Sometimes the rest of the story is still unwritten, even 70 years later – seven decades after an untimely death.
Sometimes we don’t even know there is a “rest of the story.”
Sometimes we are granted breaths of life we never expected.
Sometimes our faith in humanity is restored.
Sometimes those who have gone on can reach across miles, decades and generations.
And so it has come to be.
The man who was supposed to be my father – but was instead killed saving others in WWII.
The man who had no children, no legacy, no future because he gave everything for another human in need. He made the ultimate sacrifice.
The man my mother loved with all of her heart.
Frank’s ring was what she had left of him after the war.
That was all.
Just the ring.
Life was harsh.
That ring comforted her and nourished her soul for the next 61 years. Then, she joined Frank and left the ring with me.
Life was not kind to my mother.
Mom spent the decade after Frank’s death just trying to patch her life back together in a large city where she had no family.
Mom continued to dance professionally in Chicago, with the Dorothy Hild dance troupe at the Edgewater Beach Hotel and performing across the country in major cities. It sounds glamourous, but it was a brutal life. Mom said they practiced all day and performed all evening until late at night. She said she often lost 10 pounds a day and she had to work hard to keep her weight up.
To give you some perspective, a few years ago, some of the former Dorothy Hild dancers were interviewed.
Alice Ann Knepp, Dorothy Hild dancer: Dorothy Hild was terrible to work for. She was very unpopular, but she got results. Every month, she would always have some kind of big production number with a big band. Our job included room and board and our salary was $30 a week. If you lived at home, the girls got $40 a week. We were free to choose what we wanted from the menu.
When you’re young, you can do it. I think we were ahead of our time with aerobics. Dorothy was very strict. During the summer she would prohibit us from getting suntans, and we weren’t allowed to mix or mingle with the people in the hotel. The costumes were just awful.
Ruth Homeuth, line captain, Dorothy Hild Dancers: It wasn’t as glamorous as it looked. It was like a reformatory. We used to wear uniforms and we were supposed to go to our rooms right after the show. We did get by with things, though. We had a little door on the side of the hotel that went through the garage where we would sneak out. Once in a while we used to catch Dorothy coming in the same time we did.
Ironically, the key to how mother met Frank is held in that interview. Frank’s sister was a dancer too – and Mom went home with Frank’s sister to visit. Or maybe Frank came to see his sister dance. But the “mingling” rules didn’t apply to Frank, because he was a dancer’s family.
After Frank’s Death
After Frank’s death, Mom just lost heart…in particular…she lost her spirit for anything. Mom went through the motions but part of her had died with Frank.
Nearly a decade later, she would meet my father. Let’s just say that relationship was rocky and doomed from the beginning. When it ended, Mom found herself alone once again, but now with a daughter. Then in her 30s, Mom was no longer dancing, but trying to make her way as a bookkeeper, what she had always wanted to do as a profession from the beginning.
I have vague memories of my mother wearing a ring on a chain under her clothes when I was young. After my father died in a car accident, she dated a man for a few years and was “hopeful” but thankfully, they never married. After the split with that man, I noticed the ring again, but I never said anything.
When I was about 10 or so, I found the ring in a ring box in mother’s “special” jewelry box. Not realizing it was a ring with special significance, I took it out, put it on and came waltzing out into the kitchen wearing the ring and waving it around on my hand like a diva princess. Until just recently, it’s the only time I ever really handled that ring.
Mom whipped around like she had been shot. I was stunned by the intensity in her eyes. She snatched the ring away from me. I began to ask questions, but she was very clearly unable to answer. That wound wasn’t healed at all…it was still very raw and open, more than 20 years later. I really didn’t understand what I was seeing, but I certainly understood the depth of those emotions.
I had no idea about Frank at that time except for some passing references. She would share the painful story later, much later.
A Second Chance
Mom met my step-father in the early 1970s. He was a widower with a son about my age and their relationship began simply as friends. That friendship blossomed and they married in the fall of 1972. Dean was a wonderful man. I loved him dearly.
Mom began to act differently after she married Dean and moved to the farm. She began singing little ditties as she would cook in the kitchen. She danced too, mostly kicking up her feet in the kitchen as she moved from stove to sink and back again. Sometimes, she danced while she vacuumed. I don’t think I’ve ever been that happy:)
Mom laughed, and smiled. I never realized, before talking to Curtis about Frank, how sad Mom had been, for years and years. I never really put two and two together before, realizing the stark difference. When I did, I felt desperately sorry for my mother. She did what she needed to every day to support us, she put one foot in front of the other, but never did I realize what a joyless forced march life was for mother for more than 27 years after Frank’s death and before she married my step-father.
