing one can do to another. Torture is when men hurt other men because they don’t like the colour of their skin. It’s when men hurt men because they want information from them so that they can hurt even more people. War and torture seem to go hand and hand. But it doesn’t stop there. The greatest wrong you can do to someone is to hurt them intentionally, in any way. When your father forces himself on me, he tortures me. When he yells at you children and calls you names and doesn’t even tell you he loves or cares for you, he tortures you. I can’t blame you, Lloyd, for hating him. He treats your Grandma like she’s his slave and speaks to her like she’s shit. One day he will need to apologise to all of us, because he is a torturer. People who hurt people are torturers. People who hurt animals are torturers. If I ever catch either of you hurting an animal, even a fly, I’ll give you a spanking and a talking to and you’d better come back knowing the wrong you’ve done, understand?”
“Yes, mama,” Lilit and I say in unison.
“I caught my brother Tony pulling the wings off a fly once. I smacked him upside his head and made him cry. I took the fly and smashed it in a rag so it would die in peace and rinsed it down the drain. ‘Pretend you’re a fly!’ I shouted at him. ‘Pretend some big monster is pulling your wings off and hurting you terribly! Do unto others!’ After that happened, we became so close. I beat up a guy who was picking on him. One time a guy lifted my skirt in the hallway in school and I was so embarrassed I cried. Tony punched him in the nose and bloodied it. We protected each other. He always thanked me for the lesson I taught him about that housefly.
“He spent months as a prisoner and he was tortured horribly. He only came home because of what President Truman had to do. It wasn’t easy, but when he dropped those bombs, the war ended. Tony came home last. He had to be put under a doctor’s care because he had horrible nightmares for years. But he got to stay with us, home, in Oklahoma, surrounded by his family, until he died. He had seen his friends get shot, tortured, burned alive, because the Japanese soldiers were desperate and determined not to surrender to the allies. They were under orders by their Emperor. It was hell. You would never understand, unless you were there. And I’d never want you to understand. Ever. We tried to keep him from going insane by sitting with him day and night. He would not go back to his old bedroom. He wanted to be in the living room. At least two of us at a time stayed with him, constantly. We listened to the radio comedies. Amos N Andy, Lum & Abner, Jack Benny, Fibber McGee. No horrors. Tony didn’t like Lights Out! or Suspence or anything like that. When the news bits would come on updating about things going on in Europe, he asked us to turn the volume down until the shows came back on. He wanted laughter. Your dad hated it when I left him for a while to stay in Oklahoma with Tony. It was when I was seven months pregnant with Lloyd that Tony died, and I returned home.”
“Oh, Mama,” I ask, tears in my eyes. “How did he die?”
“Honey, I’d rather not talk about that. I’m sorry, dears. It hurts too much. But Uncle Tony is in a nicer place, with no more nightmares.”
“Are you still mad at him, Mama?” I ask. “About that fly?”
“Of course not. I forgave him a long time ago. And so did God.”
“Are you mad at him about anything, Mama?” I insist, and she knows what I’m talking about, because I see a momentary flash of anger in her eyes. I don’t know how I know at such a young age, but I know. The anger softens into glittering tears.
“I was, Lloyd, but I’m not anymore. He just wanted the nightmares to stop. I could never imagine what he lived through. I forgive him.”
“So does God,” I say.
“Yes,” Mom sniffles. “So does God.”
“Where was I, Mama?” asks Lilit.
“Grandma Negdar took care of you. I put your bed in her room and told her to lock her door every night. Her windows too.”
“You didn’t trust Dad not to hurt me, right Mama?” Lilit asks in a voice that doesn’t sound like asking.
Mom frowns. “No, Lilit. I’ve never trusted your father. There’s something wrong in his mind. The drink has messed up his brain, and I don’t trust him. If he were ever to hurt you or Lloyd or Grandma, I’d kill him.”
“What of your other two brothers, Mama?” I ask, knowing exactly what she’s feeling, agreeing, and therefore, squirming with disquiet.
“My eldest brother Victor was the first to come home. He considered himself luckiest. He was home just before Christmas 1943. In March, 1942 his bomber was shot down over rural France. Several of their crew were killed, but Victor and his surviving crewmates received treatment in hospital after a family drove them approximately forty miles. Victor had burns on his hands getting two of his friends out of the plane. It took some five months for arrangements to be made, but he came home.”
“And the third?” I ask.
Mom sighs slowly. “Carmine.” She whispers the pretty name musically. “He went missing in Okinawa in 1944, right about the same time that Tony’s ship was destroyed. Carmine was on a different ship. Another kamikaze mission took it down. Nobody knows what happened to Carmine. We got a telegram that many of the crew were taken prisoner in Okinawa, but others were killed when the plane hit the ship, others died in the ocean. They just don’t know.” Mom’s eyes fill with tears. “It was sad when we lost Tony. He went through so much, but he got to come home. He knew we were here with him and loved him. He knew we cared that he was living with nightmares and afraid all the time. Even all our love couldn’t keep him from dying, but he knew we loved him. We were here with him. With Carmine…” She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand because there is no handkerchief around. “With Carmine, it’s worse. It’s always been worse. He’s just gone. How do you grieve someone who is probably dead but you can’t lay him to rest? How do you go on when you don’t know?”
As I grow into an older child and develop into who I am going to be, my preoccupation with and abject terror of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany will not be forgotten, but they will blend healthily into my encyclopaedia of life’s lessons. Japan, over the years, will become a nation that forgives the United States as the United States forgives them. I cannot obsess and live in the fear my classmate tried to instill in me, but I won’t forget the wounds my mother still bears.
I have no idea what impact her words about a loved one gone missing being worse than knowing that they are dead will have on my life.
Text copyright 2018 Kimberly Renee Ohanesian/Laura Susan Johnson/PeachHam-Beach Publishing