My grandfather was on a ship, off the coast of Africa, during World War II. He worked as a dentist on the ship, and had an honorable discharge at the end of the war. However, when he came home, he had a psychotic break that resulted in my grandmother sitting with a hatchet, outside the door of my three-year-old mother’s room, in an effort to protect her.
These are facts that are supported by my mother’s retelling of them, over many decades, and by the historical records of the ship where he was stationed and the letters that were written at that time.
I see the events in my mind’s eye, as if they happened to me.
But I will start from the beginning. You will understand better, the strength he had inside, and why he is my hero.
My mother was named after a woman who took my grandmother into her home, when she was fourteen-years-old and had run away. She was trying to find a place to keep herself safe from a home filled with abuse. She went to spend the night with a friend, and she just didn’t go home. Finally, after the third night, the friend’s mother said —
“You need to go home.”
But she started to cry and said —
“I’m never going home.”
Her friend’s mother didn’t understand, so she went to the home herself, to see the situation. When she came back, she told my grandmother —
“You’re right. You shouldn’t go back to that place. I know a woman, named Marylee, who is looking for a mother’s helper.”
This woman, Marylee, took her into her home, even though she was so young, and at first, she had thought it was not going to work out because she was so young.
But my grandmother cried again, and then Marylee gave her the opportunity to clean and do laundry and watch the smaller four children.
To reward her for the good thing she had done — saving her life, really — she had named her daughter after her. By then, she was an army nurse, which is how she met her husband, my grandfather.
He was charming. He was the most charming (and drop-dead handsome and witty) man she had ever met.
The chemistry was good between them, not like her first husband, Ralph, who she had married, loving him without realizing that he was a homosexual — until finally they had to admit it to themselves because she was a young woman who needed to be touched and held and loved. She wanted children and he never came into her room except on their wedding night and maybe a few other times, out of a desire to keep her happy, I imagine. He was off with his friends and she felt very alone in that marriage. His life was his friends, and she was alone. He didn’t bring his friends home. There were very little marital nights, if any, was how she eventually told it to her daughter. She got that marriage annulled.
When she joined the service, she met a man in Meridian, Mississippi who was friends with her best friends, George and Lucille Dern. All of them were together in the US Army. She went on to marry the man on October 4th, 1941 in Atlanta Georgia. He grew up in Atlanta, and his name was Hugh McCall Daniel, but he was always called, “Mac,” never Hugh.
I imagine he looked at her in a way that no man ever had — like he could see her, all the way through. He held her when they danced, and he danced better than anyone. He danced moving his hips and his arms wrapped around her like he was never going to let her go, while his blue, blue eyes stared deep into her heart and he kissed her with real love. I imagine they told each other all the things people tell each other when they fall in love and the man must go to war, and the woman is pregnant.
She would wait for him to come back, she would write him, he would write her. He would start each letter with, “My Darling.” She would pray for his safety, he would be safe, he would not do anything foolish, he would not let the boys talk him into stupid stuff, he would keep her picture in his Bible where he would see it every night when he said his prayers, and every morning when he said his morning lauds. They would be reunited after the war. And their little family (because they knew she was pregnant by the time he went to war) would live happily ever after.
But, of course, that’s not what happened. What happened was he came back from the war a changed man.
After the war, my grandparents were on an island off the coast of Georgia, named St. Simon’s Island. They had gone there to let Mac rest and recuperate from what he had been through in the war. He was thirty-four years old, and had shown signs of being, really, out of his mind. Maybe it was shell shock, and the cure, everyone in the family believed, was to let him take a vacation with his little family, and to play on the beach and to swim. He loved to swim. So, they went to an island where they purchased a small trailer, where they would live on the beach.
My mother was three and small for her age. She recalls playing in the salt water with her daddy, and then having him lift her by the back of her swimming suit, and hold her squirming under the fresh water turned on in the back of the trailer, to wash off all of the salt water and sand. They laughed together when he did that, my mom and her daddy. They had a good time, and he seemed to relax, maybe the shell shock was gone, they thought. See? It would be fine. It would all be okay!
