Last week I wrote about 9/11 and mentioned my friend Shelley, who lived through the whole event as a superintendent in the New York City public schools. Her response to my blog included these words: “I was in awe yesterday, listening to children who were born soon after 9/11, never having met their fathers. They are hoping to do wonderful things with their lives, to honor the parent they never met, but still love.”
Shelley’s words linger as I ponder the idea of loving someone you’ve never met. I’ve been thinking about my ancestors lately and it occurs to me that I too have a family member who’s always been present in my life, someone I love but have never met, my maternal grandfather. He’s always been somewhat of a mystery to me and when I look at the photograph of him with my mother, taken just days before he died when his plane crashed, I feel like I’ve missed out on someone important in my life. Considering he’s my grandfather, I know very little about him. In fact, I know more about his death than his life.
My grandfather was 36 years old when his life was cut short. I know he was a dentist, that he loved to fly, and that he was an adventurous free spirit. In his memoir, my uncle wrote that every vivid memory he had of his father had to do with flying. My grandfather became a pilot during aviation’s infancy and it was a great passion for him. I wonder what he thought about when he flew, what his dreams were and what inspired him to fly. I’ll never know the answers to my questions, and I’ll mostly have to fill in the gaps with whatever my mother or uncle can tell me about my grandfather the pilot. From the newspaper clippings I read, he was deeply loved and his early death was a tremendous loss to his family and friends. Sometimes, even at my current stage of life, I can still feel that loss in my ancestral bones.
Looking at the little girl in the photo gazing with adoration at her handsome father, I believe there’s a part of myself in that child. Even though I wasn’t born for another seventeen years, I am still part of his story and he is part of mine. Like the children of 9/11 who lost their fathers before they had a chance to meet them, I will keep asking questions and create meaning of a loved one’s life in my own way. Through family stories, both written and spoken, a lost life can be remembered through love. And like the children, I will continue to try to do wonderful things with my life in honor of the grandfather I never met, but still love.