The Heroes On Our Homefront
(Picture of John Neilson Sr.’s family the day before they received notice of his death at the Battle of the Bulge)
An open letter from a son.
My father, John Neilson Sr., was drafted into the army during WWII – just in time for the Battle of the Bulge where he was killed by sniper fire in the Black Forest on Nov. 20, 1944. A picture, posed by a professional, was taken to be sent to my dad of my mother and 3 siblings. The next day the black edged telegram came to the house and the photo was never mailed. My mother was a widow at 23, with four children and another on the way. This was in an era before organizations existed to aid single mothers and the insurance payments from the government were woefully inadequate for her needs. Thus began our lives as new age Gypsies. Three months after being notified of my fathers death the local grocers stopped selling to my mother on credit and we were evicted for nonpayment of our rent because the government still hadn’t started sending insurance checks. The only way my mother could find to cope with this lack of money was to repeat this cycle over and over – settle in a new home, stave off store owners and landlords by paying whatever she could afford, then move on when the pressure became too great. At the time I guess I was too young to understand that the occasional appearance of a heretofore unknown “uncle” coming to live with us was just another of her ways to cope with the hand life had dealt her.
I remember my mother showing us how to iron clothes, cook, do dishes, anything to make us self-sufficient. She warned us, “Never answer the door if I’m out to work and never answer idle questions from a grownup. ” She was apparently a good teacher because, under her guidance, we took care of ourselves, by ourselves, We came and went unsupervised, anytime we wanted , anywhere we wanted and we managed to avoid trouble. Needless to say that when the nuns at school asked about our home life we dutifully lied our asses off and, of course, then we went to confession. (I mention confession in case Sister Hilda sees this. She could wield a four foot pointer like a Samurai Warrior!!)
Unfortunately, the pressure of being both mother and father to this large family, in a society too busy to care or help, exhausted her and she passed away 13 years after the love of her life was killed. She was an old woman at 36. One cannot help but wonder; “How many other women in the city of Troy or nationwide, for that matter, led similar lives?” Heroic lives of quiet desperation and sacrifice after their heroes had given their ultimate for us.
John Neilson Jr.