Nathanael savored a long-awaited reunion with his family as his train entered the Deschutes River canyon signaling the final leg of a 6,000-mile journey home. World War II was over in Europe. After fighting his way across the continent for nearly a year since the June 6, 1944, Normandy coast invasion, he’d seen enough of death to last him a lifetime. Seeing his family again would begin the healing.
Back at home, Mom stood at the bedroom door and said, “Annalisa, are you sure you don’t want to come with us?”
“Yes Mom, I’m sure,” Annalisa answered. “I’ll stay home, too.”
Mom and Dad drove away as the twins Annalisa and Saleesa, sat in silence until Saleesa asked, “Do you remember when we sent him off to war two years ago?”
Neither of them could forget that moment. They had all stood on the loading platform of the nondescript train depot in Maupin, Oregon waving goodbye until his train disappeared into the shadows of the steep canyon walls. No-one knew if they’d ever see each other again, including Nathanael, himself.
But here he was alive and well, home for Christmas on leave before finishing his hitch in the army. Despite the rhythmic swaying motion beneath him of the rolling passenger train, Nathanael refused surrender to the exhaustion warring against his body, mind, and spirit. Instead, Nathanael turned his attention toward reunion.
The twins’ concern grew, knowing what was in store for Nathanael when he arrived. So, they had stayed home. It was too much to handle.
The train slowed gradually until coasting to a stop alongside the depot’s platform. Nathanael stretched his limbs before stepping off the train.
“Where’s everybody else?” he asked. “Grandpa, Annie… Sally?”
Mom and Dad glanced at each other, knowing the answer would devastate him.
“I hate to tell you this, but…”
“Tell me what, Dad?” Nathanael interrupted.
“Your grandpa passed away suddenly almost three weeks ago,” Dad said, “He went to bed one night just like always but never woke up.”
Shock waves shot throughout Nathanael’s body as if struck by lightning, “No!” he cried.
“We tried to contact you,” Mom said, “but we couldn’t get word to you before you arrived.”
Nathanael couldn’t believe it. He thought he was leaving death behind him. The feeling reminded him of plunging into the icy cold waters off Normandy up to his chest, weighed down by a heavy field pack, weapons, and ammunition, praying he could make it to the beach’s safety—only to find more enemy fire raining down on him from the cliffs above. He never discussed it again with his family.
Nathanael stood on the depot platform, motionless. It had been hard enough to deal with Grandma’s passing. Now this. Nobody knew what to say. Only the rushing sounds of the river flowing nearby could be heard since the train had long since pulled out, unnoticed by the grieving trio.
“Let’s go home.” Dad said quietly, putting his arm around his son’s shoulders.
With that, they all turned and headed for Dad’s pickup truck parked around the corner of the depot building. Nathanael tossed his duffle bag into the back of the pickup and waited patiently for Mom to use the running board to step up into the cab and slide over to the middle of the worn-out bench seat. It was a tight fit. But off they drove until pavement turned to graveled roads leading to the place Grandpa homesteaded in 1902—where Dad was born and raised—where it seemed to be heaven on earth for his three grandchildren. The best place to celebrate Christmas 1945.
Greyish curls of juniper wood smoke emerged from a tall stone chimney up ahead, drifting down the tree-lined road like a compass needle pointing the way back home. It reminded Dad of the smoke rising from the train locomotive’s stack. He rolled his window down a bit to welcome the pleasant aroma of the burning juniper and then glanced over at Nathanael. His eyes were closed, and his head rested against the window frame of the jostling pickup. The shocking news had conquered Nathanael’s resistance to his exhaustion—enough to smooth out the bumpy road and cause him to dream what he’d been thinking about ever since boarding a homebound troop transport ship.
“Look!” ten-year-old Nathanael erupted, “There’s Grandpa!”
Yes, there he stood. Tall, shoulders back, and, as usual, his thumbs anchored beneath the straps of his familiar faded denim bib overalls. Before long, the 1928 Model A sedan pulled up to the wide front steps of the wrap-around porch surrounding the original homestead cabin. Grandpa had added onto it over the years. Otherwise, little had changed. This made visits that much more special. Grandpa grinned widely and braced himself to catch Nathanael as he ran full speed into his waiting arms.
“Grandpa, Grandpa!” he cried out, “Where are you?”
Dad stopped the pickup when Nathanael abruptly woke from his nightmarish dream.
Nathanael asked if he’d been dreaming.
“Yep.” Dad replied while carefully shifting the pickup’s tricky clutch and resuming their trip, “You were smiling for a while and then you woke up screaming.”
Nathanael said he missed Grandpa.
“So do we.” Dad said.
The house was just a short distance away now, marking the finish line of Nathanael’s return from his post in England. First by ship, then by train, and finally in Dad’s old but reliable pickup truck. He had faced plenty of enemies overseas with courage, but he wasn’t sure if he’d have enough left of it to face his grieving family.
Nathanael fought back warm tears welling up in his eyes as he looked intently at the front porch where Grandpa had always stood before to greet him. But he climbed the solid wooden plank steps until reaching that empty spot and walked across the porch to where Grandma would always hold the door open to welcome them. Sadly, that long-standing tradition had also vanished. Grandma’s cheery disposition and infectious smile could have wiped away any tears: from a ten-year old’s broken arm to a broken-hearted veteran a dozen years later. Instead, Annalisa held the door in Grandma’s place.