Scientists say that genetics can influence anything from eye color to talents. Well, if that’s true then the majority of my family can thank both sides of my extended family for what they passed down to us. My nana’s side, the O’Kanes, had the arts and the voice and my papa’s side, the Brownings, had the writing and dramatic flair. Without these gene flowing through my veins I would not be where I am today and I love my grandparents for everything they gave me. (As a side note I’m hearing my nana saying, “I may not have a lot of money, but I have a lot of love,” as I wrote that last sentence.) If she were here, I’d say, “Nana, who cares about money when the talents you gave us are worth far more than any amount of money in the world.”I love you and miss you every day! Kathleen O’Kane Browning was born on June 10, 1923, and died on October 28, 2008. That’s right, today is the anniversary of her voyage to Heaven.
Nana was such a strong woman. I come from a family of strong and beautiful women. Emotionally, we might be sensitive and soft hearted, but we are ferocious when and where it counts. That is definitely one trait that I am so glad that I got from her. At a young age, Nana lost both of her parents before she was twelve years old, watched some of her brothers leave too, and was raised by her older sisters. She went on to have three daughters: Susan (my wonderful aunt who helped me with a lot of the information and photographs for this blog); my mother, Marie; and my other aunt, Ann. From there Nana went on to battle lung cancer, losing part of her lung; breast cancer, which she beat; and a stroke, leaving her left side weakened; and finally she endured the death of a husband and all of her siblings before her. Nana was the lone survivor of the O’Kane family. I like to think that not only do I carry her family’s talents with me–several great uncles and aunts were artists, singers, and writers–but also her strength to fight and survive through some of life’s worst challenges.
As for my Papa, Robert Browning, he was born on November 4, 1919. No, he was not thatRobert Browning (19th century poet), but he was a poet in his own rite as well as a journal author, literature writer, mediator, husband, father, World War II hero, and POW survivor. Papa, to me though, was a funny grandfather always full of stories and quirky idiosyncrasies. As a grandfather, he played the organ — with his reading glasses upside down. I don’t know why, but he did. He’d take my cousins, sisters and me to Rocky Woods in Medfield, Massachusetts, leading us on the same path every time, telling us the stories of the Native Americans who would pick wild blueberries and sarsaparilla and pointing out the markings in the large boulders that he told us were the notches the Revolutionary War soldiers gouged so they could steady their rifles when they shot. I found out a long time afterwards that those notches were from the quarry where the stones were cut. They were the blast marks that blew the giant boulders apart, but the illusion Papa created for us in his stories made the woods come alive, heck made history come alive. He also had some purposely fictional stories too, like the Mama Bear who lived in a stone pit and we had to ring the “doorbell” to see if she was home. She was never there, but that didn’t stop us from believing that she really might be there somewhere in the ground below. I have no idea how long that path was, but we didn’t go all that far and only ever ventured to the Gorilla rock, which did actually look like a gorilla.
We never went past that rock and that was always okay with us. We’d turn around and head back to the car where Papa would share his canteen of ice cold water with us and if we were really good he would take us to the Bubbling Brook, a homemade ice cream shop, for a scoop. Papa always tried to get a bite from each of our cones and my cousin Ricky would freak out and cry whenever he did that. A lot of times Ricky would go so far as to throw out his ice cream after that, so indignant that his grandfather took a bite.
As I grew older and Papa left us for the Golden Kingdom, I realized how much he influenced my life. Before we even knew him, he flew in World War II in a P~51 aircraft and was shot down in Germany. He was captured that day by the Nazis and imprisoned in the Stalag Luft III camp for over a year. He came home in 1945 after being set free from the camp by General Patton. After Papa’s passing we found that he had written a journal about his time in the camp. He had drawn diagrams of the rooms and the barracks and written chilling recollections of sleeping coffins, but never once did we hear what had exactly happened to him during that time….
Ever since I learned about Papa’s past, a lot of my writing, especially Beneath the Wall, has been an homage to my grandfather and what he went through. I even named my main character Roberts, after him. I am so grateful for his talents too, his strength, his patriotism, and his ability to create a story both during the best of times and the worst of times.
I love you Nana and Papa! I miss you both every day!
To read further:
Stalag Luft III