Daddy and Mama bought the big yellow house when I was 13 months old. Surrounded by red barns, white board fences, chicken coops, and corn cribs, the house sat on 80 acres of fields, pastures, and woods, bordering a creek. They paid $10,000 for it. Grandpa Nutt said they’d never live to see it paid! But he was wrong. They did! They paid the mortgage in full by mid life.
Daddy and Mama were hard workers, very frugal – didn’t charge, didn’t live beyond their means. As the years went by, they maintained the house and slowly made improvements as they could afford: a remodeled kitchen, blown-in insulation, aluminum storm windows, and baseboard hot water heat – typical 60’s-style upgrades But one aspect of the house never changed – the woodshed.
The woodshed was actually the large, attached back portion of the house, but it was rough and unfinished inside. From the north, a door led into a corner of the woodshed we called the milk house (a room where the milk was brought in from the milking barn). The big slider door (the one we always used) opened to the east. Hooks and nails covered the inner wooden slatted walls, and held garden hoses, rakes, and corn brooms (one good and several worn). Lofts stored empty coffee cans, out-of-season window screens, and “who knows what” treasures, hidden through many years. The basement door, which closed only by a hook, was in the southwest corner of the dark, often dank room – the woodshed.
~~ ~~ ~~ ~~
The years passed until limited social security income allowed no further improvements on the house or the property – and certainly not the woodshed . Dementia and crippling disease stifled all maintenance. As Daddy and Mama aged, so did the house. It cracked and creaked and sagged. Its outside became worn, sun bleached, and peeled. It forgot all of its glory. It lost its hope. But I loved it just the same. Aging doesn’t change love.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Daddy left the house first – went to the nursing home. (And that’s another story.) Mama followed – joining him (or so it seemed) in the same nursing home.
The house was cold and empty.
Utility bills, property taxes, and insurance premiums continued to fill the mailbox every month. The social security income was now transferred to the nursing home. The yellow house was being deprived of its nourishment. It was slowly dying.
Reality set in: The house faced it and so did I.
Daddy and Mama wouldn’t be coming home. Daddy passed first; Mama shortly after. The white hearse had driven each of their coffined bodies around the circle drive, pausing near the front door, then across the road, down the long lane to the cemetery to be buried within sight of their big old yellow house.
~~ ~~ ~~ ~~
Because I loved the house, I wanted to feed it and nurture it and revive it. And I knew that Daddy and Mama had wanted the house to live on and be filled with young, new life – with family.
So the time came to once again renovate, upkeep, and maintain the old yellow house.
Builders, plumbers, drywallers, painters, electricians, and furnace installers began slowly reviving the old structure. Three coats of paint moisturized and refreshed its outer surfaces. Its foundation received a “tuck” and a “lift.” Its walls and its floors were recoated. But the most drastic revitalizing came in transforming the woodshed. Now the house felt complete, as the woodshed became a true part of its body and soul. And in the process of rejuvenation, a few hidden items were discovered up on its dusty lofts: a white rubber boot, a couple of antique pulleys, a Michigan Stove Co cast iron stove flap, a child’s red plastic wallet, and a pair of black and white saddle oxfords.
The oxfords revealed their age, just as the house and the people within it had. I wondered who had worn these shoes. I took them home and placed them beside sympathy cards and death certificates.
Then one day, browsing through mementos, I saw the photo, and in it, Mama was wearing the saddle oxfords.
She was young then, as were the shoes.
I remembered the setting: Lake of the Clouds in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – an annual summer vacation to stay at my Grandpa’s cabin – obviously an autumn one this particular year. Browsing the other photos brought back fond memories, and I realized that I was wearing saddle oxfords in those photos, also! The year was 1955; I was four years old. I closed my eyes and tried to go back to that time – to those years – to that life in the big old yellow house.
I imagined the shoes on the floor of her bedroom, under the metal clothing rack.
I imagined her taking them to the backroom and polishing them from time to time with both white and black shoe polish.
And I imagined her one day, placing them on the upper loft of the woodshed, assuming she wouldn’t be wearing them again.
My upper chest hurt to think of that day – the day she went from young to old.
