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  • Writer's pictureSabrina Riley

Holding Hands With the Past

As I write, I'm preparing to teach a class about World War II to a group of homeschooled third through fifth graders. Using picture storybooks, we'll touch on the various issues and events in the war. In contemplating possible projects and activities to go along with the stories, I naturally thought about asking the kids to interview their own grandparents about their World War II experiences...and then immediately nixed the idea when I realized the grandparents of these kids were born after the war ended. Most of their great-grandparents may either be deceased or too young to remember the war either. Man, did that realization make me feel old.

You see, growing up around my grandfathers, both veterans of World War II, references to the war were a regular part of conversation. So much so, that the war carried an immediacy to me, not only because of the Cold War—which grew out of the aftermath of World War II and was still such a concern in my childhood—but because my grandparents referenced it on a regular basis. It shaped them in such a way that it became a part of the weave and warp of their entire lives. A pattern passed on to me, their eldest grandchild.

This sense of connection with the past through my relationships with grandparents is not limited to World War II. There are a number chains of remembrance in my family tree where I metaphorically feel a handhold across generations. I feel connected to my fourth great-grandmother, Catherine Roush Menges, as she taught her granddaughter, Amelia Matilda, to read from the old family German Bible in her Pennsylvania home while sitting at this table (pictured right). Years later, Amelia shared this memory with her niece, Edith, who as my great-grandmother told me about it 130 years later.

Just three hand holds connect me to Catherine.

The chain felt even shorter as I visited Fort Foote with my great-aunt, Maxine Stevenson Mosher. Her grandfather, David Stevenson, helped construct Fort Foote during the Civil War. She recalled being jealous that he shared his war memories with her boy cousins, but claimed his stories were too harsh for the ears of a girl. As I rambled through the ruins with Aunt Maxine and her son Robert, we speculated on what his experience might have been like in this earthen fortification on the Maryland bank of the Potomac River with Confederate troops just across the water. It was a sacred space where I met my second great-grandfather through the hand of his granddaughter.

Two hand holds connect me to David.

It is with a sense of grief that I realize the heroes of World War II, who shaped so much of my life, are passing away. I used to think it remarkable that the last Civil War veteran died when my mother was a child. I have now lived to hear of the death of the last World War I veteran, and soon the last World War II veterans will die. Their stories will be either forgotten or relegated to the annals of history. How do we make these life experiences real to a new generation? How do we preserve the intergenerational connections in our families? I feel more compelled than ever to make sure my sons hear these stories and learn to hold hands with the past for themselves.

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