But then there was a hurricane. Instead of shell shock, it was the storm that threatened their happiness and safety. So, they picked up all their things and got in the car, driving off the island and onto the Georgia mainland, to stay in the elementary school basement, with everyone else from the trailer park. My mom remembers sitting on the floor with blankets and pillows, while the grownups were maybe worried, but the children had an adventure and ate baloney sandwiches. She felt happy sitting between her mama and her daddy, having them both with her, when normally it was just her mom.
The storm passed, and her parents made a new start at carrying on where they left off, letting Mac get better by playing in the surf and relaxing again, trying to recapture the slight moment when everything seemed to be working out well.
They went back to their trailer and it was cut clean in half by the hurricane. They would not be dissuaded, though, from their mission. They found another trailer, not so close to the coast this time. It was on the mainland, instead of the island. Fancier, and longer, but still, affordable, it seems. My mom knew that things were not getting better, they were getting worse, because she could smell the grownups’ rank, distressed sweat. It filled up the trailer.
And that was when the night happened, when my Grandmother, Phyllis Vesta Daniel, put her daughter to bed, and had to sit through the night directly in front of the door to her daughter’s room, with a hatchet, drinking coffee cup after cup.
I imagine my grandmother holding her hatchet with both hands, sitting with her knees up and not caring for once, if her slip starts to show a little as she nods off just a tiny bit because no one can help it, when they are sitting up through the night, even drinking cup after cup of coffee. I see her startling suddenly fully awake again, when her face accidentally touches the top of her knees and the tiny edge of the Georgia horizon turns pink with morning, outside the window.
My mama, a three-year-old beautiful girl, slept in her locked room. Her face is pink from the heat. And I can hear the morning happening with the birds making their morning sounds in the pine groves outside, and then my Grandfather, rumpled and sorry from the night spent in the woods comes back, his shadow slowly turning into form and you can tell he is sorry. You see the white of his tee-shirt first, as it makes its way out of the line of shadowed fir trees near the house, and then you hear his footsteps and they are dragging the ground, slow, and heavy. He is wearing jeans and the tee-shirt is half tucked in, half not-tucked in. His belt holds his jeans up and he needs the belt because he is haggard and gaunt, not just because of one night in the woods, but because of days of not eating much and instead of eating, feeling the part of him that is pulling at his brain, making him think crazy things, haunting him.
Swinging his long arms and talking loudly, waking the girl who was supposed to be sleeping, he had yelled out threatening things — thoughts that the child was not his, that his wife had been unfaithful while he was away at war, that she’d let another man touch her. He would kill that child, is what he had said. He would make her dead. And then suddenly, some little part of him, a stronger part, had forced himself off the land and away from his wife and child, so that they could be safe, and he could rage and let the crazy part of himself out, in the woods.
And now, in my mind’s eye, I see him coming back from his raging night, where he sequestered himself. Back, to his wife who was guarding the room and the girl.
My grandmother looks up as her husband is coming in from his night in the woods, and she grips the hatchet, her knuckles turn white as they wake before the rest of her body comes to full attention, and then she uses the hatchet to help herself stand up because anyone would be stiff from sitting crouched waiting to have to kill your own husband with an big heavy blade, if needed, if he had come back still talking crazy word salad about killing the girl, with that terrible look in his eyes that she had never seen, not once, before the war.
And what if, on this morning, he was still swinging his arms and being like an evil thing, although we all know in real life he is gentle and funny and a good man?
“What then,” I image she thinks to herself, as his shadow comes out of the woods. She stands and walks to greet him and the light turns from hauntingly pink above a dark, bumpy, horizon to a pale white with shiny dew droplets in the grasses, nearby. “Will I be strong enough?” She has to have thought this, before she knew if he would still be crazy by the time he got to her and the girl in the trailer, that morning.
My grandfather is his normal self when he returns, but he is not his normal self at the same time.
Contrition of the deepest sort — where it is badly needed because another person is involved, number one, and number two, viscerally felt, and number three (most important of all) due to something serious and grave, something of a mortal sin or similar — can change the way a person looks and carries themselves. It’s not shame, which is something that will weigh you down inside and make you hate yourself and others for the ways in which you think you are a terrible person but you cannot talk about it because when you do talk about it, the spell will be broken. No, it’s not shame.
