I was suffering a bout of insomnia and decided to go through some of my old stuff. I wrote this back in 2000. It's strange sometimes to look back and see the progression of some the lessons I learned and how they affected my future. It's a little long, but there was a lot to put into it.
I hope it means something for you.
My sister Diane recently showed me a collection of letters that were among some of my mother’s possessions. They are providing me a great deal of insight into many different aspects of my parent’s lives that I had not previously been aware of.
My parents divorced when I was 10, and the end of that marriage was not pleasant. Since they both died when I was still too young to really understand the reasons for the failure of the relationship there are many questions that will remain unanswered for me. I can only go by what I experienced directly. I remember many nights when I could hear them arguing in the living room. I would lie in bed listening to the sharp words through my bedroom wall desperately hoping it would stop. I remember one particular night after I heard one angry retort after another I called out to my mother. The argument stopped suddenly and she came into my room.
“What’s wrong?” she asked quietly.
“Please stop fighting. I don’t like it.” I said
“It’s ok, Danny.” She said as she stroked my cheek, “We’ll be all right.”
“Ok. Can I talk to Dad?”
She gave me a kiss and a hug and went back into the living room, and I could hear her say to my father, “Your son wants to talk to you.”
My father walked in a few seconds later. His step was slower and gentler than I was used to hearing.
“What’s a matter son?” he asked. Maybe it’s just me looking back with a tainted view, but I would swear he was close to crying when he asked me that question. My father was never one to cry.
“I just want you and Mom to stop fighting.”
“Ok. We will. But don’t worry, we’ll be fine. Ok?”
“Ok.” I sat up and gave him a hug, and he held me tight.
“You go to sleep now. I love you.” He said.
“I love you too.”
Looking back I realize that this occurred near the end of the relationship. I have no idea what, if any impact this incident had on them, but for me it came to define in later years what I thought their relationship was like. It was the last thing I saw, and the first thing I remembered when I thought about their marriage. I allowed this to color my thinking without considering the fact that they had been married for almost thirty years at that time. I assumed their relationship had always been like this.
As I began to read my mother’s letters, I found they had a union that was worlds removed from my perceptions of it. Some of these letters are written in the very early years of their marriage, around 1943-‘44. In some my father is in Europe fighting in World War II. She is writing to her parents in Petaluma, California, from where she had moved to Cleveland, Ohio where my father’s family lived. She is pregnant with my oldest brother Bill. She writes about daily life, the clothes she is sewing for the baby, the price of food and the things she is doing with his family. She also talks about my father. She talks of how much she misses him, and how much she wants to see him again. She tells her parents what a “great guy” he is. There is no question that she loves him.
There are also letters from my father to her parents. He talks about what a great wife she is, and how deeply he loves her. He talks about how much he misses her and their son while he is overseas.
I will never know all the reasons for their divorce. I will never know exactly what led to their disillusionment. Some answers are locked within lives that I have no access to. There are times when answers to some things are simply beyond my reach, and no matter how great I think my need to know is, that chasm between question and answer is not going to be bridged. As much as I cry out what I think are the right questions the only response I get is the empty echo of my own voice. With that in mind I look at what I do have at my disposal, and I find that though the end of my parents’ marriage was not happy, the end did not define the whole. I am given the opportunity to see the beginning that I was not there to see. I can infuse my memories with some of the happiness that I have discovered did indeed exist in their life together. I can see that there was a time when their relationship was a good example of what a marriage should be. I can only guess at the changes that occurred between them that led them to their point of no return. They were probably very gradual in their nature. A slight change of habit here, a different need appearing there. A desire expressed by one refused by the other. I don’t know. There is always more to any situation than I can see.
The first document in this binder is a poem that was apparently written by a good friend of my mother about her. I do not know exactly when as it is not dated.
Once there was a little girl,
A sweet and wholesome maid,
Who heard of glamorous Hollywood,
And its lure could not evade.
She thought she’d like to be a star,
And live in regal splendor
With closets full of lovely gowns
And rings on every finger.
She envisioned every week a check
Too big for simple math
And clearly saw outside her door
The crowds awaiting autographs.
And so we find this lovely miss
Leaving friends and home
Telling those she loves farewell
To seek fame on her own.
But this little country lass
Fools no one with such chatter,
It isn’t a career she wants
It doesn’t really matter.
What her heart is really set on
What she dreams about at night
Is the day she’ll finally meet The One
And know that He’s just right.
In a cozy little cottage
She’d love to settle down
And raise a happy family
In a shady country town.
Her friend compares what she initially thought she wanted out of life, and what she later realized that she truly wanted. She did indeed go to Hollywood for a little while, and did some acting and dated some actors that went on to make names for themselves. Yet she also left it behind when it did not satisfy her true desire.