She’s gone now. But I have her shoes – her old shoes – her saddle oxfords – those she did not intend to keep. Perhaps others would throw those old shoes away, but I won’t.
I’ll get some leather cleaner.
I’ll enlarge and frame the photo.
Then I’ll set the shoes besides the photo,
I’ll place this little grouping somewhere in my house – will probably move it from one place to another – from time to time.
And as I’m moving through my house, cleaning, or rushing, or multi-tasking, I’ll pause when I see the photo and the saddle oxfords. Sometimes I’ll cry. Always, I’ll smile. And I’ll think of my Mama who once was young and then was old and lived in the big yellow house.
I almost tossed it away – it looked so insignificant, written with a purple crayon, personalized with my favorite drawings: a tree on the front and a swing set on the back. But evidently it was not insignificant to her, as she had written on the back, “Had been away over the weekend when Kathy made this,” then tucked it away in the cedar chest, along with Valentines, newspaper clippings, and report cards.
I’m wondering where she had gone that weekend, as I don’t remember my mother ever being away from home!
She often baked macaroni and cheese – using those big chunks of colby and large elbow macaroni. Homemade bread. Sunbeam Rolls. Beef Roasts with potatoes. Warm custard when I was sick.
She laundered my clothes.
She tucked me in at night with hugs.
She held me and sang soft sweet songs like “Go Tell Aunt Tabby”and “Bye Baby Bunting.”
I knew her unconditional love. I never questioned it. I was enveloped in comfort and security.
It’s no wonder I missed her, wherever she had gone that weekend.
And it’s no wonder I miss her now.
I wish it was just for the weekend, but now it’s been eight long years. I miss the macaroni and cheese, her soft hugs, the sound of her voice, and a thousand other things.
Since that note to my mother so long ago, I’ve changed the spelling of my first name, and now I always use a blue, medium point pen instead of a crayon. I never draw trees on my notes or letters any longer, and I prefer writing on lined paper. But I might just write another purple crayon message on plain white paper, fold it, and on the front, write, “To Mother.” The message will be simple. Only a few words will change:
I will be glad to see you again. I am lonesome for you.
Then I’ll tuck it in the same cedar chest and hope that miraculously she’ll receive it up in heaven.
He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart:
I put her to bed, as usual. Well, really, with a bit more tenderness, a bit more time–reading, laying, singing, snuggling. But she is still quite unsettled when I leave her bedside, and shortly after, I hear her behind me in the living room.
“Nana, can I lie in your bed?”
I follow her down the hall. She steps up onto the little white stepping stool and up up up on to the big, soft mattress. And then I see the tears.
“I miss my mommy.”
I wipe her tears.
I lie beside her, cherishing her soft hair rubbing my cheek, breathing in its sweet, innocent scent.
Later, after she is sound asleep, Papa carries Kaylee back to her own bed.
I awaken in the night. My heart aches. I miss her mommy too. And I know a bit of the pain my precious daughter is going through. She shared it with me months ago, shortly after the arrest. Now I know that tonight, she lies on her cot, in her cell, cold and lonely. My throat makes a foreign noise. I try to hold back the sob, knowing that when it starts, it doesn’t stop for a long time. I pray for her in a whisper – a whisper I know my Papa hears.
Months ago, after the arrest, on the 9th day, we brought her home–from that cell, from that cot–for one night before recovery began. She wanted her own bed– her old bed. The comfort of home.
Now I want the comfort of my Papa’s bed. I want that comfort for my daughter, and for her daughter, Kaylee. I want that comfort for all of us and for all others who are hurting.
I find it. I find it in the Word that is near me!
He gently tends me like a shepherd tends his flock. He gathers me in his arms and carries me close to his heart.
I might be unsettled for awhile, but I know that as I rest in his arms, close to His heart, I’ll find that comfort.
Further Reading: Isaiah 40:11; Psalm 91:1; Matthew 11:28; Romans 10:8
As you read the above post, you might connect. Some of you have or are presently raising your grandchildren. Some of you have or have had a son or daughter incarcerated. Some of you agonize, watching your own little ones unsettled and distressed, often unable to sleep. Take a verse or two and personalize it for yourself. Speak it over and over and over . . . His Word is powerful. And it’s near you.
I can’t imagine facing a day of my life without her . . .
or a day without sobbing.
This evening is sad – seeing her, my Mama – lifeless and still upon pink satin lining the silver box . I don’t want to see her like this.
I close my eyes and remember her in the kitchen, making her yellow rolls; I remember her tucking me into bed at night; and I remember her dancing down “Main Street” on our first trip to Disney World!
Then I open my eyes and look around the large room of this funeral home, a place I don’t want to be, facing what I don’t want to face, where earlier, alone, I couldn’t stop crying.
Now the room has taken on a different countenance. Instead of the parlor of death, it has become a playroom, filled with my young grandchildren. Their voices, full of animation, and their healthy little bodies, full of life, make me realize that Mama lives on in me, in my children, and in my grandchildren. As I reflect upon it, I realize that life is truly amazing. My friend, Connie, told me that today. “Life is amazing,” she said, “and we are a part of it.”
And I am a part of it because of my precious Mama. And now I will pass on the tradition of baking the yellow rolls and I will tuck my little ones into bed, and I will dance down Main Street.”
Tomorrow I must say goodbye – I know it’s just her body – that her soul is in heaven and that she will receive a new, vibrant, healthy body, but it’s her old body and her touch and her voice that I will miss. It’s the smell of Ponds Cold Cream and of yellow rolls baking in her oven.
Passersby stopped their cars. Some actually drove in the big circle driveway, walked up the steps to the porch, and knocked on the kitchen door.
“May we look at your flower garden?” they asked.
Daddy’s and Mama’s garden was massive, stretching between the mown lawn and the corn field, its woven artistry of greens and reds and yellows visible from every south window of the old yellow house. It abounded with fruits and vegetables – strawberries in June, green beans in July, sweet corn in August, and pumpkins in September. But at a distinct time of the hot Michigan summer, the garden was amass with papery-petalled blooms: beautiful red poppies.
Daddy’s and Mama’s lives paralleled that garden. Like their garden, their lives were brimming with ever-bearing vibrancy – of honor and service to God!
Those seasons were times of sunshine and rain. Of planting and reaping. Although well-remembered, they were summer of times long passed.
Today, nothing remains of the beautiful flower garden or of the vivid red poppies. For a few years, a little stem, here and there, popped up, but now, withered stubble covers the ground where the poppies once bloomed. And like the garden, nothing remains here on earth of the vibrant lives of Daddy and Mama.
“All men [and women] are like grass, and all their glory is like the [poppies] of the field; the grass withers and the [poppies] fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:6,8)
Yes, His word stands forever. It is powerful. It is mighty. It is beautiful. It does not die. It withstands every season, every storm, every fire, and every trial. It is permeated with vibrancy – the vibrancy of life.
So again today, I will open the Word and let it fill me with its unending message. I desire the Word to reflect in my life such vividness that passersby stop and stare, glimpsing God’s glory in all of its beauty.
They asked Daddy and Mama, “May we look at your flower garden?”
I hope they ask of me, “Please tell me about your Jesus I so vividly see.”
I have been fearful during some of these days of the COVID19
pandemic and isolation. But today I am not frightened.
I have had a significant amount of anxiety during this
COVID19 pandemic. But today, I am not anxious.
Today, I am angry.
I am angry with the thief who is killing and stealing and destroying.
I am angry with the demons who serve him and do his dirty work.
And today, I am sad.
I am sad that we can’t meet with our church family and celebrate the life of our friend who has passed – to hug his family and tell them how we loved him – to sing “The Days of Elijah” while we dance the aisles, as he did – to feel the tears drop down my cheeks as we all sing one final “I’ll Fly Away.”
I am sad that my cousins cannot sit with their dying mother at her hospital bed – sad that she cannot feel the comfort only those children can bring – feel the warmth of their cheeks on hers, their wet lashes returning the comfort hers once gave.
I am sad that I cannot gather with my extended family at the graveside – to honor and say farewell to a blessed cousin – to hear sweet stories about her – to tell her children and grandchildren how much she meant to me.
I am sad that our friends cannot comfort their dying father in the nursing home – cannot wrap his hands in theirs and pray him to glory.
None of these things can happen because of the thief. So today
I am angry, and today, I am sad.
But like any other day – those of fearfulness, anxiety,
anger, happiness, or – like today – sadness, I look to Jesus. And I listen.
“Kathi, don’t let your heart be saddened. Don’t be troubled. I’m preparing everything. I hear you, and I will deliver you all. Now is your time to comfort from afar. I am close to your friends and family in their suffering and loss. I am their comfort. “
Our eyes are attentive to our screens, taking in every word, every image. Our hearts are breaking as we watch: Notre Dame Cathedral is burning.
French Catholic Newspaper, La Croix, shows the spire’s collapse on its front page, with the headline: La Coeur en cendres (The Heart in Ashes):
And those words, probably inferring the heart of the church, nonetheless describe our feelings: our hearts are in ashes. We are a suffering people, anyway, our hearts shattered by evil in the world: deliberate killings, deliberate abortions, deliberate hate. Cancer, suffering, disease. We wonder how much more our already-broken hearts can take.
But we keep watching the reports of the fire; we keep listening; we keep hoping.
And we find it. Hope in the final photos – the photos taken after the fire is out – the photos showing what remains. The altar remains, and . . .
. . .the cross still stands! Not only does it stand, but it shines. It radiates. It glows. It reminds us that in this world filled with evil, we have hope – the confident expectation of God’s promises.
When she passed years ago, just one month after Daddy, I thought I might adjust to life without them. Then I saw your Facebook posts and heard your words, spoken as you hugged me at the visitations, written on your cards of sympathy:
“It’s been ten years, and I miss her every day.”
“My dad’s been gone 18 years and I still cry.”
Suddenly I knew. The pain would never go away. It was frightening, overwhelming, to think of living with this dire grief for the rest of my life. I could not go through it alone.
“Jesus wept.” I knew He was weeping for me – with me. I not only accepted the compassion of this Savior, but I pleaded with the Father for it.
Then I started digging. Old photos. Memories. Aprons. Dishes. Walking sticks. Blankets. The sight of his binoculars caused a swelling in my throat; the smell of her Ponds Cold Cream drew flooding memories down my cheeks. How can I ever get past this?
I shared my grief with others. They understood. I was not alone. Many had grieved. Like me. Looking at them from the outside, I hadn’t realized that their insides had once been heavy and weighted. Like mine. Would I ever appear normal on the outside again, like they did?
I did not find comfort in those common feelings of grief. But I did find comfort in knowing that I grieved much because I had loved much. I had years of memories to carry with me on the lonely, painful path ahead, the path I’m still traveling today. Are the memories worth the pain? Is the pain worth the memories?
I’ve stopped trying to figure it out. I’ve stopped trying to distinguish grief and sorrow from mourning. I’ve stopped trying to figure out what stage of grief I’m passing through. And I’ve stopped feeling guilty or shameful that I’m still grieving after all these years – that others have more reason to grieve than I.
It is what it is. A broken world full of suffering and full of grieving people. Not by God’s design but because of the sin of the first created.
It is what it is. A beautiful life, speckled with pain and grief.
But He is what He is. A beautiful Savior who weeps with us and says, “It won’t be long. I’ll gather you. Let me comfort you until then.”
Until then, Mama, ride your beautiful Buckskin mare down the lanes of the farm. And have a Happy Heavenly Birthday, Mama.
I never knew my Uncle Marion, yet my throat tightens, and tears roll down my face whenever I look at pictures of him, read his letters from war, or place a flower on his grave.
Perhaps it is because he reminds me of my father. They shared such a resemblance. Or perhaps it is because sometimes I try to place myself in my Grandma’s shoes – having five sons in the war at the same time and dreading that unwanted telegram. But most definitely it is because of my love and appreciation of a man who gave his life for a country and the freedoms I enjoy every day – a man I’ve always known as my Uncle Marion.
In memory of my Uncle Marion, a true patriot, a recipient of the Purple Heart issued by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and forever a loved member of my family, I write these words.
Marion grew up on a black dirt farm in Kinderhook, Michigan, the seventh of twelve children. The large family was poor but honorable, honest, respectable citizens of the community. In the early 1940’s, Marion was the first of the “older” boys to enlist to serve his country in what became known as WWII. Soon thereafter, Paul, Clifford, Earl, and Wayne followed suit. During the war, the five sons served throughout the world, including the Pacific Arena, the European Theatre, and the North African Campaign.
One of my mother’s best friends was a vibrant, lovely woman named Ethyl. Years later, as I grew up, I simply knew Ethyl as my neighbor and friend. She and her husband Frank had two daughters. I never realized until I read Uncle Marion’s letters from war that Ethyl had once had a very special place in Uncle Marion’s heart, and I have every reason to believe that he had a very special place in her heart, as well. I discovered this in one of the letters Uncle Marion had written to my mother.
(To my mother)
Well Margie, today is a rainy Sunday as that is nothing unusual in Ireland. Say, Wayne’s letter came the same day as yours. He said to give you 7734 for not writing to me before. . . . What is this I hear about you & Wayne planning to marry? . . . Ethyl writes a lovely love letter. I think she is the one & only for me. We could be so happy together as I love her so much and miss her as we are made for each other.She most likely thinks I run around with other girls.If so she should be here and witness what I do. Then it would be different. . . . Talk Wayne out of joining the army. Please if you can. . . . Must close for now for time is short.
As ever, my sister-in -law to be. Care if I stamp this with a kiss for you? S.W.A.K.
As ever, just a soldier,
Marion L. Nutt
The “soldier away from home” was revealed in Marion’s letters to his brother Clifford who had not yet enlisted and was living with his wife Velma and two young children in Michigan. Knowing Velma would undoubtedly read the letter, Marion included a line to Velma, as well.
(To his brother, Clifford)
June 10, 1942
Received your letter today. Was sure glad to hear from you. Would have liked to see you with the mumps. Ha. Ha.
Went to the city for the weekend . . . the air raids. It was worth the trip just for that. The trip was educational as well as fun. Wow, is whisky & drinks ever high. Bass, which here means beer,is twenty cents a bottle. Whisky $8.00 a quart. Women cheap, two shillings a frig or a pound for all night. That’s what the boys say. I don’t know myself.
P.S. Velma, don’t let this shock your modesty.
Hi Cliff. How are you and the family?I am fine as can be. Get a little lonesome sometimes, but try to make the best of it.
Received your ever so welcomed letter this week so will answer it with the best of my ability.
Most of the soldiers fish at night . . . I am going to Belfast next week to fish … and raise 7734. These fish are so much different than ours at home . . . a few trout
A little army life would do Earl good, just like Paul.
Shortly after he wrote these letters, Marion was sent to the North African Campaign. The rainy, somewhat peaceful days in Ireland suddenly became cold, turbulent days at the front of “Operation Torch,” at Algiers – then later at Tunisia. A fierce battle had been taking place for over two years. At stake was control of the Suez Canal and access to oil from the Middle East – vital to mechanizing the armies. Marion was one of 65,000 troops commanded by General Eisenhower. Just one of many men, but the one we loved.
(Letter to Clifford and family)
Algeria, N. Africa
Dear Cliff & Family,
Hello kids. How is everyone around home? I am fine although have a slight cold. Shaved my head – then it turned off cool so of course it had me . . . The old mail is just catching up with us. This one I just received is dated Oct 5th, . . .
. . . as far away as I am and can’t talk to anyone. Boy that is hell. Especially with these beautiful babes parading around like flies and can’t even as much as speak or talk to me.
Just one thing there is her is plenty of wine, about like you said they had in California when you were on the bum. It is cheap. 10 francs a bottle. That is about 1.34 a quart. Variety of each kind. Must be a hundred different brands. Banana wine is strong along with muscatel, grape, orange, even cactus. Whoa. Has that ever got a kick.
What is Olen’s address? . . . He is in the tank core, right? Boy that is hell on the front lines. . . . Where is Fay? . . . I often wonder if I might accidentally run into them. A fellow here met his brother just the same way. . . .
Good night all. As Ever,
His next letters reveal the increasing peril he faces. They also reveal his desire to keep news of that danger from his dear Mother. His body is in Algeria, but his heart is at home.
Mar. 7, 43
Hello, how is the old place ticking? It has been 48 hours a day for me. At least that is the way I feel. But am still able to kick. Those Germans can’t get us. At times I wonder,at that. Sure came close this last time. Anyway, the days come & go just the same as ever even if it is hard to tell one from the other. Sure have been good for the past five weeks. No drinks or girls. Just soldier from day to day.
Have seen enemy tanks & heard those machine guns spray lead. . . .
How is Dad doing? Does he take it hard?
As Ever. With love
(To Wayne, my father)
Mar. 20, 43
Just a few lines to say hello and let you know that I am still alive & in the best of health. Hope you are the same.
Although I haven’t written often, I still think of you just the same. It keeps me busy writing to Mom, Ethyl, and Clifford.
But of course I don’t write anything to them about my hardships, never would I do that, not even if I was dying. Cliff is the only one that knows the score about myself. He can keep it under his hat so that Mother will not worry too much about me.
What I write to you of my doings in N. Africa, please for Mother’s sake, don’t ever mention anything to Ethyl or even to Margie for it would leak out. Then Mother would age 20 years more. So on your word of honor, please do as I say. Please!
Oh, say, how is Margie? I know Ethyl’s morale gets pretty low at times. Her letters tell how she feels. Never sent her a Christmas gift but a money order of 20 bucks, which served the same purpose. There is not a damned thing overseas that we saw that is worth a hoop.
. . . Did you ever wake up in the morning, shivering, peek outside and see it snowing like the dickens? Have you ever slept in a cemetery where you can look into the graves & see skulls, bones, & ribs of Arabs? Then go to sleep & dream & hear them kicking underneath. It gives me the creeps.
Snakes, lizards, scorpions, & rats, all deadly poisonous, crawl about your head while sleeping. Sure is a morale builder, but nothing to worry about.
Visited the city of Algiers the hard way. Wow! What beautiful babes are there, along with some homes that would make California’s look like shacks.
Artillery goes over our heads, makes me jump, although it is friendly. It is very frightening at times. Those foe machine guns sure spray wicked lead. Saw a German destroyed tank. Didn’t even get a souvenir from the old thing.
. . . Well Wayne, my furlough days are over. Am only looking forward for that thing they call discharge.
Instead of me writing to Paul & Earl, just forward this letter on to them. Tell them to do the same. The last one will keep it. Don’t send it home. Remember, keep it under your hats & tell Paul & Earl to do the same. . . That will save me time and per along with a backache in this cramped writing position that I am in.
(Marion’s last letters – to Clifford & Family via “V-Mail”)
Apr. 6, 43
Just a few lines to say hello & let you that I am still able to fight. Wow! Have I ever had some hair breadth escapes. Can’t tell any, but you can imagine. Listen to the news & just picture me out here fighting for my life. I am not bragging for I am no hero or ever care to be, but anyway I have been the closest to the enemy lines in our company. . . .
Tell Velma her last letter gave me a date. It was about that dream about me & her, also Wayne. I was on a mission that night which was not the pleasantest thing in the world. Too many fireworks & walking. . .
Well Cliff, I have a worried mind so this is all I can think of. . . . If I come through the next scrape, I will write again so until then, so long & the best of luck.
Apr. 12, 1943
Hello. . . I am still able to breathe & enjoy life and boy is it ever great after being in one of North Africa’s major battles. Will tell more later in my letters. Was nearly a prisoner of war. The old boy was saying & motioning, “Come. Come.” But I turned ass to lead & made my best track time for life.
Paul is lucky to be back home with no more worries of being in hell like I have. Fay is lucky to be able to get home occasionally. Maybe I will have time to write to the boys. It is good to get letters. . .
My space is getting small so will close. Hoping this finds the home from much quieter than this one has been, so keep them going. Seven to one. That is the way they fled from here. Write soon.
April 19, 43
Hello Cliff & Family,
Just a few lines to say howdy and let you know that I am fine & still able to write. Although several times I found myself pinching my body to make sure it was not only a dream. Anyway, our mission is now accomplished and trying to rest up a bit, even though there is not a minute of time left for idleness.