Shame is different from real, abiding, contrition. Where you have done something terrible and you know it, and you feel it so deeply in your heart that you wish you could turn back time and make it so that you did not do the thing you are sorry for in your mind, heart, and body.
I say body because that’s what real contrition does — it takes over your body, like an illness. You try to act normal and to get on with it, but you can’t because all over you, there is a pall. Your shoulders feel weighted down and your eyes feel sunken in, and your mouth doesn’t respond to the words you try to form.
Your brain can form the words and you can think them, but by the time they get to your mouth, you have lost your will and your mouth sits silent and folded in on itself, along with your hands.
If you don’t move your hands and you just sit still, that’s the best thing you can do, when you are feeling real contrite, and if you don’t yet have the words that need to be said, prepared and ready to form themselves into sound and leave your mouth.
And if you are sitting at a kitchen table in a trailer with your wife, you might wait and let your wife speak first. Your wife has been mostly up all night waiting for you, while at the same time she was keeping an ear out for the cries of a little girl in the room behind her, and the night noises of the Georgia summer were creeping up on her, startling her every few minutes.
She wouldn’t have slept anyway because there was a man threatening to kill her child — a man she loved, who before the war would never have hurt another person, but after the war, seemed like he would turn at any moment and use his superior upper body strength to do harm.
This wife, she would tell you when it was time to speak. She would speak first, because she is stronger than you. Both of you know this.
But what my grandmother says that morning, in my mind’s eye, is something to the effect of, “Would you like jelly on your toast?” She pours the dark coffee into the small cup in front of my grandfather. My grandfather has big circles under his eyes, and bug bites on his arms and legs from being in the woods overnight. He reaches across his body and scratches an arm and then reaches for the coffee cup that rattles off the saucer where it sits, which in turn sits on a wax table cloth, which then itself sits on a kitchen table, which sits on the linoleum floor, and then lastly, all of it sits inside a box-like trailer, on the earth. And the two of them sit without speaking at the table, drinking their black coffee and thinking their private thoughts, which have to have intersected somewhat but would also have been different from each other in monumental ways.
The silence between them, and the grave business of deciding what to do next, is interrupted by the sounds of the girl in the other room. My grandparents both get up, because they are both used to responding to their loved child, but then my grandfather sits back down heavily, almost at once because he knows now that he is not allowed to be around the child. He has decided this on his own, last night while he was in the woods.
He had sat in the dark, being stronger than most people ever have to be, willing the crazy part of him that wanted to run pell-mell into the house and grab the infant and choke her or bash her brain against the stove — willing it into submission. He let it run a little wild outside in the woods where he knew he could keep it contained from hurting anyone. But then, he tried to stuff it all back in, and because he had some practice at this and because he was strong, he succeeded. And he got deep sleep, on the ground of the forest, not even feeling the bugs bite him when they did, and getting up in the morning brushing off the little sticks and leaves that had attached themselves to his tee-shirt and his black hair which then stood up all around his face, and he brushed it down with a shaky hand, before he walked out of the forest, already knowing what needed to be done, but wanting first to say his last things to his wife and girl.
His wife goes and takes care of the girl in the other room, and when she comes back, the girl stays in the other room and the grownups talk. They talk, and decide together about what must be done. It’s mid-morning by the time he goes to the telephone and lifts it off the receiver, dials a number, and speaks.
“We need the sheriff.”
The call was placed, and then they must have had to wait. Which would have felt like an eternity. I wondered to my mom if she was scared and this is what she told me:
I wasn’t really scared but I knew enough that something was happening, that I shouldn’t talk. I was a good talker, but the smell and the atmosphere made me quiet and subdued. But not scared.
What she remembers is kneeling on a cushion by the window, seeing the Sheriff and his Deputy drive up. Smelling, all around her, the rank odor of grown-ups’ distressed sweat that filled the small trailer and hung in the air almost like a poison, signaling that things were not good. They were bad. The holiday had not cured her daddy.
“Daddy is sick, and has to go away where he can get better.”
That’s what her mom told her. And she probably heard the crunch of gravel as the Sheriff’s car pulled up. The Sheriff was a man with a big belly, older than the Deputy who came with him. They entered the trailer quietly and spoke quietly and politely to her mom and her dad, and they seemed to know and understand that her daddy was not a bad person, he was just needing help. They still had to handcuff him. That was their job, and he didn’t resist. He must have said something to his daughter, too.
