The Beauty of What Remains (review)

The Beauty of What Remains (NetGalley)
Susan Johnson Hadler
She Writes Press

Writer Susan Johnson Hadler’s father died in WWII when she was only three months old.  Because he was killed in a mine explosion, there were no remains to inter and his wife was sent only his personal effects: socks, glasses, a sewing kit, a few snapshots, a bible, and $38.67.  Hadler’s mother remarried a few years later, and the three-year-old was folded into a new family that had, it seemed, no room for her father’s memory. But Hadler always wondered about him, in part because the welcome letter he had written when she was born was taped inside her baby book. Full of his love for her mother and hopes for her future, the letter was something at least–but not enough.

In her twenties, Hadler dared approach the subject of her dad. “What was he like?” she asked her mother. Put the past behind you, her mother implied–“You have everything you’ve ever needed.” The past is the past. Except for Hadler, it wasn’t.

And so when she’s nearly fifty, Hadler begins to unravel her father’s story. She gets a copy of her father’s war records, contacts some of the The Beauty of What Remainsmen he served with, attends a reunion of the 782nd tank battalion, and finally travels to Mechernich, Germany with her husband to put all the pieces together. They stand in the woods where he died and take in the countryside he saw in his last days and weeks.

David Johnson was a “fine gentleman, good officer.” He was “firm” with the men under his command. David Johnson was “lighthearted, carefree. Nothing bothered him.” Her father was “a quiet man. Kind. Respected.” A good man.

Even Hadley’s mother begins to open up a bit about their brief life together. How the couple was the first of their friends to marry, how their friends gathered at their apartment before leaving for the war, how angry she was at his death. But Hadley also heard love in her voice, the love that became her.

Hadley petitioned and received a memorial marker for her father in Arlington Cemetary, where the family gathered for a brief ceremony, and she wrote about her experiences in an article titled “Finding My Father” in the Washingtonian Magazine.  And with that, the family wagons circled around Hadley’s mother who felt as though her privacy had been violated.

Shuffling through all those family photos also led Hadley to finding her mother’s estranged sisters: Dorothy, a lively octogenarian who lived in Brooklyn, New York; and Elinor, sent away in her twenties to a mental hospital, and … well, you’ll just have to get a copy of The Beauty of What Remains to turn that page in Hadley’s family album.

I think what appealed to me most about this memoir was the author’s navigation of all things family. Navigating the waters of family secrets and wading through repressed memories, Hadley speaks her truth–painfully, cautiously, but always honestly.

The Beauty of What Remains is a beautiful story, compellingly told.

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