The Dancing Stops
Then, in 1994, after 22 years of marriage, Dean died, leaving Mom alone once again. The dancing stopped, the singing stopped, the smiling stopped, and once again, Mom went through the motions. She tried, but it was simply never the same. This time I realized she was unhappy and lonely, but I had no idea what to do about it. There are simply some wounds that cannot be healed.
I realized once or twice that she was wearing something around her neck on a chain again. Sometimes it was a conglomeration of “stuff” my step-father had…like the bullet he accidentally shot himself with. (No, that was not what killed him and the entire incident became a huge family joke.) But sometimes, it was Frank’s ring again. Sometimes she wore both. By this time, Frank had been gone more than 60 years, yet my mother still grieved for Frank, for their lost life, for his lost opportunity…for those dreams…hers and his both – and theirs of course.
She was lost.
Mom wore one particular ring all of her life. Her parents gave it to her when she turned 16. She wore it literally until her last hospital stay when I took it off of her hand for safekeeping because she was in a coma.
A few months before Mom had the stroke that took her, she decided it was time to give me some valuable things. Not valuable in terms of money, but valuable to her – and me.
One of the most difficult discussions I ever had with mother was the “end planning” discussion. Oh God, spare me from anything like that ever again. Mom told me she thought she had maybe 6 months left. She was very close to right. After a discussion about her wishes, Mom picked up a ring box from her vanity.
I knew the box well. After all of the years of opening and closing, the hinge was a little worn and the top slightly crooked.
Mom tried to give me both Frank’s ring and her ring, the one on her hand I had never seen her without – ever. That was probably one of the most difficult moments of my entire life.
I simply gave them back to mother, put her ring back on her hand, even though the ring was by then far too large as she had become very frail, and told her those rings needed to be with her.
It wasn’t time yet.
Time would come all too soon.
It arrived in late April of 2006.
Some years earlier, I had chosen to inherit the small modest ring Mom wore daily instead of the “valuable” diamond cluster ring that went to my brother’s family. Money means very little to me and I knew how much the ring my mother wore meant to her. That’s the ring I wanted.
After Mom’s death, I wanted to wear her ring, but I didn’t want to have it sized. I wanted it to remain much like she wore it. I had my local jeweler attach loops on the shank for a chain which allowed the ring to lie flat…and I wear it…you guessed it…beneath my clothes next to my heart. Not every day, but often. And especially on difficult days. Mom goes with me that way. It feels good to have her along.
After Mom’s death, Frank’s ring remained in Mom’s special jewelry box, it’s home for the past many decades. Of course, that jewelry box is now mine.
I didn’t really know what to do with Frank’s ring. It felt far too personal for me to even handle the ring – like I was intruding into a very private and sacred space. I knew what a hole in my mother’s heart Frank had left…and conversely…how blessed she had been for a very short time to have known love to that depth. That love and grief was just too private for me to intrude, even by handling Frank’s ring after her death.
I looked at the ring in the box from time to time and then put it back away, wondering what my children would do with it. There was no evident answer.
That question haunted me.
On Memorial Day 2015, I felt the unexplained need and inspiration to memorialize Frank. True, he was not my father nor any relative, but still, he was near and dear to my mother’s heart…and if I wasn’t going to do it…who would? There was no one else. Frank deserved at least what little I could offer.
I wrote the article, “Frank Sadowski (1921-1945), Almost My Father,” about his service, his life and his death. I felt like I had done what I could do for Frank. I included every tidbit of information I had or could find about Frank…except one thing.
What did I leave out?
A photograph of the ring. Somehow, I just couldn’t. I don’t know why. It still seemed so raw.
Little did I know about the rest of the story…that part yet unwritten that would unfold shortly.
On June 26th, one day less than a month after I published the article about Frank, a man named Curtis Sadowski in Illinois got a strange urge to type his uncle’s name into a google search engine. His uncle, Frank Sadowski, had been dead since before Curtis was born. Frank was killed in WWII, in 1945 – so why Curtis suddenly decided to google Frank in 2015, 70 years later, will forever remain a mystery. But he did.
In Curtis’s words, he was utterly stunned when my article was the first item returned in the Google search. Curtis clicked, and for the first time, saw a photograph of his grandparents.
Due to a family situation beyond the control of Curtis’s father, Frank’s brother, the family had no, and I mean no, photographs of their grandparents, or of Frank.
Curtis told me that for years after Frank died, on the piano in the living room in Frank’s parents’ home, a single photo of Frank in his military uniform “watched” the goings-on of the family and household. Curtis’s father told him that it seemed that Frank’s eyes followed you everyplace you went.
Frank’s sister lived in her parents’ home after their death, and her husband continued to live there after her death. They had no children, and when the sister’s husband died, all of the Sadowski family photos and memorabilia bit the dust – or more likely the trash can by the road.
That just made me sick to hear, but it’s not an unfamiliar story and happens all too often.
So imagine Curtis’s shock when he clicked on my blog to see his Uncle Frank, his grandfather, also named Frank Sadowski, and his grandmother looking out the door in the background.
Curtis posted a comment on my blog which started an intensely emotional back and forth exchange lasting several days. Both of us had to take breaks from time to time to gather ourselves. Frank’s siblings joined in the conversation, and so did his son, Bert.
Bert, short for Robert, posted the following:
“Thank you for sharing this touching story with the world, I know it must’ve been hard. My name is SPC Robert Sadowski. PFC Frank Sadowski Jr. was my great uncle (my grandfather’s brother). I heard the he died as a medic during WWII, but no one in my family had any more details than that. I’m glad I got to learn more of the story, even if it’s so sad. I’m proud to be carrying on his fight.”
But there is more to Bert’s story that he didn’t share.
Before Bert enlisted in the Army four years ago to serve our country, he drove with his father to Chicago from central Illinois specifically to visit Frank’s grave. For some reason, Bert draws inspiration from his great-Uncle, Frank. Bert had never seen a photo of either his great-grandparents or the man, Frank, who inspires him so.
Bert told his father he was taking up where Frank left off and he was going to “get it right.” Bert is assigned to the medical corps…but right now…he’s on special assignment in the honor guard – laying to rest fallen soldiers and bringing a modicum of comfort to their families.
Bert is extremely proud to be assigned to this detail, having volunteered for a second “tour.” A soldier can only serve in the honor guard twice. I can’t tell you how proud I am of this exemplary young man. I wish I had a younger unmarried daughter:)
Here’s Bert on his way to a weekend funeral in Texas – proud to be serving.
I was also struck by how much Bert looks like Frank. Now, I do realize they are in the same family…but still.
I knew in my heart as this scenario unfolded like scripts from a play in front of me where Frank’s ring needed to go.
Beyond any doubt.
Yet, it was so hard to do…to wrap my head around…that I was considering giving away the ring so valuable to my mother. Without doubt, one of her most cherished possessions.
I spent several agonizing days going back and forth… talking to myself…taking both sides of the argument. Playing devil’s advocate.
I asked mother what she wanted.
I asked my quilt sisters what they thought.
I asked my daughter, my son, my daughter-in-law, my husband, my friend in NC, my friend in SC – all people who are my family of heart.
Yes, I was pretty much a wreck over this decision.
Curtis knew nothing of this. I didn’t share any of this with him.
My husband, always the pragmatic one, asked how I knew that someone in the Sadowski family wouldn’t just hock the ring. It is gold.
I told my husband that if Curtis was willing to drive half way, to meet me in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to pick up two original photographs, one of Frank and one of Frank and his grandfather…both of which were already scanned on my blog and free for the taking…that they would never hock the ring. That trip represented a several hour investment over 2 days and an overnight stay. The photos on my blog were already there and free for the taking with no effort, at least not as compared to a trip to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Not exactly a tourist mecca.
So, that was to be the test.
I offered Curtis the original photos but told him I was not willing to mail them. He never suggested that I should. We discussed arrangements and decided to meet in Fort Wayne on July 15th. By this time, we wanted to meet each other…it wasn’t just about the pictures. The trip was a several hour drive for both of us, and Curtis is not in good health, so it was a real commitment for both he and his wife, Janet…far more than I realized initially.
Curtis never asked me about the ring, even though I mentioned it in the original article. So he had no idea if I even had the ring.