Our visiting time is limited although I do go to see Van occasionally. He is just as swell as ever with blood curdling experiences of this last mission. Of course you wouldn’t care for any of that B.S.
Stokes brings me the Coldwater Daily Reporter, and I scan the headlines for news of the boys in the service. . . . Just hope Earl & Wayne don’t have to leave, because I’ve been through enough hell for them both.
Must give the Jerries credit. They sure know their onions about warfare & such. Boobie trap professionals, along with mines & bouncing babies. But when the drop is on them, they run like mad.
Received a letter from Aunt Mossie saying that everything is going swell & that she received a letter from Mom stating that she would like to go up to their place again. Think I’ll go along the next time. Would have before, but I didn’t know then what I do now.
Our Lieutenant called some of the boys together & said, “I want to congratulate you on your promotions to corporals.” But now I am in doubt until the reports come back on the wounded NCO’s. I wrote Corporal on a letter that I wrote Ethyl before I knew the truth. Now I don’t know. Will say in my next letter to you so until then, just . . .
Of all the letters, the one that I love (or hate) most is one sent in April of 1943 from my father, Wayne, to his brother, Marion. It was also written on V-Mail stationery – from one brother who has finished training and is heading to Europe – to another who is in the midst of hellish warfare. .
Dear Marion: Will write to tell you everything is fine. Everyone is well. I hear from Mom quite often. Paul is home as you may know. Less worry for Mom
I have one stripe now. So feel good about that! Ha! I’m still in Kansas. Quite hot here. But I like it. Earl is still in Oregon. . . . Ethyl, the darling, is very happy. I’m glad for her and for you, too.
The headlines in papers seem very good. I know you boys are really giving those Germans hell. Keep it up! Write to Mom when you can.
I hope you & Earl Stokes are still together. I bet you two can really pour it on. Will close for now. Good luck.
The letter isn’t disturbing – it’s the envelope: “Killed in action”
Signed by a Captain.
Returned to the sender – my father.
How many envelopes were pounded with that red stamp?
“RETURN TO SENDER. THIS ITEM COULD NOT BE DELIVERED AS ADDRESSEE HAS BEEN REPORTED KILLED IN ACTION.”
Seventy four years pass. The year is 2017. Ethyl grew old and has passed away. Her daughter brings me a gift. She found it in her mother’s belongings where it had been tucked away for more than 70 years. It is a brown Bible – a New Testament – given to Servicemen during WWII. An inscription is found inside the back cover:
Being a believer in Jesus Christ, I had always wanted to trust that Uncle Marion, too, was a believer. I thought of my Grandma, his mother, whom I knew was a Christian. I pictured her praying for her sons at war and praying for her children to also know Jesus Christ. I found comfort and consolation in this little New Testament. It fell open to a spot where all those years before, Uncle Marion had placed a four-leaf clover. As a Christian, I know I don’t need to hope or trust in the luck a four-leaf clover brings, but I also know we have a Heavenly Father who understands our whims and knew that someday Uncle Marion’s placement of that clover would lead me to the Word of God – the true hope of our redemption in Jesus Christ. The pages were slightly stained by the clover, which for 77 years lay upon blessed words of our Lord. I read, “And the son said unto him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.’ But the father said . . . ‘my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”
I thought of my Grandma and her answered prayer for her son, Marion – that he was a son who had died but was alive again! My heart began to be merry. And I thanked God for His Word and for the little country church that gave that Word to my Uncle Marion.
The final “letter” is actually a lengthy, detailed report titled “Phase IV History of 135th Infantry Regiment.” It describes the final battle for Hill 609 in Tunisia, which began the 27th of March, 1943. It is a disheartening account of Uncle Marion’s last days – those very days of his last letters – the letters that had shown me his true heart. Now I knew a bit more of those many days leading to taking Hill 609.
The report is bitter reading:
“Most of the infantry attacks were not coordinated.”
“Communications at best were poor . . . slow and uncertain”
“The artillery was not used to its fullest extent.. . . Many times the artillery barrage would come down on our own troops, insuring a lot of them and it took a lot of the aggressive spirit from the men.”
