Friday, June 11, 2021

September 4, 1944: The Other Way

 


Letter from Opa to Grandmother September 4, 1944.

Transcription:

Kansas City,
September 4, 1944

My Dearest,

I bet you were just awfully sleepy and tired at work today, and I do feel a little guilty for keeping you here so late. However, those two extra hours meant a lot, did they not?

Somehow or other, I just can't sleep late anymore. Woke up at seven this morning, but stayed in bed till nine. I spent a very lazy day; read most of the time, went to a show, and ate. Some people call that paradise, but I need several other things to give it that name. (You are one of them, and the most important one.)

You probably read the good news: Holland is invaded. Gosh I hope it won't take very long now. The Allies are said to have crossed the German border at two points, one of them being Aachen. That's where I crossed it, going the other way, though. I still expect the Nazis to make a final stand, though; probably along the Siegfried line or thereabouts.

It meant so much to me to have had you here yesterday, honey; somehow or other, our days always seem perfectly arranged, no matter what we do. I was so thrilled when I saw that second ring on your finger; let's hope it won't be too long now until it can stay there.

How did Skunkie behave during your absence? What was it you wanted me to get for him? Flea powder, or soap, or something like that? I'll get it and let you come here to fetch it.

Have you answered Stephens College yet? I wished we knew what is going to happen; it might be that you will be sorry not to have taken it. But there will always be work along your line, even in peace time. Also, we don't expect that you will need any work during peace time, unless it will be for a few years while I should be away.

I am anxious to hear what your folks have to say about your last letter to them. Will you tell me?

Well, I'll take this down to the post office, get a Reader's Digest, and waste with it the remainder of the evening.

Good night, my love,

Tom.

Opa is so much better after spending time with Grandmother. He doesn't know what's going to happen to him, but right now he knows whatever happens, she'll be there. 

For that reason alone, he can breathe.

The Allies are making headway, but as we all know, it will be a long time still until the war is over. I loved Opa's quip that he was near there, but walking "the other way." Opa's dad, August, lives north-west on the opposite side of Holland near Amsterdam, so he isn't getting the benefit of the recent Allied victories. In fact, things are about to get pretty hard for him and Emma (Opa's step-mom).

Opa and Grandmother picked out her wedding ring! I'm guessing that letter to her parents was something along the lines of "no, seriously, we're actually going to get married." It was no secret to us growing up that Grandmother's parents didn't approve of her marriage to Opa, but that he won their hearts fairly soon (so they told us).

Can't say I blame her parents, Opa has not been able to hold a job long, he got fined for window-peeking, he's from Berlin (not only German but a big city boy German), and he's not particularly religious. Oh and his parents are divorced and his step-mom is also his second cousin. 

I'd be wary too. 

Shows how easy it is to misjudge someone! 

Have you ever met someone after writing them off in your head and realized how wrong you were about them?

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

August 31, 1944: Hired

 


Letter from Opa to Grandmother, August 31, 1944.

Transcription:

Kansas City ...
August 31, 1944

Darling,

You certainly were a life saver today. I had seven dollars in my pocket, had six to pay in advance for my new room, and had not paid a penny on my old hotel bill. Coming back from the Union Station where I called you, I had 28 cents in my pocket. Your money came at one o'clock, though, and put me back into circulation. Thanks a lot, honey.

Well, things are beginning to take shape again. After some vain efforts at landing a job that would suit me and the employer both, I went back to the U.S. Employment Service and was referred by them (another lady waited on me than the time before) to an Engineering firm on Linwood Street, for a position as electrical draftsman. I went, was interviewed, and hired at the rate of 88 cents an hour. The drafting won't only be electrical but mechanical and civil as well, but what do I care. My only hope now is that I can keep this one for a while. When I told the department chief that I had been working in St. John, he replied that that's his home town. Heavens forbid that he will write to St. John about me. I believe the atmosphere in the firm is agreeable; its a utility firm which is not what I had dreamed about, but if someone would tell me that I could keep this job as long as I wanted to without interference of the sort we fear, I'll be the happiest man in the world. The way it is now, I am just scared.

