My uncle Charlie was more or less adopted by my father and mother when he was 10 years old, and he came to live in my father’s house.
My father had been asking my mother several times to marry him. Each time she had put off answering him. One day, he brought along a calendar with him.
“Rose,” he said, “I want you to pick a day on this calendar when we can be married, and I will come again next week. If you have not marked off a day, I will not ask you again.”
My mother, at sixteen, was a governess for a wealthy family in Suffield, Connecticut, and she was living on their property. Immediately, she rushed off to seek advice from Mrs. Fuller, who was more often inclined to seek advice from her.
“What should I do?”
“Rose, marry him.”
When next he came, days were marked off. My father asked her, “Rose, why did it take you so long? Was it me?”
It was not him. She used to say of him he was the best catch in town.
This is what she told my father: “When my mother was dying of cancer, she called me into her room and said, ‘Rosa, will you do something for me?’ I said, ‘Of course, mama.’ She said, ‘Take care of Charlie,’" the youngest of her sons. “And I didn’t want this to be a burden for you,” she confessed.
My father was relieved. “Rosalie” – his love name for her – “Charlie will come and live with us.” And he did.
When my father died, Charlie drew me aside and said, “He was my father too.” And he was.
Charlie and other of his brothers went off to war. He had a harrowing assignment. Charlie was helping engineers build airfields, sometimes under fire, in the Pacific, and also retrieving and burying Americans lost in battle, a gruesome task. At war's end when he came home, Charlie was sick. My father picked him up at the airport. He burrowed into my father’s house and refused to go out, even to keep a date with Mary, his pre-war sweetheart, whom he later married.
My mother knew something had to be done. On one of her trips to the store nearby where she bought her groceries, she asked the owner of the store to hire her brother.
“Of course, Rose.”
“You are going to work,” she told Charlie.
He could not refuse her. Gradually, the gentle touch of time eased Charlie back into his old familiar routines. He married the woman who was in his heart during his war service, had children, lived with gusto the American dream. It was to honor Charlie and my wife's father, who served in four separate branches of the military, that we visited military cemeteries in every European country to which we traveled -- in Italy, in France, in England -- always kept in pristine condition by a Europe that could not forget people like Charlie. Their gratitude touched the white and glowing sun-washed stones in military cemeteries throughout Europe, where brave young men fought and died; they shone in the sun like a constellation of bright stars. Neither Andree nor I will forget them -- or Charlie. To remember one who has died, the philosopher says, is a prayer.
I visited Charlie before he died. I owe him a great deal. It was because of him I took an interest in history and writing. He was a voracious reader of history, very intelligent. He knew he was dying.
“I just want people to know,” he said to me, “that I was a stand-up guy.”
I stroked his hair and told him that everyone who mattered already knew that.
Every Independence Day, I think of Charlie and my other uncles, Ray, Johnny and Tommy – all gone now -- who served in what General Patton called The Great War. I recall the terrible burden Charlie carried in silence, how he loved and respected his sister, my father, Mary – the love of his life – his children, a strong and modest man. With gratitude and love, I remember the great sacrifices he made for everyone, and what a stand-up soldier he was.