A Father’s Invisible Presence

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“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.”
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“The Beauty of What Remains,” by Susan Johnson Hadler, is a story of liberating a family from secrets, ghosts, and untold pain.

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.

Dear Susan,

Since I can’t be there in person, this is a sort of “welcome” letter.

Yours is a pretty good family as families run. Your dad is a bit on the off side, but your mother and brother and now, you, more than make up for that.

Your brother is quite a guy. Of course, he’s quite handsome and smart—will he get around—but I know he’ll always be ready to guide you and protect you in every way.

Your mother is the most wonderful person I’ve ever known. I’ve always marveled at my great good fortune to have loved her and been loved by her. If you will follow her dictates and examples, you may expect to meet life in the best possible way and your path will always be the right one.

Your family believes in living life to its fullest. We enjoy all good things and live well—in that you’re fortunate.

For me, adhere to a belief in tolerance, a genuine liking for others, and always give to life to the fullest.

Your father, Dave

Black on white paper, the words were my father. They were his voice and his fatherly guidance. They proved that I had a father and that he knew I was born. From his words I forged a loyalty and a love and silently protected his place in my unearthly family.

I longed for stories that would bring him to life, but knew only one. It was a story that summoned his absence and a silence as cold and deep as the night sky in winter. When I was a six-year-old with freshly cut bangs, Mother put David and me on the train in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where we lived, with a shoebox lunch of fried chicken. She tipped the conductor to watch out for us until we reached Chicago, where Granny, my father’s mother, lived. My tall, white-haired grandmother met us at the station and drove us across town to her apartment in Evanston. She treated us like grown-ups, serving dinner on trays in the living room. The china was thin, bordered with a delicate purple and gold pattern—the silver, heavy.

After dinner David ran outside to play and I pulled up the stool with a needlepoint cover and sat in front of Granny. She was talking about “Daddy David,” her name for my father.

“Daddy David and his two friends were out in the fields, making sure the way was safe for the others to follow. The area had been cleared, but your father and the other two men wanted to go first, just to make sure. All of a sudden there was an explosion. All three of them were killed.” Granny looked down, stroking one thin hand with the other. I longed to put my head in her lap. There were no words, only silence.

I didn’t know what to call my father. Granny told me to call him “Daddy David,” which was awkward. David was my brother’s name and a daddy was someone you knew who was endearing and familiar. I didn’t know the man in the picture. I didn’t know how old he was when he died, or where he died or was buried. I didn’t know his birthday or even that I could know these things.

My father was killed less than one month before V-E Day, the end of the war in Europe. The family learned of his death as people were celebrating victory, dancing in the streets, wild with relief and hope. Sons and husbands were coming home. Ours was a reserved midwestern family for which politeness and concern for others took precedence over our own emotions. Expressions of grief in the midst of joy weren’t possible. On Memorial Day, my grandfather reached into the back of his closet for the army jacket he’d worn in World War I, buttoned it up, and marched in the parade, his face wet with tears he couldn’t hold back.

My father’s parents didn’t know what had happened to their only child. They were told he was killed in action in a town near the western border of Germany. Hovering over an atlas on the kitchen table, they searched for the place their son died. In January 1946, my grandmother wrote to the Office of Graves Registration: “Will you kindly give me any information you may have concerning my son, Lt. David S. Johnson, Jr.? I am anxious to know where he is buried.”

The government replied: “It is with deep regret that you are advised that, up to the present time, information pertaining to the burial of the remains of your son has not been received in this office.”

On Valentine’s Day of 1948, Mother remarried. My stepfather had grown up in Oshkosh and returned from the war in the Philippines. David, my six-year-old brother, and I watched our new dad, the tall man with dark hair and glasses, open a can of paint, dip his brush in, and draw a gigantic red heart on the dining room wall of our apartment.

Eventually there were nine of us—three sisters and two more brothers. Life continued in the new family with almost no trace of my father, except inside of me. It was understood that my mother needed to live without being reminded of a time that had wounded her almost beyond repair. As soon as I could talk I knew that mention of his name upset her, and I didn’t want her to be sad. I needed her too much. I imagined that my father was the love of her life and that she loved him still, an unspoken secret she and I shared.

