When a loved one dies, you’re left with photographs and whatever recollections your mind is able to drag out to inspect. But my memory is far from a dependable archive and a 2-D image in a photo album can only do so much. It’s easy to start flipping pages or wander down mental side roads that lead you far from where you meant to be. Not a bad thing, really, any introspection is a golden nugget when most days are marked by the hollow, fleeting ding of accomplished tasks.
People with home movies are lucky. Old family videos let you hear your aunt’s voice again and be reminded of the particular way her attention could go from person to person in a room, landing on each face. Or the way your cousin walked—never in a hurry, no reason to suspect that he would die young and only live on in memories and a few precious minutes of video. These are reflections that no still image could elicit.
My grandmother died a few years ago and I’m still adjusting to her complete silence. We used to talk on the phone a lot and we visited her and my grandfather often; the entire family is lucky that we got Nanny for 86 years. Now that she’s gone, I’m stuck with my own remembrances of her long biography and saddened that she will never be able to fill in one of the many blanks in the record.
So I’ve started to record my grandfather’s voice on trips back to Hot Springs, a town that always centered around them and now centers around him, the survivor. If the first time I recorded him made him uncomfortable, it didn’t show. I took out my iPhone, readied the Voice Memos feature, pressed record, and asked him to tell me again about where he grew up. Now I will forever have that detail told through his real voice and inimitable flair. That anecdote and the time when he worked on the boats in Michigan and when he met Nanny and all of these other momentous points in his story, told casually while he cooked breakfast or thumbed through the USA Today. One day, when we return to an empty house in Hot Springs and the cemetery on the hill holds both grandparents, we may play these soundbites again and be able, almost, to share space and time with our beloved grandfather.
We drop in to see my wife’s Uncle Norman after having lunch in Sneads Ferry. While we are all together, Mema, my wife’s grandmother, thinks it would be a good time for us to go see him. Uncle Norman is Mema’s uncle, so he is up there in age, maybe 92-93 years old. He lives in a little house overlooking a finger of marsh and it is a beautiful, sunny, cloudless day.
When we enter his house, Uncle Norman is sitting on his favorite recliner, alone in his quiet and dark home, just waiting and sitting. He has diabetes and cardiac issues, with wrecked and swollen feet, numerous stents and a pacemaker—he doesn’t get around much anymore—he confesses during our visit that he basically sits there and wonders why God hasn’t brought him home yet. He’s ready to die. But as we look around and visit with him and talk about his life and look at his pictures, he starts to open up and play host. There are framed pictures around, old black and whites from his years in the service; he mentions that he was there on Normandy, storming the beach in the face of grim odds. It’s hard for me to imagine that a memory of the beach could be so sinister. Despite his poor physical condition, his mind is incredibly sharp and lucid. He sits there with these stories and no one to tell them to—like an album that never gets played or a book that never gets read. It’s a chronicle of a life that just sits and molders, and you’re not quite sure what’s there until you press play or open the cover.
As he talks about those wartime memories from over 75 years ago, I begin to think that this needs to be recorded. His small audience—including my children who are too young to appreciate it and his family who may’ve heard it before, maybe ad nauseum during every pervious drop in—isn’t worthy. He is, or was, more than the deteriorating old man before us. Surely some historian or military buff on nearby Camp Lejeune would love to hear this. Granted, the history is well documented in books and movies, but this man’s unique perspective has a shelf life and WWII veterans like him are getting rarer by the day.
I get home and reach out to a local history writer, David Allen Norris, to brainstorm and see if there is a Story Corps on a local or state level or any organization that may be collecting stories of area servicemen. Sure enough, there is.
The State Archives of North Carolina maintains a Military Collection that gathers photographs, maps, letters, personal belongings and other artifacts from our veterans, and also manages an Oral History Program that collects their personal narratives. Military Collection Archivist Matthew Peek travels all around NC to interview veterans for the Oral History program, recording and curating them for posterity.
I speak to Matthew Peek on the phone and tell him about Uncle Norman. I get the impression that he hears it a lot, the tale of an aging veteran with stories to share. My job is to lay the groundwork—getting permission from the family, finding out the dates and details of his military service—before he drives down from Raleigh to interview Uncle Norman in his Sneads Ferry home.
Uncle Norman dies before we are able to schedule an interview.