It was a view from a porch or two but there was a third porch I sat on right around the same time, this front porch at home where I grew up, an old manor in Niagara that dates back to the 1870s, where Opa Froese, that is my father, still lives.
It was my daughter Liz and myself with my father on the porch. And without knowing how Charleston, South Carolina would fall into the news of the broader world in recent times, he asked us how we enjoyed our recent time there in Charleston before he explained to Liz some things about the old classic Gone with the Wind.
That led to something on Irish immigrants which led to the Kennedys which led to this little known scrap from the Froese Family History Book, that my father, when he was a young therapeutic massage therapist in St. Catharines, along with my mother, she also a massage therapist, were invited to a JFK fundraiser / dinner in Boston while JFK was still a senator in the early 1960s.
Apparently it came as a result of a meeting in Buffalo between my father and the brother of the entertainer Dean Martin, who had heard my father speak about one thing or another relating to massage therapy, which, in those years, was not recognized as it is now in North America.
Dean Martin was part of the so-called Rat Pack, of course, with Frank Sinatra, who knew JFK. And everyone in JKF’s circles knew that Kennedy had a crippling back condition. Having a top-notch massage therapist on his team could only be a good thing – Mr. Froese, how are you?
It was the meeting that never happened, however. My parents were still youngish immigrants getting their feet on the ground and unaware, if nothing else, of how high JFK’s political star would rise, and so never made it to that Boston dinner.
This now led to discussion on that front porch about Berlin and Kennedy’s involvement in the Berlin of the day, that island of freedom in a sea of communism, which led my Dad Froese to share with Liz about the Second World War and his own memories and the note that history is always told through the eyes of the victors.
My father’s memories of the war are, not surprisingly, as stark and dark today as they were then – he was a young teen when the war ended and the Russians came into what was that part of Germany, a place where youth and much more had been stolen by Hitler.
But there was a light amidst all that, and it was his own grandmother, who would make sure locals in area barns would have enough blankets and this sort of thing. One day, as this particular story goes, some drunk Russian soldiers came to have their way with things in my father’s grandmother’s home.
While my father’s grandfather fell on his knees to ask for mercy, his grandmother grabbed one the Russian’s guns and clubbed him with it, before telling her husband to get off his knees, that the only One to kneel down to is God Himself, certainly not some drunk enemy soldier.
Sometime around all these stories being shared with Liz from her Opa on this front porch, I left and went into the house and brought out a photo of that woman, that is Liz’s great, great, grandmother – the Mennonite pacifist who would club an enemy soldier in her later years – a beautiful old black and white portrait that sits on my father’s living room fireplace. We guessed the photo would have taken in the late 1890s.
And it all would have been enough at that, but then my father said something that I had been thinking all along, that is how similar my daughter looked to this distant relative of hers, this old woman who really isn’t that old at all, a woman who was in front of us in this photo from her youth.
My father spoke about how there was a beauty of the face, yes, but also that something that radiates through the eyes, that beauty from a deeper place inside, from the soul.
This is why the most beautiful people in this world have something that is more than, as they say, skin deep.
And this is what my father said: that my daughter, only 12 now, had, just like Liz’s great, great grandmother had.
It was a moment to remember, and one more reason why kids need not just their parents, but their grandparents too, and why they need any shred of history they can find to an even more distant past, because, whether we realize it or not, it all still lives in us in one way or another.