Although he was rarely mentioned, sometimes the world offered a hint of his invisible presence. When I sat beside Mother in church and listened to her soft alto voice as she sang the familiar hymns, I knew she was singing to my father. I too sang with silent devotion: “This is my father’s world . . .” and “Land where our fathers died . . .” I prayed fervently to “Our father who art in heaven.” At those holy moments the dead and the living converged.

During our weekly spelling test, when my third grade teacher called out the word “mine,” I froze and then wrote the word in tiny letters. It was a word that spelled death.

November 11—Veterans Day. Every year I stood with my class for two minutes of silence. One annual moment when soldiers like my father were remembered by everyone. I knew the silence meant death—soldiers, men being shot and blown up, their lives over as quickly as the two minutes elapsed. We went on living, but the soldiers and my father never did. I wanted the silence to last for a long time, and then I wanted to tell my friends and my teachers about my father. I wanted people to know that he was one of the soldiers we were remembering. I wanted someone to touch me on the shoulder and say, “I’m sorry your father was killed.” Then I could say, “Oh it’s all right, but thanks.” I kept my secret safe for fear people would have nothing to say and I’d want to disappear, lost beyond hope that he could ever be mentioned in this world again.

The Fourth of July began in the garage. All of the siblings who were old enough to walk met there after breakfast to help Dad carry the ladder around to the front yard and lean it against the tallest tree. David was a Boy Scout and knew how to tie knots, so he took one end of the giant flag that Mother held, pulled a rope through the metal circle in the top corner, and tied it with a square knot. Dad climbed the ladder that towered above our heads and threw the rope over a sturdy branch. When he was on the ground again six or seven pairs of legs walked the ladder across the lawn to the other tree. David climbed the ladder and threw the rope over that branch.

All of us stood back and looked up at the flag flowing down between the two trees. It was almost as big as our house. Within a minute, the little kids dashed from one end of the yard to the other, running through the scratchy wool flag, making it ripple and wave. Soon, all the kids in the neighborhood were in our front yard running back and forth through the flag.

I was quiet standing there. I had seen the newsreels that appeared before the movies at the Saturday matinee, showing boxes, coffins covered with flags lying in rows, waiting to go into the ground during the Korean War. What about our father? Did he have a box? Did they wrap him in a flag?

Every year before the fireworks began after dark, we stood and placed our hands over our hearts and sang the national anthem. Listening to the words “the bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,” I felt the thud of fireworks in my heart and thought of my father exploding to bits.

The flag and the war combined in the song with the coffins of the men who had died. I wanted to run joyfully through the flag like my brothers and sisters, but I knew too much about that flag. I looked over at Dad and David standing together beside the tree. They were proud of their work and they were proud of our flag hanging there boldly in the front yard.

David was happy to have a new dad. He earned his God and Country Boy Scout merit badge, and when he graduated from high school, he joined the Navy—his way of being close to our father.

Although David and I never talked about him, I thought about our father who never came home. Never came home. Why? Where was he? I knew he had been hit by a mine, but what if he’d been thrown off to the side? What if he had amnesia from the blast and was wandering the world, as lost as I was without him? We’d find each other. My father had decorated the pages of his books with little penciled sketches when he was a child. It was a clue that he loved books as much as I did. We’d meet in a bookstore in Paris, or maybe Buenos Aires, one evening at dusk. Glancing up from his book, he’d recognize me, see himself in my brown eyes, and know that I was his daughter.

Silence prevailed into my twenties. A vague feeling of living my mother’s life haunted me when I became the mother of two small children and expected my husband, Jack, to disappear at any moment.

When my therapist asked about my father, I blithely answered, “Oh, he was killed in the war.”

She pursued, her eyes full of concern. “How were you affected by his death?”

It was a question I’d never thought about. I told her about Mother, that she couldn’t speak of him; her loss was too great.

“It’s all right to be open,” she said. “Look at the dogwood blossom. It’s wide open to the wind and the rain and not even the fiercest storm can tear it from its branch.”