Thanks for your letter, Margie. It was so cheerful and encouraging that I couldn't help but drawing some with from it; with in the future, even though one that may be far away.

I'm going to a show tonight, for I still dread the hours alone in my room, with so many unpleasant thoughts. Outside of that luxury, though I'll save every penny I can for our honey moon.

Margie, don't you think it would be a good idea for you to go to a doctor right away? Things might happen fast now. Also, I want you to go to an eye specialist and have your eyes tested. The longer you wait with that the worse it gets. One set of glasses in the family is enough.

Thanks to your letter and the job, I feel a little better today; I hope it isn't only temporary. I can hardly wait till Sunday morning to see you come in on the train. Oh, I love you so much!

Forever yours,
Tom.

Opa is making his way out of his despair. 

He landed a job! It's not his dream job, it's not as much as the last job paid, but it's a job in his field. At this point, all Opa wants is to keep a job and not be bothered. 

His mood is much better, but his fears are still heavy in his mind. He allows himself the luxury of shows to keep his mind and worries at bay. Solidarity, Opa. Solidarity. There's a reason "shows" are still very much a thing.

If Opa didn't have the support and financial help from Grandmother, he would have been pretty up a creek (or up a crick, as my Virginia southern family would say). Reminds me how small support to bridge the gap can be a life-saver. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

August 30, 1944: Dependent on You

 


Letter from Opa to Grandmother, August 30, 1944.

Transcription:

Kansas City
August 30, 1944

My darling,

It has been raining all day today, that slow, perpetual, hopeless drizzle that seems to fit Kansas City and these days so perfectly. I am sitting in a small room on the eight floor of the Frederic Hotel, which I hope to leave tomorrow.

No luck yet, no job. I still hesitate to take an ordinary laborer's job in a packing plant, but will probably end up in something like that. However, I just haven't looked very hard yet. I tried first to locate Johnny, who has moved away without leaving an address. The jobs as a draftsmen are in war industry which I can't take without special permission, and we know what it means to get that permission. I gave up looking in the early afternoon, just didn't have the strength any more. If I should every get out of this mess (which I doubt) I shall leave this cursed town and never come back again. Right now, I am hoping that the night won't be so long, so I can have your letter in the morning.

Marjorie, I guess I am awfully weak. I know that I should not write to you like this, for you feel lousy yourself. I should write you a nice letter and cheer you up, but I can't do it. Pardon me, honey. You are engaged to a coward. There are thousands and millions of people who are in positions much worse than mine; think of the starving peoples in Greece; think of the bombed-out families in China, in Japan. I always have to think of my mother, who had lost one thing after the other till everything she had held dear was taken away from her, and she still kept going. And here am I, in a situation which, objectively, is far from being desperate, and am without ambition or courage.

No, that isn't quite true either, for I still have the ambition. Last night when we were sitting on the park steps, I realized, probably for the first time in my life, that I am no longer independent and no longer able to direct my own fate within the limits which nature (or God?) has set; and also for the first time, I was glad for this dependency. Honey, I am dependent on you. It's you who gave me my ambition, my goal in life. Like the soldier, who has an ideal or a happy home to come back to, fights better and more efficiently than the one who fights because of hatred, so I will now somehow get my strength back, because I have you to fight for. Also, I know that you will stand by me and help me. Words of thanks are vain between two people who love each other, but I only hope, darling, that there will be a day when I can make up for all help and support and love which you are giving me now. I have been terribly selfish in my love for you, and I know only too well how much more you are giving me than I can ever give you.

