My great grandfather traveled alone to America about 1886 or so. He was only 16. He got married, and his wife gave birth to two boys and two girls before they settled on a farm in Virginia. Here is a photo of the brothers--Henry and William. William (on the right) is my grandfather, but this poem is about Henry. I enjoy giving voice, in the way of poems, to people who have never had the chance to speak in their lives. This is why I wrote about Henry. His life was tragic, but you'd never know it looking at this photo.
My great grandfather sent him to Germany to get schooling, and when he came back he was brilliant. Although he was well-educated, he wanted to help the family on the farm. He was the oldest and his brother looked up to him, so when he was drafted into World War I, William was upset.
Rummaging through old papers, I found letters from Henry to his brother William. This is what spurred me to write this poem. Henry was shell-shocked in that horrible war, and spent the rest of his days in the VA hospital in Pennsylvania. He didn't remember his family, and just read German history books all day. I've always wondered what he thought about in his day-to-day life in the hospital--was his mind still in the war or in his beloved garden? The voice of the narrator is his broken-hearted brother, William. Here is a photo of Henry, proudly sporting his WWI uniform.
You knelt in Papa's garden,
uprooting weeds, tethering tender shoots,
the last time I saw you whole,
dark Dixie soil encrusting your hands,
sweat soaking your strong German back.
The morning you left for war,
I hid in the loft, tucked deep
in cold hay, arms folded, weeping,
listening to you call my name,
waiting till you gave up, drove off.
In your last letter from France,
you asked if I had plowed the lower field yet.
I had. And yes, the peach blossoms
had bloomed, filling the air
with their early springtime sweetness.
Some townsfolk call you coward, spit
your name like spent tobacco, while doctors
call you a trauma case. But Papa calls you hero,
his eyes growing moist with pride, for bayoneting
your brothers proved too much.
Nurses say you cry out in the night,
ignore their soft voices, their damp cloths.
Your pale blue eyes stare all day,
your mind melded to another time,
your heart to another country.
Now, we visit in the sunroom,
your chin stern, your lips set in anger.
What do you see instead of the parking lot,
instead of the visitors coming and going? A field
of pock-marked craters, twisted trees?
Are you lost there, Henry, trapped
in the Battle of the Somme, sharing
rye-bread sandwiches and bottled beer,
crouched in a mud-filled trench
thick with mangled corpses?
Or do you see yourself, even now, in the garden,
bending down, plucking browned leaves
from Papa's tomato vines, rubbing your thumb
over the fruit's marred skin, cursing
the hornworm under your breath?
by Caroline Reichard
Thank you for taking time to read!