“Hill 609: It is interesting to note the difference in terrain . . . this terrain was to be the stage and the scenery for one of the most important battles of the campaign to drive the Germans from Africa; the battle which rates as one of the outstanding combat feats of the Regiment – The Battle of Hill 609.”
“A large percentage of officers and men were ill for reasons not definitely known. . Although physical exhaustion was probably partly responsible, it is believed Atabrine tablets were largely the cause.”
“On the 2nd of May, 1943, the battalion occupied the entire north slope of Hill 609 in addition to the ground already held.”
The battle was over. The mission was successful. The Hill was conquered. But it was four days too late for our family:
Uncle Marion was killed in action, in the battle for Hill 609, on April 28, 1943. The Hill was successfully taken on May 2. Officially, the North African campaign ended May 13, 1943.
The list is lengthy at the end of the 47-page report: Wounded in Action; Killed in Action.
In the report, he is simply number 36160539. But in reality, he is our son, our brother, our uncle. He is one in a huge family of patriots – of citizens who love this country, the United States of America – of people who stand in respect for the flag, the pledge, and the National Anthem – one of dozens in this family who served and continue to serve in the armed forces and within their communities. He is an example of honor.
Now, as pride swells my throat and wet drops of love roll down my face, I know why. It is because I am an American and a piece of a great family that had an Uncle Marion.
I joined Mama in those last steps of her dying. As much as I could. From the outside looking in. This was Mama’s dying, not mine. I was very much alive and it made it all the more difficult to accept this separation that death was about to force upon us.
She turned her head and looked at me. She spoke. soft. single. syllables, but I couldn’t hear her. I couldn’t understand.
I’m tired, I thought. I’m worn. I don’t like this. I want to go backward – to yesterday – to last week – to last year. I want to hear my Mama’s voice. I want to listen closely to her. I want to soak up her every word.
Then no more movement. Eyes closed. She lay perfectly still. Not in sleep. But in the stillness that sometimes comes before death. This was a stage of death – one I’d witnessed in my Daddy, just one month prior – one I did not want to face again. A double-edged blade was stabbing the most tender place of my heart. She would never look at me again. She would never speak to me again. I yearned to hear her voice, even those soft. single. syllables, once more. I wanted to place my ear close to her mouth and listen closely. Please God, can we go back.
But there was no going back because this awful parting that was coming about between a mother and a daughter, was death, and this awful death had been compounding itself in my Mama’s life for many years. It had been initiated and implemented in a beautiful garden, and it had ruined every life since. It was aging and suffering, cancer and illness, war and killing. It had parted many mothers and daughters, and it was strong – stronger than I could any longer fight. And so I sat beside Mama and watched as she lay still, her body dying.
Suddenly, the stillness of those hours was broken by an occurrence that became a ritual of the next hours: she opened her eyes and turned her head, facing up, looking toward heaven; lifting those, purpled, bruised hands straight from her elbows, toward heaven, toward her Savior. I watched this sacrament in amazement throughout these next hours, each time understanding more about death and feeling its wicked sting. Please, God, let Mama’s body die so she can go to You and to Daddy.
I had prayed for a visible sign of Mom’s soul leaving her body. It would be such a simple thing for You to do, Lord God. I didn’t need a sign to know that my Mama was going to the Lord Jesus. I simply wanted it! And so I prayed.
Now she dwelt in this last state of her physical being, one I had not yet observed in these days of watching her die—or in the weeks of watching her struggle to breathe—or in the years of watching her vibrant body deteriorate into the old woman who now lay before me. Mama simply turned her right hand away from the sterile white sheet and raised her palm toward her Savior as she took her last breath.
I opened the Bible – the Word. I went to the Psalms and discovered that Mama had lived the Word in her death:
“Yet I am always with you,” [my Mama said],”You hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward You will take me into glory . . . earth has nothing I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:23-26 NIV)
He had held her by her right hand and had taken her to glory. And He had answered the simple prayer of a simple daughter.
And I knew that the Word would help me face life without her, that God was the strength of my heart and would be my portion forever, and I understood a bit more about death and felt a bit less of its sting.