Nicolas Woodley’s grandfather died long before he was born, but he still grew up feeling he knew the man better than some of the living people in his life. It was a picture on his grandmother’s mantelpiece that first sparked an interest in the man’s history.
“Grandma, who’s that man?” he asked while pointing at a faded black and white photograph. Nicholas was seven years of age at the time.
“Just the love of my life, that’s who,” his grandmother, Hazel answered.
“Tell me about him,” Nicholas said full of curiosity.
So she did. Hazel told him about how they met at a town hall dance.
“I was seventeen, he was eighteen and about to leave to join the war effort,” she began. “We danced and danced until the band begged us to leave so they could go home. We knew that first night we were in love, but we didn’t know if he’d make it back from the war so we got married three days later. He shipped out the following day, and I cried like a baby when he left for the dock. He told me not to, said we’d always be together, and we were even when he was thousands of miles across the ocean.”
“How’s that?” Nicholas asked, unsure of what she meant.
“That man wrote the most beautiful letters to me from England, France and Germany. I felt as though I was there with him, my knight in shining armour, as he fought to save me – his princess, and the rest of the world. I was not to worry, he assured me, we’d all live happily ever after one day.”
“Did you?” Nicholas then asked.
“I had your mother, didn’t I? And then she had you. How could that not make me happy?”
Nicholas took that answer to mean yes. He also took every other story his grandmother told about the love of her life to heart. She told him about the trips to Europe following the war to see all the towns he helped to save. How the only ice cream allowed in the house was strawberry because that was his favourite. And how his laughter made her forget that there was sadness in the world.
“When did he die?” Nicholas once asked.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” his grandmother said, and the matter was never brought up between the two of them ever again.
Years later when his grandmother passed away, the only thing of hers Nicholas asked for was that photograph. He wished he had had one of the two of them together, but Hazel had once told him about a fire and how the only treasure she managed to save from it was that one and only picture.
“You can have it if you want, Mom. I mean, he was your father after all,” Nicholas said to his mother the morning of Hazel’s funeral.
“Who, that guy? He wasn’t my father,” his mother told him.
“I don’t understand,” a stunned Nicholas said.
“That man whose picture you’re holding, he died in the war. It broke my mother’s heart when she heard the news. She turned to the first guy she met afterwards for comfort. He was my father. Not that I ever met him. He took off as soon as he found out your grandmother was pregnant and died a few years later while in prison.”
“Then how come Grandma said the man in this picture was my grandfather?”
“I don’t recall her ever saying he was. She always referred to him as the love of her life, which he was, but I don’t think she ever used the word ‘grandfather’,” his mother said.
“But why let me believe he was?”
“Isn’t it better to think you’re related to a war hero than a felon?”
“So my grandfather didn’t kill Hitler?” a dejected Nicholas asked.
“No, but he did kill the gas station attendant he was robbing. That’s how he ended up in prison. Now do you understand why your grandmother held on to the memory of her knight in shining armour?”
Nicholas could understand, but it still left him with questions. If Grandma had lied about his grandfather, and his mother went along with it, how many other family secrets were there?
That wasn’t the day to go in search of the truth, though. He had his grandmother to bury, and that was all he could handle for one day.