It is getting dark now, and I am thinking about yesterday. Every little detail stands in my mind so clearly and beautifully, that, were I a painter, it would make a picture as wonderful as one of Raphael. There were clouds over our happiness last night and the night before, but they made the few moments of laughter stand out in more glorious brilliance. The moment we bought the ring; the way you looked when you sipped the Martini at Price's; your new coat; the orchestra and music in the Penguin Room; your face coming close to mine and your body at the Snyderhof -- these and so many other, smaller things will now shine out and mark themselves down deep inside me, while without the clouds and darkness around them, they would be lost among the thousands of little things we did together. It seems to be a law of living that suffering is necessary to create beauty and happiness; I am only afraid that happiness and days like yesterday, on the other hand, do their part to make suffering even deeper.

An awful thought came to me today which, like other things I wrote today, I should not mention to you: imagine that the thing we fear most should happen really soon, so that we shall not see each other anymore. If this should be the case (and it might) I'll give you here my word of honor that I shall do everything in my power and shall neglect no way, legal or illegal, to get us back together again. Again, this is selfish, for I know that under certain circumstances you would be happier without me; nevertheless, that's what I'll have to do.

For the time being, you should still send my letters to me at General Delivery, to Thomas Walter. I hope that tomorrow I find a job and a place to stay.

I wrote to Winton today, and to his folks, thanking them for their hospitality. Also, I felt in the mood of doing a little writing and started on a short story which sort of tells the life of my mother. It's not going to be anything, though; will probably end in the waste paper basket before it is half done.

Good bye, my darling, and good night. I wish that some day I can see you really happy.

Tom.

Opa is at the bottom of a dark hole, with very little energy to find his way out. The only light he can see is Grandmother, like a faint, swinging lantern above. Dependency on another human was something Opa once scoffed, but he sees that this tethering gives him strength to keep going. 

Opa can't help but think of his mother and countless others who are suffering right now, which only adds to his shame for how he is feeling. He doesn't deny his despair, as much as he'd like to hide it, he can't hide it from Grandmother. 

How I wish he had kept that story of his mother, even if it was just notes in a margin. 

Is this scary to Grandmother? Is she seeing a side of Opa she never thought she would? He has been steady and optimistic throughout continual challenges. I don't know what Grandmother is feeling. I know when my usually steady, optimistic husband feels down or defeated, it's unsettling. He is not perfect, nor do I expect his optimism to be untouchable, but his optimism is a consistency I rely on. I don't notice how much until it wavers. As we've grown, we've learned how to carry each other through when we aren't ourselves.

For Grandmother and Opa, this moment is a true test of their relationship more than outside disapprovals or cultural expectations. Can they shoulder the times when the other person is weak and weary?

For Opa, the art of hope shows up in their small, sweet moments of connection - like a painting by Raphael.

Friday, June 4, 2021

August 27, 1944: Thanks for just being you

 


Letter from Opa to Grandmother, August 27, 1944.

Transcription:

St. John
August 27, 1944

Darling Margie,

You don't know how good it was to get your letter today. Margie, I am very sorry about the letter I wrote, for I realize now more than before how much it must have hurt you. Your weekend with Kiefer was very likely spoiled by it.

Just now your phone call came, while I was writing this letter. Hearing your voice made me feel so much reassured, it was like hypnosis. I wanted to say so much to you; tell you how ashamed I am now about the letter, but there was a lump in my throat that kept me from saying the simplest things. Also, my landlord and landlady were in the room, so I couldn't talk freely. You cried at the phone, darling, and I have trouble now keeping my tears away. Oh, why is the world so cruel?

As I told you over the phone, I got my permit today and shall leave for McPherson tomorrow morning. It may be that I get to see you before you get this letter, for I hope to leave McPherson the same day. I couldn't stand seeing the Shelleys or anyone there now.

I talked to my landlady last night about the deal, and she was wonderful about it. Naturally, she does not believe any of the stories they tell about me, and it was good to hear someone who thinks I am on the level. I can hardly wait seeing you, and yet I am a little scared of it. Darling, these days have shown me more than anything else how much I love you and how much your love means to me. There still must be some way to iron out all the difficulties; if only I had my old energy and fighting power back.

