Sometimes when changing the sheets, their sweet air-dried cotton parachuting up to the ceiling and sprinkling the whisper of a nearly-lost, fresh spring scent around the bedroom, she would, in something near a panic, and as they were floating down in a soft whish, clasp them suddenly in a ruffled fold to her chest and whimper, "Oh. Oh". This, of course, was about him. I can't remember when I first knew that, but after the first knowing, I always understood what it was that had startled her as unexpectedly as a tiny aftershock from a far-off earthquake rippling ever so surely somewhere distant and beneath on a peaceful, California day.
Then there were the times when I'd hear the hushed undertone of her softly calling, "Ralph. Ralph!" But I think I sometimes imagined I heard it as well. We always knew, from the youngest of ages, to go to her, to wrap our small arms around her legs, our cheeks against the hem of her skirt, or, later, to lean down with an arm around her shoulders, year after year after year and say, "I know. I know. You loved him." And we did know. I think we even knew her pain. I know we knew her sadness.
He was always somewhere near her, hovering, yet always oh so far away, lost, lost. She worried sometimes that he had simply been lost, literally lost, "over there". That confused, still lost years and years later, he was somehow wandering, not knowing who or where he was. But we reassured her. No, he was buried. He was, in that sense, quite safe.
It was the sheets, though, that most often caused her to surrender, however briefly, to sorrow. He'd written so often of the mud, the constant dirt of battlefields and the crumbling sides of trenches and of the lice and flea-infected places in which he'd slept the few times they'd had a roof overhead. Of all the things he wrote about - "Tell Ada I got her fruitcake." "Well, I sure hope Eddie stays in Alaska and doesn't have to get into it", and various, yet cleanly-worded, irritated, no angry, complaints about the army, the army, the stupidity of the army - the usual soldier's grievances, he wrote just so terribly much about the filth. And when she changed the sheets on her children's beds, spread and smoothed those fresh, clean, sun-dried sheets, well that was when she'd think of him most, or rather, most openly. She told us she felt so guilty about her clean sheets.
In a dresser drawer, a special one because of what it contained, one we opened slowly and oh so softly, like a whisper in a church, was letter upon letter upon letter, seemingly hundreds, wrapped in a fading satin ribbon meant for a young girl's hair or perhaps a flowered birthday packet. The telegram was tucked in there too. There were letters from his state-side boot camp, from England, from two hospitals in Europe, from Belgium, from Holland, from Germany. And no matter what he touched upon in a specific one, each seemed to end with, "Someday, this will all be over." An assurance? A hope? A dream? A prayer? And, for him, suddenly it finally was, just a little under two months before it ended for Europe. Of course it never ended for my mother.
He'd been wounded twice, stitched up and returned to his unit. Older by ten to 12 years than most of his buddies, they called him "the old man". A tall, husky, Canadian farm boy, he served, naturally, in the infantry. He'd fought his way across much of Europe, received a Purple Heart for being wounded in action.
He was heading out at dawn with his unit, in a secure area near Aachen, Germany. Aachen, the first German city to fall to the Allies, had surrendered nearly six months earlier. A sniper, probably armed with a K98, using a scope, and surely no more than 600 yards away, got him with one shot. I've often thought of that sniper. I'm sure he never thought again of the shot that reverberated through our familly and resounded forever in my mother's heart.
In March of 1945 my mother had two brothers in the army. Ralph, significantly older, was also something of a father to her, their own having abandoned them years before. Both brothers were seeing serious action, one in the Pacific and one in Europe. My father told me, and more than once - although I don't know if he ever mentioned it to her again - the story of how my mother learned of her beloved brother's death.
She was working as a volunteer in a hospital in Auburn, California. My father was home on leave from the service. He, for reasons, I suspect, of reticence, never, as he put it, "bothered" her at work. He'd received word of his brother-in-law's death and went to the hospital for the first time ever to talk to my mother while she was on duty. She was working in a large ward and upon looking up from whatever was occupying her and seeing her young husband there, at the end of the room, standing quietly, waiting to find the right way to approach her, she began screaming, "Which one? Which one?" She had to be carried to a car. Carried home.
In college, when I began to study German my mother was, as even she knew, irrationally upset. But it bothered her so. Still I needed German for my music. She understood and came to appreciate so much of the lieder I worked on. Often she'd greet the ending of one with the "How could a people who write such beautiful songs do what they did?" lament.
One evening, I was working on Schumann's "In der Fremde" ("In a Distant Land"). My mother came in from the kitchen and, seating herself near the piano said, "How beautiful. But it sounds sad." I told her it was, indeed, a sad piece. She told me to sing it again and asked me to hand her the translation.
In der Fremde *
Aus der Heimat hinter den Blitzen rot,
Da kommen die Wolken her,
Aber Vater und Mutter sind lange tot,
Es kennt mich dort keiner mehr.
Wie bald, ach wie bald kommt die stille Zeit,
Da ruhe ich auch, da ruhe ich auch, und über mir,
Rauscht die schöne Waldeinsamkeit,
Die schöne Waldeinsamkeit,
Und keiner kennt mich mehr hier,
Und keiner kennt mich mehr hier.
In a Distant Land
From my homeland beyond the red flashes,
That's where the clouds come from,
But my father and mother are long dead,
And no one knows me there now.
How soon, oh, how soon the quiet time will come,
Then I will rest, too, and over me,
Will murmur the lovely forest solitude,
The lovely forest solitude,
And no one here will know me either,
And no one here will know me either.
I moved on to something else and, not a minute later, she came in and said she had to interrupt. She had been wrong, very wrong to ask me not to sing it again. If my voice teacher wanted me to learn it, of course I should practice it. I can't recall if I ever did near her again though.
When she was dying, fairly young, a long, hard, death in which for days she was in and out of awareness, her three daughters, only son, and our dad, Eddie, were an almost constant presence in her hospital room. One sunset, near the end, glancing out a window I saw my beloved only brother pulling up on his motorcycle in the parking area below. I turned toward the bed and said, "Mom, Ralph's coming." And then it happened. A beautiful look of wonder at a miracle finally to be witnessed at the closing of her life came over her face. And before she said it, we all knew. "Eddie" she said in amazement, "It's Ralph. Ralph is coming."
I met my brother in the corridor. Fearing his sadness and perhaps also that he would have a sense of displacement over what had just happened, yet worrying too over her confusion when she saw him, I told him what she'd thought. He walked quietly, gently, into the room. Setting his helmet on a chair, he drew another up close to her bed, took her hands, and, resting his head against them, said, "Mom, oh mom, I would give anything to be able to be him for you now. But I can't." She looked up, around at each of us and in a firm, healthy voice said, "You must never say that again."
Such an achingly beautiful song. Such a lost song. Such a lost time. Such a lost brother. And a sister who never forgot.
Ralph R. Appleby, Private First Class, U.S. Army
394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division
Entered the Service from: California
Buried at: Plot F Row 11 Grave 49
Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery
Henri-Chapelle, Belgium Awards: Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster