Fathom Mag

A Life Written in the Margins

My Grandpa wanted his story, his life, to be remembered so he wrote his own story into one he was reading.

Published on:
March 28, 2022
Read time:
5 min.
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I remember when I was visiting my grandparents during holidays growing up, I would fill the time between swimming (summer) and sledding (winter) looking at their collection of books and pulling down the ones that looked interesting. It was here, in the sprawled-out days of lazy midsummer and cozy midwinter, that I read the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, The Hobbit, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, some of my dad’s old Isaac Asimov paperbacks, and later—before there was a movie series or even a second book—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

As I grew up and my tastes became more mature, the books I picked out had more notes in the margins—especially the ones my grandparents had read for their long-running book club, each marked on the inside front flap with the date and place the discussion was held.

When Ambrose described Operation Cobra—a massive effort to push through German lines that took place in late July 1944—my grandpa’s pen sprang into life.

In the days after my grandpa died, I went back to the house he and my grandma had shared for over sixty years. It was quiet—my dad and my grandma were there, but the rooms that had once been filled with kids and grandkids at countless family parties were now mostly empty. Returning to my old practice of pulling down books and looking through them, I found one with marginal notes from my grandpa—Citizen Soldiers by Stephen E. Ambrose.

Of the two of them, my grandma was always the bigger reader, and most of the marginalia I saw in their books was in her hand. And most of those were the sort of marks you would make as you were interacting with the author: underlining quotes that resonated with you, marking the really important passages with a star, writing a question mark beside things you weren’t sure about. But the marginalia I found this time was different. It was telling a story.

My grandpa, James Ritzema, was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in May 1924, and left home to join the Army Air Force in May 1943. He got engaged to my grandma in New York City in January 1944, days before he boarded a troopship for England. In June 1944, he crossed the channel into France a few weeks after the Normandy invasion. He was in Lippstadt, Germany, when the war in Europe ended in May 1945. Eight months later, he returned home to get married, raise three kids, serve faithfully in his church, and spend most of his life as an accountant.

He spent just a couple of years in the service, but those years cast a long shadow. Unlike many who have experienced the horrors of war and prefer not to talk about it, he jumped at the chance to tell stories of his time in World War II. Before I knew who the composer Richard Wagner was, for example, I knew that in the summer of 1945 my grandpa had gone to concerts at the festival house in Bayreuth, Wagner’s hometown, with the local musicians playing for American GIs while dressed in their everyday work clothes.

Those years stayed in my grandfather’s mind when he wasn’t telling war stories, as well. One night when I was there on a visit, the house was dark and he was practicing piano in the living room. I walked into the room so I could see his fingers dance across the keys and startled him. In that moment, he told me, his mind went back to what it felt like to be on guard duty at an airfield at night, walking between the planes with a gun, looking this way and that, on the alert for every noise that might be a saboteur.

Citizen Soldiers tells the story of the movement of the U.S. Army in Europe from Normandy into Germany and the end of the war, and most of my grandpa’s copy contained no marginal notes. But when Ambrose described Operation Cobra—a massive effort to push through German lines that took place in late July 1944—my grandpa’s pen sprang into life. 

When Ambrose wrote, “The Ninth Tactical Air Force had a dozen airstrips in Normandy by this time,” my grandpa added, We were one of these airstrips, 36th Fighter Group, 32nd Service Group.

Ambrose began his description of the operation, “July 25 was clear. At 0938, some 550 fighter-bombers appeared. They were being guided by radio messages from forward air controllers riding in tanks at the head of armored columns.” My grandpa added: I was on guard duty at 0938 & saw those 550 fighter bombers go overhead. J.R. 

When Ambrose described the line of smoke from bomb explosions that drifted back over the American lines and led to misplaced bombs and accidental deaths, including that of General Lesley McNair, my grandpa added, I saw Gen McNair’s grave shortly after he was killed. At the time my grandpa saw McNair’s grave, it was marked by a simple wooden cross without a rank, and he was moved to think that in death, McNair was like all the soldiers he commanded.

I was struck especially by the note that my grandpa signed with his initials, “J.R.” These notes were directed, not to himself or to the author, but to whoever would pick up the book after him. He loved to tell stories of his wartime life, and he was telling them still. He wanted someone to know what he had done, what he had seen, the effect all of it had had on him. 

These notes were directed, not to himself or to the author, but to whoever would pick up the book after him.

Compared to the much longer time he spent as a faithful husband, father, and churchman, the stories of nights on patrol, the fleet of fighter bombers, and the concerts in plain clothes might appear to be the scribbles in the margins of his life. But they were not marginal at all. They were at the center, informing and shaping so much of what he would do and how he would see himself and his country and the world for the rest of his life. For any of us, the time when we are launching out into the world for the first time has far-reaching effects. For him, poised at the precipice of adulthood, not able to see his fiancée or begin the marriage he longed for, seeing death and fear but also kindness and heroism all around him, these years grew into and suffused the whole text of his life. 

In his last few years, my grandpa suffered from dementia that erased his memories, including those from the war. I don’t know whether he was experiencing the beginnings of memory loss when he wrote those marginal notes. I don’t know whether he was already beginning to feel his story slip away from him. Maybe he signed his note “J.R.” so he could keep telling himself his own story. Whether he did or not, I do know that he wanted his story, his life, to be remembered.  

Days after I pulled down Citizen Soldiers and found his marginal notes, his family and friends gathered to remember him. I stood up to share on behalf of his grandchildren, and I didn’t talk about the war. Instead, I talked about how much he loved to tell jokes, about how every time us grandkids were leaving after staying with him and grandma he would take us aside and give us extra money for the ride home, about how one time when my brother lost his glasses in Lake Michigan, everyone else looked for a couple of minutes and gave them up for lost, but my grandpa, James Ritzema, for whom my brother is named, wouldn’t stop looking until he found them.

Even when his own memory began to fade, he and his story were remembered by his friends, by his children, and by his grandchildren.

Throughout his life, my grandpa kept telling the stories of his wartime experience because it was through them that he understood himself and the rest of his life. He wanted them, and the lessons he learned from them, to be remembered. And they were. Even when his own memory began to fade, he and his story were remembered by his friends, by his children, and by his grandchildren. 

When Jesus was being crucified, one of the criminals next to him said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied to him what I believe he replies to all of us who ask him to remember us when our memories fade and we don’t know who we are or whether our lives are significant enough to be remembered: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” 

When we are gone, and the notes we scribbled are hidden between covers of books long unopened, our stories are kept in the mind of God, waiting for the day when he will pull us down from the shelf to tell them once again. 

Elliot Ritzema
Elliot Ritzema lives in Bellingham, WA, and works as an editor for Lexham Press. Before that, he earned an MDiv from Regent College, studied journalism and Russian at the University of Richmond, and taught English in Europe for two years. You can see his posts about life and books on Twitter or Instagram @ehritzema.
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Cover image by Debbie Tea.

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