As long as I was going to visit Fort Wayne, I was going to research at the Allen County Public Library – a world-class genealogy research center.
I left for Fort Wayne the morning of the 15th and was planning to spend half a day in the library…but what to do with Frank’s ring during that time? I wasn’t about to leave it in the car. I couldn’t check into the hotel at noon and I wouldn’t leave it there anyway, and I was even afraid to leave it in my purse in case I turned my back in the library. If anyone was ever going to steal my purse, it would have been that day. I’m down to only one option – wear the ring.
Yes, wear the ring. The sacred ring.
Would lightening strike and would I turn to dust?
I took the ring out of the box and put it on the chain around my neck with Mother’s ring. Somehow, to let the rings spend one last day nestled together, touching, as they must have when Mother and Frank held hands, seemed somehow very fitting.
I could feel their combined warmth, next to my heart.
I also took the opportunity to photograph Frank’s ring. His initials, FS, are engraved inside the band. Frank graduated in 1940.
Curtis confirmed that Frank was in medical school at Northwestern University when he enlisted. Franks death not only tore my mother’s life apart, it did the same thing to Frank’s family.
Frank’s mother blamed his father for encouraging Frank to enlist. Their other son, Curtis’s father, also served in the war and survived, but suffered terribly from survivor guilt. Curtis said the family never really recovered. Neither did my mother. It’s a real testimony to Frank that he was so deeply loved, but I know that Frank would not have wanted his death to destroy the lives of those he left behind. That’s not the kind of man Frank was. I think Frank was the shining star, the “brightest hope” of many who loved him and he took a lot of light out of the world when he left.
The night before I left for Fort Wayne, I realized I had to SAY something to Bert. Bert doesn’t know, as I write this, that he is going to receive the ring. Curtis is waiting until Bert comes home on his next leave, probably at Christmas, because Curtis isn’t willing to ship the ring either.
The letter to Bert began:
You’re probably wondering what kind of crazy woman would give her mother’s soul mate’s ring to someone she doesn’t know. I’ve been asking myself that very question now since I met you and your father online after your Dad reached out to me when he found the article about Frank.”
I explained to Bert that Frank was still alive to my mother, through her memories and Frank’s ring that she cherished so dearly her entire life. By passing the ring to Bert, and along with it, the torch, I can in a small way give Frank another breath of life. Frank can be the wind beneath Bert’s wings, his guardian angel, his inspiration.
Bert wants to live to carry on what Frank could not do.
Mother would want Frank to live on in this way. It’s the only way left to give Frank life, through a legacy of inspiration and hope.
And like I told Bert…it’s up to him now. Frank did his part, Mom did hers, I’ve done mine…and now…it’s up to him.
I have sent Frank home.
Life has come full circle.
I know, beyond a doubt, Frank’s ring is once again right where it is supposed to be. You see, it fits Bert perfectly.
When I saw this picture, it literally took my breath away, and still does every time I see it!
Mom needed Frank’s ring, but I was only it’s keeper for a little while. It has a job to do, a life of its own. I hope Bert wears it with honor for the rest of his life and cherishes it like Mom did. I hope that Frank’s, now Bert’s, ring continues to inspire the Sadowski family for generations to come. What better legacy for Frank. For Bert to achieve what Frank could not.
God Bless and protect Bert as he serves his country, and after, and may he walk in the Grace of protection, with Frank as his guardian angel. May Frank truly be the wind beneath his wings and his protector as Bert is deployed shortly to Kuwait.
Bert, may Frank raise you up so you can stand on mountains, and may you be that same inspiration to others. The torch is now yours, for a while. Then, someday, in some way, you too will pass it on.
But until that day, may you and Frank walk together as partners in silent camaraderie.
God Bless you both.
January 2016 Update, Bert’s Comments: I shed a few tears when I read the letter, and again just now as I lie in bed, about to get up to face the day. I don’t know if I’ll succeed, but I’ll try to do Frank’s memory justice. The ring is currently with me in San Antonio, and while I haven’t worn it since that picture was taken, I see it every day on my dresser, and it fills me with determination. Thank you, Roberta, for this gift that was so hard for you to part with. I’ll treasure it and keep it safe until it’s time for it to inspire a new Sadowski. Until then, it’ll remind me that I’m fighting with the willpower of two men, and that I’ll always have someone watching my back, even when I feel alone.