They say that life can only be understood backward but has to be lived forward.
Growing up, we hear family stories and maybe even visit countries of origin and old family homes, but we don’t truly appreciate the history that has shaped our own lives.
One of the gifts that comes with growing older is a deeper understanding and appreciation of our past. With age comes a newfound perspective of our family legacy and the stories of how we came to be.
I’m fortunate that in recent years I’ve been able to truly embrace the story of my parents, especially my mother, a native of Austria, who came to the United States thanks to a 1940s law that allowed American soldiers to bring their brides to this country.
I never tire of hearing my mother’s story and recently recorded it as part of StoryCorps when it stopped in Charleston late last year to capture personal stories and family histories.
My mother, Josefine Wurisch Joyce, was born in Vienna, the only child of two older parents who kept her close to home and under a strict rule. Josefine was barely 16 when she became a telephone operator for a large German Luftwaffe communications center. A series of wartime transfers landed 19-year-old Josefine on the road back to Vienna as she and a group of Austrian soldiers dodged American roadblocks.
As it would turn out, their capture would be her great fortune. An American soldier named John Joyce asked the girl in uniform to identify herself, and Josefine’s first thought was, “Boy, does he have beautiful teeth.”
For six weeks, the two spent time together in secret, stealing kisses and falling in love. John returned to the United States, and for two years, their only form of communication was letters and one phone call. John signed his letters “my truest love,” but Josefine was certain she’d never see him again.
But when the “Sweetheart Law” went into effect, John sent for her. They quickly married in his hometown of Pittsburgh. For 57 years, John and Josefine were married, raising three children, spending retirement years fishing in Florida and living through John’s battle with Alzheimer’s until his death in 2006.
At 87, my mother (also known as “Piepsi”) is still going strong. She volunteers weekly with Pet Helpers and at an adult day-care center and lavishes love on her pets, including a Dachshund named “Schatzie.”
My mother left Vienna on March 1, 1947. Each year, she marks that date. It’s a reminder of the things we do for love and the sacrifices we are willing to make to be with that one special person.
She was just 20 when she left Vienna, saying goodbye to her parents and her home to travel to a foreign land. It took real courage and a leap of faith that I never truly appreciated until after I’d heard the story many times and read the letters. They have been kept and treasured all these years in the same suitcase she brought from Vienna when she arrived in 1947.
The love story is my mother’s legacy, and she says it’s the lesson she wants to impart to her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and those yet to come. “When you find true love, you are truly, truly blessed,” she says.
Now, I think of my parents’ story as a magical tale suited for a book or a movie screen. Theirs was a chance wartime encounter and a relationship that succeeded against all odds. I look back through the lens of history with a full appreciation of the legacy of love.
Barbara Franklin is a long-term care specialist with Franklin & Associates Inc. She and her husband, Paul, relocated from Pittsburgh in 1988 and live in downtown Charleston. Her mother lives on James Island.