The Loss of a Father

I think of my mother, Paula, in the photograph taken in Maryland in 1945 or 1946, not long after her father was killed in the war.

She is four- or five-years old, and her brother Lynne, just two years older, is standing slightly behind her, his hand resting on her small shoulder. She smiles shyly across the long stretch of grass, at the camera.

It’s summertime and the grass around her is tall, but not so tall that she can’t crouch down and still be easily seen, patting the dog sitting next to her. Her hair is in two pigtails, a ribbon tied around each, and she’s wearing a pinafore dress.  

In this photograph, she is and always will be, her father’s “Paulie Wogs,” as he wrote in his letters to her from Europe. Lynne was “Lynnie,” and his wife, my grandmother, always his, “Dearest darling.”   

At the age 31, he enlisted in the U.S. Army despite his family begging him not to. I’m told that my grandfather, Second Lieutenant William “Bill” Warfield was a man of principle determined to help the Allies “get ole Hitler,” and bring peace to Europe.   

As part of the 4th Infantry Division, he was among an estimated 120,000 Americans who fought in the Battle of Huertgen Forest east of the Belgium/German border. The Huertgen campaign occurred in two phases between September and December of 1944. It was the longest battle fought on German ground during World War II — and the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought.  

My grandfather was killed by enemy artillery during the second phase of the campaign, on or around November 28, 1944 near the German village of Grossau.   

He was also a man who loved growing heirloom vegetables and one Christmas stuck one a prized onion on top of the tree in lieu of a traditional star, as a practical joke. He loved his wife and children, dearly, as his letters show.

In a September 1944 letter to my mother from England, in anticipation of her fourth birthday in October, he draws a birthday cake topped with four candles, and writes:

Honey, I won’t be there to help you eat your cake, but at your party please remember that daddy is thinking about you and… if you watch closely, I’ll blow real hard from over here, and you’ll see one of the candles go out.

Looking again at the photograph taken in Maryland that summer, I imagine the sage-like fragrance of humidity in the grass lightly tickling my mother’s bare legs, although I doubt she noticed.  And, in her eyes, I see the longing that would be with her until just before her thirtieth birthday, when she took her own life. 

I imagine the sixpence her father sent her from England two months before the Huertgen campaign started, now safely in her little jewelry box or a nightstand drawer. 

The sixpence he sent Lynne, too, but it is tucked in the pocket of his trousers. Dear Lynnie is running his finger around the edge of the coin, and telling himself he must always be brave.