Sarah and I are in Napa Valley, celebrating Thanksgiving with the extended Ruby family.
The annual tradition goes something like this: We stuff ourselves at Carol and Tony’s gorgeous home in the Berkeley hills, then the whole family drives up to Napa where we spend the next 48 hours at a schmancy Yountville resort, digesting the meal. It’s a pretty decadent—if fleeting—ritual, and it all takes place a block from the French Laundry. Thank God someone else foots the bill.
Our room has its own fireplace and whirlpool, and you better believe we’re using every last towel and conditioner and clam-shaped soap and white terrycloth robe. There are winery tours during the day, cheese tastings by the lobby fireplace at night. Yesterday we ate gourmet chocolate chip cookies from Bouchon and saw Dennis Franz scowling throughout a street festival just outside our door.
Sarah is taking a lot of leisurely baths, catching up on her New Yorker reading, her ever-rounding belly poking through the bubbles like a surfacing U-boat. We haven’t been this relaxed in years.
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An amazing thing happened last night. My grandfather, the quintessential Unflappable Family Patriarch, stood up at dinner and began to talk about his experiences in World War II. Many of us had never heard him say a word about what he’d been through; I remember when Saving Private Ryan came out and I asked if he planned to see it. His succinct response: “I don’t have to see it. I lived it.”
But now, all 25 of us at the long table sat in silence as the words spilled out of him. He spoke of how he’d been right in the middle of the action and stormed the beach at Normandy on D-Day Plus One in 1944, madly charging into a suicidal battle with his fellow soldiers. My Grandfather, a brash 25-year-old, watched Americans get mowed down left and right. The guy in front of him went down. He heard the guy behind him go down. But he kept running and firing his gun. “I never really saw the enemy,” he said. Somehow, he survived.
That night, those who lived dug foxholes and hid out in the darkness. It was a living nightmare and they were scared to death, wondering if tomorrow could be even worse. Suddenly, an explosion rocked the earth. A German bomber flying overhead was firing at the whole area, slicing more men into pieces. Later, the Americans found out that a soldier in the foxhole had struck a match to light a cigarette, and the German plane had seen it. My Grandpa was one of the few to survive the attack.
Later that night, he took off his helmet. And that’s when he noticed it.
A bullet hole.
He wasn’t sure where it came from, or why it ended up in his helmet and not his skull. And he wasn’t about to get philosophical about it. “It was annoying because I couldn’t drink out of it anymore,” he said, in his typical aw-shucks way. He continued to describe the hell he’d endured to make it through the war alive, then he sat down. He’d said all he wanted to say.
Before we could even process what it all meant, the other family patriarch, my Uncle George—who had married Grandpa’s sister in the late forties—stood up at the other end of the table. It turned out he had been in the war, too, a robust 195-pound officer in the prime of his days.
At some point in 1944, his battalion was taken prisoner by the Germans, and for months he subsisted on bread and water and not much else. He could feel himself withering away. At some point, one of the other prisoners—"A guy from Vermont, I remember that"—got his hands on two live chickens. He gave one to George and kept one for himself. They snapped the chickens’ necks, plucked their feathers, and ate them raw. “To this day,” my uncle said, looking around the room, “That was the best-tasting chicken I’ve ever eaten.” When the war ended, and my Uncle George had lost 70 pounds. But he had lived. All around him in Europe were corpses.
When Uncle George sat down, we all recognized the moment’s significance. Basically all of us were at the table, eating our roast chicken and chocolate mousse, because these two men had survived. They had gone on to father six children, 12 grandchildren, one great-grandchild—and, with a little luck, one more great-grandchild in February. The room crackled with love and electricity.
When Sarah and I got back to our room and turned off the light, I felt her round stomach and got a lump in my throat. Why had a handful of our friends lost their pregnancies, where we did not? Why us? Yes, there is a biological reason why some fetuses become babies and others don’t. It’s not magic. But the whole process of pregnancy is such a mystery. It has begun to feel like a great big cosmic coin toss, and all we can do is wait and hope it lands our way.
2 days ago