We all seem to start out that way. We walk into life thinking we know what we want, only to find that what we truly want is either something completely different from what we are pursuing, or something we had all along. In his book, “Lake Woebegone Days” Garrison Keillor says it this way “Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.”
My mother was a beautiful woman within and without. In her letters I find myself marveling that the woman I knew who had all the right words of comfort for me growing up, and all the answers to my questions, knew so little at times. She asks her parents for advice on many things that I took for granted. She had to learn things too. There was a time when she needed to depend on her own mother for different things. It was a time when the things parents passed on to their children were still considered worthwhile.
There are letters to my mother from my father, telling her of events that are happening and hoping he will be home soon. My father was not what I would term a sentimental man, but the pain of their separation is infused in the words of his letters. He was not as hard a man as I remember. He was lost at times, as I am too. He was a much better man than I have given him credit for. He was the man who was my father, and he was worthy of the love I gave him even with his flaws.
It was a time when they longed for each other’s touch, and valued each other’s company. It was a time that I had forgotten, or perhaps had allowed to be overshadowed by the pain of their divorce.
There are other letters in this collection as well. They are from friends overseas in the army. They describe different aspects of the war. Some of them have holes in the paper where the wartime censors have cut out words that describe their locations. I had always heard that this kind of thing had occurred but I had never seen it with my own eyes. Somehow as I read these 60-year-old letters, they didn’t seem so old. The physical connection of the actual paper that I was touching brought everything closer over that expanse of time. So much of our history is tucked away in the boxes in our attic. We have so much to learn from our past, and yet we try so hard to forget it sometimes. Sometimes we don’t want to give up our preconceived ideas for the incontrovertible truth, and sometimes we would just rather not change. It’s simply too much trouble. After all, it takes a lot of work to change your life when you find out that some of the basic experiences that have shaped you as a person were based on misconceptions. The marriage that I saw end in anger and bitterness began with love and devotion, even longing. It was richer than I had imagined, and all the years of my life that were influenced by acrimony are now found to be incomplete. This incompleteness within me was what caused me to search so hard for a greater love, and a greater peace to put my faith in. It was this that allowed me to discover the healing that takes place when I experience both the receiving, and the giving, of forgiveness.
So then this begs the question: How will this change me? What difference will this make, and who will see it?
The answer is: I haven’t got a clue.
The fact of the matter is that I am a man who, when faced with a personal epiphany, often expects to see great change in my life when I am on the mountaintop. Yet shortly after I return to the day to day tasks within the valley the changes I see aren’t all that dramatic. I have a hard time following through on some things.
But I will say this: I will appreciate that which God has blessed me with more readily.
My wife says we should live every day as if it were our last, and having so far survived a brain tumor she is more than qualified to make that statement. I agree with her, but I have no idea what I would do if I knew today might be my last. Did my father ever wonder about that when he was in the middle of a battle? Did my mother ask herself this when she was lonely and waiting to see if her husband would come home? Do we ever bother to wonder about this when we don’t face a crisis in our lives?
If today were my last day would I bother to do the dishes or mow the lawn? Would I still take out the garbage? I doubt it. Or would I do the normal things with a greater appreciation of my ability to do them? Would I be able to spend more time with my wife and children, or would I only be able to look at them and wonder how I could possibly say in one day all the things that should have been said over a lifetime that could convey the depth of the love I have for them? Perhaps we can live our last day only as well as we have lived the days that have gone before it. Can I make each day the sum of all that have gone before? Can I live well enough to be certain all of those whom I love will know of my love for them if I never speak another word to them?
To express a lifetime of love to someone takes a lifetime. It requires every day that relationship exists, because each day builds on the next. It is a cumulative effect. It can’t be done in one day; rather it must be done every day. And if it is done every day, as it was the first day then the relationship will never end. Because when it comes right down to it the only love that is capable of surviving in its purest form is the love of God, and that will live beyond us as a legacy to those that come after. The legacy we leave our children goes far beyond what is written in our wills. There is always more left unsaid and unseen that still influences generations yet to come.
Recently my pastor and his wife celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. At the surprise reception the congregation had for them their children said a few words. I will never forget the words of their oldest son. He said that while growing up people would inevitably ask him what it was like being a “pastor’s kid”. He said, “It didn’t matter to me that my dad was a pastor and my mom was a pastor’s wife, because they were always my parents first. We always knew they loved us. We always had priority.” He honored his parents by giving back to them what they had given him: the love that never dies.
So I must consider the truth and substance of the legacy I leave from this day forward, and pray that I leave behind something worth keeping.
©Dan Bode 2000