In August my family—Mother and Dad, David, Amy, Dan, Ellen, Clare, and John—visited us at Jack’s family’s cottage, one big, open room with a fireplace, a row of bunk beds, and a screened-in porch facing the Chesapeake Bay. Everyone else was at the beach when I was working on a jigsaw puzzle and Mother came in and picked up a piece. It was a rare moment when the two of us were alone together.

“So, Mother, I’d really love to know about my father. What was he like?”

Mother looked at me, the warm atmosphere gone. “How can you ask me that, Susan? You know it’s too painful for me to relive that time; you’re smart and successful and have two beautiful children. You don’t need to know that.”

“But I do need to know. He was my father.”

“Don’t be foolish. You have everything you’ve ever needed. Why are you ruining this happy time together? Leave it alone.”

I kept my questions to myself for years after that. My father’s parents had died, and my mother was the only one I knew who had the answers. When I was forty I invited her to spend the weekend with me in Pittsburgh, halfway between Indianapolis, where she lived, and Washington, DC, where I lived. We flew in from our separate lives, met at the airport, and stayed in a majestic old hotel. In between shopping and movies I asked about her life, hoping to learn little things about my father’s. She told me about her childhood on the Ohio River, her mother’s death when she was ten, and her older sister, who was a gifted pianist. “I left home,” she told me, “when my stepmother burned my high school yearbook and all of my mementos.”

I listened eagerly. We were getting close to the time she met my father. I wanted to break in and ask what she loved about him, what made him laugh, if I was anything like him. I held myself back, fearful of ruining the relaxed environment. She moved too slowly toward him. The stories were about her. She said nothing about my father.

Sitting across the table from me in the hotel dining room, Mother brushed the crumbs from her sweater and told me that she didn’t remember my father very well. “I knew him for only five years. We were young and the war imposed on every aspect of our life together.” She didn’t remember the man who was like a god to me, a mysterious source of life whose presence I could sometimes sense, but whose actual life I couldn’t fathom. She couldn’t remember the things I needed to know to help me see my father as a human being who walked and ate and slept on this earth.

Every Veterans Day, I thought of my father. I didn’t know where he was buried, and I had no place to go to acknowledge his life or death. November 11, 1992, I decided to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Joining the slow line of silent people moving toward the Wall, I noticed men in old army jackets crying and hugging other men in uniform, people grieving openly. Names of the dead surrounded me—names engraved on the smooth, black, deepening wall, names read out loud, a never-ending litany of death mingling with thoughts of my father.

I knelt to read a poem. Red and white carnations rose out of a beer mug beside the piece of paper. The poem was written to a father who never came home. Pictures and medals were scattered below other names on the wall. Those expressions of sadness seemed like a bond, more like a caress than the isolating silence I’d come to know. Leaving that sacred wall, I vowed to begin to search for information about my father.

The next morning, I looked up a veterans’ center in the phone book. I felt eager and pathetic—pathetic that I was nearly fifty years old and so unresolved and needy and alone as to look in a phone book for someone to talk to about an event that had happened half a century ago. I was afraid they’d tell me it was the wrong war or that I was too late.

A man with a voice like a cello answered the phone. I told him my father was killed in WWII, and I wanted to begin to know him.

“When it hits, it hits hard,” he said. He referred me to Ann Mix, a woman in Washington State who had started a network for people whose fathers were killed in World War II.

I spoke with her that same day and told her the three things I knew about my father: his name, David Selby Johnson, Jr.; that he was an only child; and that he was killed by a mine in Germany.

“Do you know his serial number or his rank?”

“No, I don’t.”

“What battalion was he with?”

“I have no idea.“

“Where did he fight?”

“It must have been somewhere in Germany, where he died.”

“Do you know where he’s buried?”

“No, I don’t even know that.” She was asking for details I’d never thought about. Then she told me about her own father, who was killed on a mountaintop in Italy when she was four. She’d grown up with silence, as I had. She told me where to send for my father’s military records, and gave me the phone number of organizations that listed reunions of military groups so I could contact men who might have known him.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Beauty of What Remains, by Susan Johnson Hadler, and published by She Writes Press, 2015.

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