My great-aunt Annie, born Anna Brodsky, became Levine in 1941 when she married Harold, an enchanting, handsome lawyer whose family ran a booming luggage company. It was a faerie tale for the littlest of the Brodsky-Reznikova clan who, according to legend, didn’t speak a word until she was six. But just a few months into their marriage, a bomb dropped on Pearl Harbor and Harold clamored to do right by his country. He joined the Marines and went off to training in San Diego before he was shipped overseas to the Pacific.
Annie and her sister, my grandma Lillian, moved in together in Chicago, with their two young daughters, Susan and Robin. The details of their everyday lives are recorded in the daily letters my grandma sent to my grandfather, who was stationed in the south: what they fed the girls for dinner, when they could afford new bed linens, which grandparent they visited with over the weekend. As anxious as both women must have been with their husbands away, I can’t help but think how wonderful it might have been for the little girls to have each other and for the sisters to go through it all together.
But the faerie tale had no happy ending for Annie. On July 22, 1944, when his daughter was 16 months old, Harold Levine was killed on the beaches of Guam, 7,364 miles away from home. Annie received the news on Monday, August 14. No one would believe it. Not his parents, not his wife.
Harold’s death lingers in our family. It feeds a story of lost love, of lost hope, of neverending grief. It’s hard to explain what that generation in my family was like — my grandmother, her brothers, her sister; my grandfather and his brothers. All of them, and all of the children, and all of their parents, would vacation together, would supper together, would trade kids for the summer and go on road trips. Harold’s death must have felt like a hole drilled in her center, for her whole life. She married twice more, and her third husband was an extraordinarily kind, gentle soul who was with her until the end. But the work she had to do, compared to her sister, must have felt unconquerable.
When I was growing up, my great-aunt was a fanatic for health food and yoga, long before it was en vogue. My favorite memories of us are on the wide deck of my parents’ backyard under the mulberry tree, cross-legged on towels, her always dressed immaculately in draping white, teaching me to straighten my back and telling me over and over again to breathe.