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What if?

By Jennifer Zartman Romano

Frequently, we think of situations and imagine how life would be if one factor had changed. If you had decided to take that job, how would your life be different? If you had turned down this road, what would have transpired? So many variables we have before us every day...and yet, I believe, a plan has already been predestined.
Still, that doesn't keep us from wondering, "what if?"
I think of "what if" every year on Memorial Day when I think about my great uncle Emmett Richard Zartman who died in World War II. For years, I wasn't even sure what war it was, where he died...I didn't know much at all. I think that was because of just how painful it was for my grandfather to lose his big brother. The two were close. I can tell if from the pictures of them fishing together or proudly showing off the rabbits they'd shot. In more recent years, I read the letters written between the two. They were as close as brothers are. I think that's why he doesn't talk about him much. It's just too difficult. My questions always had the same, simplistic answers.
I don't do well with "lack of information" -- so I set out to learn as much as I could about him a few years ago. The internet made that easier. I attempted to connect with guys who fought alongside him. One remembered him, one didn't -- neither had much information to share. They sent some paperwork that wasn't entirely helpful in answering those questions I had, but it was interesting nonetheless. As the keeper of history for the family, I inherited all the photographs and in that was a box of letters and photos of Richard. One afternoon about two years ago, I sat down on the floor in the middle of my living room and read those letters and looked through those photographs. I remember the corners of the room growing dark and it was as if the pain and sadness of what happened just overtook me. I sobbed and sobbed. I saw the beginning...his baby photos, my great-grandparents proudly holding their baby boy. I knew the tragic end in a hedgerow in France. It was everything that happened inbetween that I needed to learn.
I wrote about what I knew of PFC Emmett Richard Zartman and his service for the 82nd Airborne Division’s Company G 325th Glider Infantry Regiment in a May 2008 Retrospective column. Even with all the questions I had, I never imagined there was so much more to know -- but as if he wanted me give me the answers, history tapped me on the shoulder.
Two years ago, quite out of the blue, I received an email from several members of a family who had been planning their mother's 90th birthday party. Their mother, Mary, was Richard's bride -- the dark haired beauty he had to say goodbye to before he left for his ill-fated mission. Like a hazy recollection of a thought between dreams, I had remembered hearing her name before. I think I had known where she was raised and where she later lived as she raised her family. I think I saw a photo of her once. It turns out, I had many photos of her in that treasury of family history and she was ready and willing to help me make sense of it all. What a gift that was!
After a few emails, I traveled to meet her and was greeted with her family and an opportunity that was so beautiful, emotional and loving, I can't begin to adequately describe it all...other than to say sometimes life gives you more than you expect and that family doesn't have to be a direct blood line sort of thing. It turns out that while I thought all these years that the number of people who thought about Emmett Richard Zartman could be counted on, perhaps, one hand -- I could not have been more wrong. No, a very, very large family has loved him, talked about him, prayed for him for generations. His photo has always hung on their walls. He is spoken of often. He is a hero in their hearts. Children were named after him. His missed birthdays were observed with celebration and homemade cakes. He has been pined for sweetly by his widowed bride, though she went on to happily marry and have an amazing family. Indeed, "Uncle Dick" as they called him, lived on through Mary's family. He died in his early 20s in a savage war...but his memory lived on vividly in a family not so far away.
Meeting the Craighead family two years ago will be a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life. I have never been so warmly welcomed and felt so overcome with emotion. As I talked with them and learned stories about Emmett Richard, the kinds of personality things no one writes down, I began to understood more about what it was to be a Zartman. He loved fishing and chocolate. My dad, also named for his uncle, loves those things too. He chose to become a practicing Catholic though he was raised a Protestant. So did I. He looked like my brother. He did engineering work. My family is full of engineers. He was a skilled marksman. I'd like to be. He had hobbies and interests, he was smart and kind and loving. I would have enjoyed knowing him, I think. In learning all I did, I also felt such a vast sence of loss and sadness in how unfairly his life was taken from him...and from Mary who still loves him every bit as much as she did the day she married him. Memorial Day weekend 2010 will never be forgotten as I learned more than I ever expected to know about someone long gone before I was ever born.
In 2008, I wrote, "A lot of dreams died with Emmett. Were he alive today, with a family of his own, cousins to us, I wonder if life would have been different?"
It would have been different, but different isn't always better. Mary remarried a loving man who was fortunate enough to make it back home from the war and together they raised a large family filled with some of the most wonderful people I've ever met. He left room in his life for Richard's memories to live on. Each of those children grew up knowing who Emmett Richard Zartman was in a very real way, like he was one of them. They've all gone on to have children and grandchildren. I was elated to know that my great-grandparents when they were yet living were involved in those children's lives as well. They lost their son, but they gained a family, too, through Mary. Having met them all, I can't imagine life being any more beautiful had Emmett Richard lived...because if he had lived, they wouldn't have been born. Now that they are part of my life, I have difficulty thinking "what if?"
I find irony in the fact that his birthday was May 30...so close in proximity to Memorial Day weekend -- a time of mournful reflection. And there is further irony in the fact he was killed in action on July 3...a time of celebration and patriotism. Yet, I know he is remembered on those days and all the other days of the year by a family that never met him -- but who saw him through the eyes of a loving bride who never forgot him.


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