“I’m not safe around you, my Darling. You’re not safe. Mommy is not safe.”
Did he say that? We don’t know.
But we do know he was handcuffed. The Sheriff and the Deputy touched his shoulder and indicated he should turn, which he did.
They clicked the metal together behind him, and then he could breathe easier because his daughter was safe with her mother.
I imagine he looked at his sad wife with his blue eyes and he steadily tried to say all the things he needed to say to his beloveds. I think he probably tried to say these things with his eyes:
“I love you. I love our child, I know she is mine. I love you so much, I will never hurt you or the girl. I will do whatever it takes to keep you both safe. Whatever it takes.”
And then he was gone, his head protected by a hand, as he stooped to get in the sheriff’s car, and to make room on the seat for his hands caught behind him in metal cuffs that likely pinched.
And then, after jail, they probably drove him to the Veteran’s Hospital and then to another hospital in Philadelphia where eventually, maybe a year later, he had the surgery. It was the best treatment possible. At that time, you had to be even braver than you have to be these days, to get the best treatment possible, and to hand yourself over to the doctors who tell us all that they know what to do to make things as right as they can get.
“It will never be the same. But your family will be safe.”
They told him this, I would think. He acquiesced. No, that’s not right. He did more than that.
He requested that the doctors do whatever they needed to do to make it so that he would never hurt anyone. Because he could feel the insanity inside him; the ways it took over and endangered people he loved, even his daughter. He loved her and her mom, and he would do whatever it took. And he did.
The way I always knew him, was as a patient in Ft. Lyon Veterans Hospital in Bent County, Colorado. He was still handsome and his blue eyes still sparkled like he knew a secret. I loved my grandfather. No matter that he had had a lobotomy and a small piece of his brain that helped him remember things and also helped him be the person he was meant to be, had been removed. He gave it over, basically handed it up, to the doctor’s instruments. And then he lived in a V.A. hospital, and flirted with all the nurses and made friends, because he was a friendly and funny man. I knew him enough to feel comfortable with him, and to hold his hand while we took walks around the manicured lawns.
My mom tells that she remembers dancing with him. He was always clean, and he smelled great. She still had a good time with her daddy.
If he hadn’t have been able to be as strong as he was, she would have gotten to dance with him, and we never would have gotten to hold hands together and walk in what felt like a green, green park with big trees and little cooing bird sounds from the tops of the trees. Everything felt just fine, and it didn’t matter that he jerked his head and his arms and flung cigarette ashes everywhere, and had to have the nurses gently wipe the white stuff that curled out of the corners of his smiling mouth.
He took me to the swimming pool that the hospital provided for the patients in the summer. It was dry and hot outside and the water sparkled blue, like his eyes. He wore swimming trunks when he came out of the dressing room, and he had a towel around his neck that covered his caved in chest, and swung a little as he lurched across the cement, barefoot.
He took ahold of his towel and flung it on the table in one smooth move that demonstrated to me that he had learned how to go with the flow of the jerks in his body, the tardive dyskinesia, which was a side effect of the medicines he had to take even though he had a surgery that calmed his behavior. He still had to take medicines that were hard on his body but he was strong and brave, and he took them his entire life and he found a way to move with the jerkiness in his limbs, instead of fighting it.
He smiled and walked, or almost pitched himself toward the deep end where the diving board sat bolted to the concrete. I stood still, in my black one piece and my mom sat at the table with her book and her dress still on, and she watched. I was going to get in the water, but I waited for my grandfather, this still handsome man whose eyes matched the brilliant pool water. He climbed the ladder and I couldn’t help being afraid for him.
My mom and I watched, and he stood teetering at the very end of the long board that bounced just slightly with his weight, and then quietly — oh, so quietly — he bent his knees and went flying up into the air, made this perfect arc and then curved his body and down he sliced into the water with no sound. Just a tiny splash like it was maybe a spear that had hit the water instead of a seventy-year-old man with paranoid schizophrenia and a lobotomy. He sprung back up out of the water and laughed with us, and then got out and dripped water as he see-saw walked his way back to the ladder, climbed up and did it again just exactly the same way.