I guess this is the last letter I write to you before I see you, unless I should be detained in McPherson longer than I expect to.

Thanks for your letter and phone call, honey; and thanks for just being you.

Love,
Tom.

Opa is still feeling the grips of his desperation, and it's frustrating him that he feels so helpless. Grandmother's voice is healing like hypnosis, yet it makes him feel even worse for being so honest in his letter. He can't stop being honest, though. I love that about him. He wants to put on a happy face, buck up and be brave, but he just doesn't have it in him.

To me, the fact that he feels like he can be honest, vulnerable, and not always happy/strong/optimistic around Grandmother speaks to the depth and value of their relationship. 

I'm so appreciative for the people like his landlady who believed in him, and reminded him that he was good, valuable, and worth believing. She is just one of the many people who were on the peripherals of support for Opa, proving again and again that he was not alone.

Opa felt especially convinced of his love for and from Grandmother. Grandmother was the person who made him feel less alone. For no other reason than "just being" herself.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

August 26, 1944: Carefree Again?


Letter from Opa to Grandmother, August 26, 1944.

Transcription:

St. John 
August 26, 1944

Dearest Margie,

By now you will have that letter I wrote last night, and I am afraid it hurt you very much. The more I think about it now, the more I realize that I should have waited with telling you about the way I feel until we see each other. I received your letter this morning; it was such a sweet one, darling, and you seemed so happy. It gave me quite an uplift and, without reason, I feel better now. Oh Margie, do you think there may yet be a day when we can be carefree again? A day when peace will be restored to the world and people come back to their senses? It takes a great deal for real happiness, though. Needed is not only personal happiness and contentment, but also the knowledge that people everywhere have a chance to enjoy life with us.

I am staying in my room as much as I can, for I feel terribly conspicuous around town. This morning, I read quite a bit in Wells and Plato and played some solitary. Time goes slow when there is no work to do, and -- what's the worst -- there is too much time for thinking. How much do I wish that you were here now, but that is a selfish wish. Maybe Eileen Carswell was right when she told you that you wouldn't be happy with me.

Today, I received a bunch of blanks from the State Department concerning my pre-examination case. What an irony of fate. (I wished someone took that lump out of my throat.) Any application for citizenship will now in all probability have to wait until the war is nothing but a memory; and who knows? by that time they may have sent me back to Germany.

Even though everything else looks black, the war news looks good. The liberation of Paris was quite an affair, was it not? It was very decent of the Allies to let French troops themselves take care of that. My sister is (or was) in one of two southern French cities: Grenoble or Lyon. Grenoble has been retaken by the Aliies already, Lyon is being sieged. I may find out before so long if and how she got through this war. I reread some of her letters today; it has been seven years now since I saw her last, but now there is at least a beam of hope that I may see her before too long.

Give Skunkie my affection. They talk so much about a dog's life, but what's wrong with living like a dog? He never has to worry about food or clothing, his relationship with other dogs is uncomplicated and straight-forward. If Skunkie likes another dog, he plays with him without worrying whether that dog was born in Lawrence or Manhattan or Berlin or Tokyo. Ever hear of a dog having to fill out an income tax receipt? No, only his masters, the superior species 'Homo sapiens' has to do that. If I were a philosopher, I would try to conform to Skunkie's principles of life.

It may be a good thing that you did not get to take advantage of that ride to Newton of McPherson, for I could never have gotten a permit to go there in such a short period of time, especially now. Both of us would have been disappointed, would we not?

It was my intention not to write anything but brief notes to you until we see each other so that you can think the situation over without any subjective influence from me, but here I am on the third page already. Somehow, I have a greater desire now than ever to talk to you or at least to write to you, and especially today I have too much time to forget about it. Do not misunderstand that though; I still want you to make your decision for yourself and shall accept whatever you may come to decide. If you see it better for us to break, I will promise to take this decision without argument, but I do have to see you and take it orally from you. To think that two days ago the thought that anything could ever sever us was just an impossibility! Maybe it is yet. Maybe, someday I'll wake up and find out that all that happened in these last few weeks was just a nightmare, and, on awakening, I find you next to me. (No law against dreaming, is there?)

