The faded pictures in the display case are all that really remains of the man. We never knew him except to know that he was my father’s uncle. The watery sepia tone images show a young man unsmiling and stiff the way all young men look in old pictures and I would sometimes wonder who he was. Did he laugh and cry the way we all do? Was there a woman he loved, and who loved him? Did he have my grandmother’s smile?
A bold flag now rests in the case, aged medals beside new, faded daguerreotypes beside brilliant color. A hundred years have passed and yet the photos are the same, stiff and unsmiling. Two young men proud and duty driven, unsure of what lies ahead except that the end may come far from home.
There are no stories about the man in the faded picture – his body rests among thousands more in a country far away.
But I know the other man’s stories. He loved lego and transformers and always played the soldier. He was golden blond where we were not, proof of our family’s Slavic legacy. Tall and athletic, he would pour as much into his gifted drawings as he would push himself to his physical limits. Soft spoken and quick to laugh, he was the mischievous boy that all boys are.
When he left, I watched from afar as the boy became a man and I wondered if he would come back hardened by war. Would the mischief in his eyes grow cold? Would we hear his laughter or would it retreat behind the harshness of where he had been and what he had seen? Would he come back whole, or would he come back at all?
As the hours passed slowly in the final days of their tour, the country draped itself in its colors again. Impassioned speeches celebrated those with us and those who no longer were. Wreaths were laid and anthems sung. Freedom rang with the sound of laughter and fireworks while they fought for its legacy and its future a world away in a war that had once been forgotten and that would forever change that Independence Day.
His eyes still sparkle and the laughter still breaks easily. He came back broken, but whole. He has shown us the power of loyalty and of love of country and of family, and he has shown us how to keep and celebrate the past and those we lost while dreaming of a future beyond what exists today. He plays lego with a boy embraced as his own. He is the brother once underfoot whose footsteps we now watch with pride. The youngest of three, he is one who draws us together and who watches over us all.
He is the uncle my father never knew, but that my children will.