A Father’s Invisible Presence

One woman sifts through her family’s history in search of the remnants of a father she never knew.


| January 2016



Hadler Parents

“There were several photographs in a white cardboard box on the bottom shelf beside the fireplace. I loved looking at the one of my father smiling at my mother, who was facing him.”

Photo courtesy Susan Johnson Hadler

Is it possible to miss someone you’ve never known? The Beauty of What Remains (She Writes Press, 2015), by Susan Johnson Hadler, is a memoir about discovering missing members of a family and then bringing them back together — all while traveling through midwestern America, France and Germany to do it. This excerpt, which details the beginning of Hadler’s life and her father’s death during World War II, is from Chapter 1, “Questions.”

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My father was neither alive nor dead in my mind, but existed somewhere between a ghost and a god—ever present, never visible. Until I began my search I knew only three things about him: his name, David Selby Johnson, Jr.; that he was an only child; and that he was killed by a mine on April 12, 1945, somewhere in Germany.

I had only a few details and many questions. Was he serious or funny? What had he done before the war? What did he want to do after the war? I began my quest for information about my father as my fiftieth birthday and the fiftieth anniversary of his death drew near. Since then, the explosion that had blown him to bits had been happening in reverse for me. Bits of information about him had begun to fall into my hands, my mind, my heart. I’d gathered fragments from his life, dug up records, studied photographs and letters, tracked down people he may have known, pursued clues, memories, and emotions. The pieces arrived with burned and jagged edges, missing chapters, pictures that clarified, horrified, and confused. Each was a part of my father.

There were several photographs in a white cardboard box on the bottom shelf beside the fireplace. I loved looking at the one of my father smiling at my mother, who was facing him. He had pushed his soldier’s cap to the back of his head; his hand was in the pocket of his trousers. Mother looked young and thin. She was wearing a dark skirt and jacket, a light shirt. Her hair was longer than I’d ever seen it. She tilted her head and there was a hint of a smile. Only their eyes were touching. Once upon a time he was alive, and he and my mother were in love. They were married and they had a child, my brother David. Three years later, when Mother was eight months pregnant with me, my father left for the war. I was born in January of 1945. The next month he wrote me a letter of welcome. The V-Mail letter was taped into my baby book.