Letters to Mother 

I’ve wanted to write about suffering. It’s a topic that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve started about fifteen different posts on the subject but have trashed each one feeling they were wholly inadequate in conveying what it is I want to say. And there’s a lot I want to say.

But I fear any attempt to consolidate those thoughts into a single post would create a collection of trite sayings that not only trivializes suffering but also maligns any well-intentioned effort to console. A careless word can cause considerable damage to a person in pain.  For now I will only say a few things.

The temptation in suffering is to cuddle up with your pain like a warm blanket on a cold, lonely night. But stay there long enough and it will become the noose around your neck (Stick with me. I swear I’m going somewhere with this and promise to bring in the letters, and WWII, etc). As counterintuitive as it is, you must learn to pull your gaze away from yourself and turn it upon another. Among other things, it gives us perspective.

There’s a great quote from Regina Brett that reads, “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.” I’ve admitted before that this is in large part the reason I started this project, for the comfort in saying, “Good Lord, at least I don’t have to deal with that!” But I’ve also found there is a great deal to be learned from the way in which people responded to the unthinkable atrocities and immense suffering inflicted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. But even before the war these men and women were well acquainted with pain.

“F. Durham. Mama’s baby’s boy”

Päpä’s father died when he was four. I think from a heart attack. His mother couldn’t afford to keep him and so Päpä was sent to live with his Aunt Ora and Uncle Traylor. Uncle Traylor was, like my own father, a Methodist minister. He taught Päpä to ring the church bells, something my grandfather was quite proud of.

Aunt Ora was the only teacher of a one-room school. She took Päpä with her every day and sat him with the first graders until he was old enough to progress with his peers. Päpä sometimes joked he was in first grad for 3 years. Ora and Traylor loved Päpä as their own, but he missed his mother deeply.

“Dear Mama, I wish I could see you.”


Those letters, at least 100 years old, come from the hand of a little boy who aches for his mother and cannot understand why they aren’t together. Why doesn’t she come? Why doesn’t she write? The mother in me can’t read these letters without grieving for the poor, little boy who is so broken and confused and feeling abandoned (my own mother wouldn’t even let me read the letters to her!). Children should be safe in the arms of their mothers.

Päpä started working part-time when he was 12, I believe as a newsboy. By the time he was fifteen, he was working fulltime during the day and attending night school to complete his high school education. He never went to college.

High School report card, 1926



Mimi’s father died the month after she met Päpä. He was a successful businessman, but the family lost almost everything during the Great Depression through, as my grandmother said, “good investments gone bad.” Somehow Päpä always managed to find work during the Depression, but other family members were not as lucky, and they would be called on to help.

The effects of the Great Depression were astounding. By 1933, 15 million Americans were unemployed. Homelessness rates soared, and families were torn apart as husbands and sons left to find work or simply to escape embarrassment. Domestic violence rates as well as suicide and crime rates dramatically increased, as well. Suffering was all around them.

There’s the old cliché “that which doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger’.” Anyone who has ever been told this in the midst of their own suffering will tell you how tempting it is to punch the person who said it in the face. It’s a statement that seems flippant and dismissive. And yet there is truth to it.

I prefer what Thomas Merton says:

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”

~The Seven Story Mountain

Suffering does create resiliency. It is also in suffering that you discover things more important than self-preservation, things worth fighting for. This is what allowed men and women to fight the shadow of darkness that was aggressively stretching across Europe, indeed the world.

I recently read an interview of a man who served in the 39th M.R.U. in Munich.  He was asked if he thought there was something special about his generation that allowed them to respond to the war as they did. He said, no.  Any generation would have done just as they did.  But I Continue reading → Letters to Mother 

The Night They Met

“Your world traveler is feeling mighty fine today–just been laying around wishing he was at home with you.  You can be certain sweet that he is every bit as much in love with his wife as ever and you can be even more certain that he is more in love with her than ever.”       France, September 22, 1944

 

 

Like most good Texans, we called our grandfather Pawpaw. Mimi, my grandmother (Virginia was her name) insisted on spelling it with umlauts, I assume in effort to preserve some sense of dignity. But we also had a Mamaw and a Papaw. Umlauts were lost on us.

I’ve always thought that the story of how my grandparents met was like something out of a movie. A young man, who’d known poverty and death at a very early age—his father having died when he was four, young Fred was sent to live with an aunt because his mother couldn’t afford to keep all of her children at home—caught sight of a wealthy young girl one night at a prayer meeting.

I heard the story countless times growing up and relished the romance in it every single time. I always imagined they met on a hot summer’s night at a revival. The windows of the church were open to let in a breeze. A neighborhood dog could be heard barking in the distance. The ladies in their cotton dresses waved their fans with a tactful rhythm, fans that were all decorated with water colored portraits of Jesus carrying a lost lamb or politely knocking upon a door whose only handle was on the other side of the door, which everyone understood symbolized the door to their heart. The preacher was deep into a passionate plea for souls, and everyone’s heart was, like John Wesley’s, strangely warmed when my grandfather saw a beautiful young woman with crystal blue eyes across the room, and the world stood still.

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Virginia Cooper Durham
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Wedding Photo of Fred and Virginia March, 1932

As it turns out, they met in February (February, 1930) at an Epworth League meeting (Today it is the UMYF—United Methodist Youth Foundation). I am now struggling to let go of the images I have replayed in my mind over these many years—a familiar consequence of my often-unchecked imagination.

The stock market crashed in October the previous year (October 24, 1929). It was just the beginning of the Great Depression. In the middle of the prayer meeting Pawpaw (Päpä!) sent Mimi a card marked “SOLD: I could pin this on me right now” through the crowd.

A friend sitting close to Mimi intercepted the note, hoping it was for her. He panicked and began waving his arms wildly, motioning to keep passing the note down the line. The friend reluctantly passed it along to Mimi, and after the meeting, he came over and introduced himself to her. He walked her home that night and proposed the next Christmas. They married in March, 1932.  He was 21, and she was just a few months shy of 17.

 

The letter posted above can be read in it’s entirety on the Page entitled Letters.

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