Then he needed a smoke and got dressed so we could go meet his friends in the cafeteria. We met a friend who, he said, was a war hero, and who had one half of his face missing. Instead of the face that used to be there, was a big bulb of mountainous flesh. It almost looked like it was dripping and I didn’t look too long, but I looked long enough to make sure he knew that I wasn’t afraid of him. I smiled and he smiled with one eye and part of his mouth. I was proud to eat lunch with these two heroes, and my mom was too.
My grandfather said his friend’s family never visited and he wanted to make sure he got some time visiting with us, so that he wasn’t left out of all the fun of having two beautiful girls to hang out with on a Friday and Saturday.
“Are you my wife? I love you, you know.”
And we said we loved him too. And we did. I loved him with a kind of love that I have reserved for my grandfather all my life, and that I still carry for him now.
After lunch, he wanted to smoke again and we sat at an orange plastic chair in a little room off the lunchroom. The vending machines made on and off and clanking growling noises, as they tried to get my attention with their sugary chocolate and sodas, behind the plastic. But I only had eyes for my grandfather. He was dashing still. His head bent to the side and his cigarette ash got flung into his Styrofoam cup of black coffee. His blue eyes shone at me, from slightly hooded lids and his lips curled up when he looked at me.
“You’re beautiful. Are you my daughter?”
“No, I’m your granddaughter. Your daughter is my mom.”
“Do you know how to shoot pool? I bet I will beat you at pool, but I will show you my tricks and you can learn how to beat me.”
We played pool and he showed me how to hold the stick behind my back, and tip my body backwards just a little, but keep one foot on the floor so that I don’t cheat.
He laughed and hit all the balls in before I could even get one into the pocket. And then he put some music on and he showed me how to do it myself.
We danced too. I might have imagined that. Because I associate music and dancing with my grandfather. For some reason, I know he was a good dancer. And for Christmas one year, when I was fifteen, and in dire need of good things to happen to me, he sent me a present. When I opened it, it was a tiny Walkman, that could fit into my pocket. And I would put the earphones on, and I would walk, and walk, and walk, and listen to music that would soothe me into a calmness that I hadn’t felt before. And then I would dance a little as I walked, and I would think about how my grandfather gave me this opportunity, and how I would possibly not even be alive if he hadn’t been so brave and so strong.
And later, after he died sitting up in his chair with his favorite nurse nearby, he came to me when I needed him most.
I was in a mental hospital and the doctors said I needed to take medicine, but I didn’t want to take medicine. The side effects were terrible, when I read them to myself, sitting on my single bed in a hospital room that had metal bars over the window, and the sounds of someone yelling and keys jangling as people ran down the hallway together to stop the yelling.
A little paper cup, with crimped edges, like the one you hold under a ketchup dispenser in a fast food restaurant, sat on my nightstand by the bed. And a big white pill sat inside the paper cup. I sat on the edge of the bed, hunched over and miserable, my head aching from the night before when I had lost my cool and flung myself into the night with a bottle.
All I was thinking of was myself, and my miserable life that was barely hanging on with threads at that time, when my grandfather sat down in my room beside me. He was young, in a tan uniform which was all buckled up and tidy. His blue eyes were just how I remembered them, only clear and filled with youth instead of elderly. He sat beside me on the bed, and he told me how important it was that I take the medicine. He said he would stay with me while I took it.
“It’ll be okay, and it will make things better. I know it’s hard but you can do hard things.”
He sat for just a moment with me, smiling gently the whole time, while I picked up the paper cup of tap water and the smaller paper cup with the pill, and picked the pill out with two fingers that were shaking, and put the pill on my tongue, took a sip of water, and swallowed. This was the not the first time I had ever taken psychiatric medicines, but it was the most serious time, because the doctors told me I was going to have to take them for the rest of my life. I was scared. I was scared of what was happening in my life, and I was scared of what would happen to my body and my brain if I took the medicine.
But my grandfather was there for me, and then he was gone.
My grandfather, the veteran — the hero in my life.
This story was written with the help and good graces, of my mother, Marylee Daniel Mitcham. I appreciate her assistance so much.