On July 9, my beloved grandfather, Arthur Maiert, passed away, three weeks after his 90th birthday. He had the role of “doting grandfather” down pat, not just with me, but with my brother, our cousins, their kids, and even our spouses. Only me, though, his only granddaughter, did he call his “angel.” He sang me silly songs from the 1930s like “Mairzy Doats” and “I Love You Truly,” always terribly off-key but heart-felt. He watched Turner Classic Movies at our house (his cable service didn’t carry it) and taught me all I know about old films and the actors who starred in them. Some of his favorites are some of my favorites—The Quiet Man, The African Queen, Holiday Inn. And he told me what it was like back in Depression-era Detroit, living with German immigrant parents and four siblings, ducking under clotheslines strung about the house when it rained on laundry day, ordering a block of ice off a truck to keep food cool, playing games in the streets with neighborhood kids (most of whom also had immigrant parents or grandparents), watching Westerns and musicals at the movie theater and sometimes getting lucky enough to see cartoons or a stage show in the bargain.
Grandpa enlisted in the American Army in June of 1940, just after his 21st birthday. Rumors of a peacetime draft were flying that summer (it was eventually enacted in September) and Grandpa was not one to sit around and be told what to do. Plus, the Army was about the most secure job a young guy could have in those days—sure beat selling newspapers on the corner. He served over five years, training first in California, then in San Antonio, then being shipped to England and eventually crossing into France, Belgium, and Germany. He was always at the back of the lines, he said, never in the heat of combat, but he went willingly and served a long time as a member of what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation.” My favorite of his many war stories was when a lady in an English pub yelled at him for singing. “Don’t you know there’s a war? How can you sing?” “Of course I know there’s a war,” he said. “That’s why I’m singing.” He heard General Patton speak once and never forgot it, and saw then-A-list Hollywood stars who’d come to entertain the troops.
How could I grow up with him so willing to tell me these stories and not become a history buff? How could I leave history as a dull collection of facts such as “food was rationed during World War II” when he gave me concrete details like his mother demanding real beef instead of horsemeat from the butcher? How could I hear Glenn Miller’s big band and not think of my grandpa dancing to it through a static-filled radio broadcast?
His history, like the history of all my family, is my history. My history goes back to Germany and Poland, to farmers and minor aristocrats who eventually found their way to America and somehow produced me. I don’t know all their stories, but the ones I do know, I treasure. I can’t wait to tell them to my own children and grandchildren and give them the gift of embracing their past that he gave to me.
Rest in peace, Grandpa: June 19, 1919-July 9, 2009