I am afraid this letter is terribly mixed up, both in contents and in form, but so are my thoughts; forgive me. I can hardly await the day when the bus drives into Lawrence and I can look into your crystal-ball eyes again, even though our meeting this time will not be as beautiful and happy as a few weeks ago in Newton.

Don't worry, darling; and, please, do not be sad or hurt.

With all my love,
Tom.

Opa makes a good point about a dog's life.

This letter shows the perspective after a night's sleep, but Opa is still reeling with too much alone time to think and re-think about everything. 

He's worried he has said too much, he hurt Grandmother, and that he is unfairly leading her to make a choice in his favor. (I thought it was humorous that he thought a decision like this could be made without thinking of him.)

He is sticking to his offer though: she can jump ship if she wants to. He knows that the path forward is incredibly vague, if not dangerous, and he wants to give her a chance to say she's out before the real hard stuff starts. In his last letter he told her that being with him meant always being looked at, talked about, conspicuous. He was used to it and he still hated it. St. John was particularly terrible for this. I think he felt really alone there. He didn't want her to feel this way, and though he continues to dream of a day when there is peace and it doesn't matter where you are born: he's starting to realize that this hope might be too optimistic. 

This quote got me:
Oh Margie, do you think there may yet be a day when we can be carefree again? A day when peace will be restored to the world and people come back to their senses? It takes a great deal for real happiness, though. Needed is not only personal happiness and contentment, but also the knowledge that people everywhere have a chance to enjoy life with us.
Opa is realizing that at some point in all of history, someone somewhere is the conspicuous one. Can he be happy in that world?

This is the second mention of rereading his family's letters. This time he is re-reading his sister's letters. The news of Paris being reclaimed is good news, the kind of aching good news that you know will be followed by stories of what happened before the victory. Opa doesn't even know if he has his sister anymore. He's hoping that she is still there somewhere, and that there is a chance for them to see each other again. It's been seven years. 

Opa wraps up his letter full of emotions and scattered hope and doubt with "don't worry... do not be sad or worried." Nice try, but Grandmother is likely on the other side with a pit in her stomach. I don't know what she's feeling, but this is the relationship she has fought for, against the wisdom of her parents (and apparently Eileen Carswell). She must know that this is a moment for her: either she's all in, or she takes the last exit.

Monday, May 31, 2021

August 25, 1944: I Was Happy

 


Letter from Opa to Grandmother, August 25, 1944.

Transcription:

St. John
August 25, 1944

My dearest Margie,

The worst has happened, and maybe more is yet to come: I am fired. Today was my last day of work with the National. Things have gotten a little too involved. I do not feel like writing details now, but I hope to be able to see you soon. Briefly my plans for the immediate future: As soon as I get my permit from the U.S. Attorney (which may take somewhat longer now than usually) I shall proceed first to McPherson to see my draft board concerning the possibilities for immediate voluntary induction into the army, then to Kansas City to hunt some kind of a job. On the way, of course, I'll stop at Lawrence. I shall wire you before I get there; please notify your house to inform you if my wire comes, for I may not have much time. Also, please don't mention anything about the deal to anyone.

So much for the naked facts. Margie, I feel as lousy as I never felt before in all my life, and there have been plenty of bad times. Before all this happened, I was happy. Here I had a new job, finally a permanent one and a job I liked -- had my education which I had worked for so terribly hard -- and, most important of all: had you, and with you the hope for a beautiful, happy home life; someone to love and someone who love me, who cared about me. And now, it seems as though everything I built up was blown down by a wind, to leave me alone to start from scratch. This time, however, I have no longer the ambition, the energy, or the hopes I used to have. There is a black mark against me which can never be erased.

Don't misunderstand me, honey: I still hope (how could I live without it?) that you are not leaving me and that you still have some belief in me, but our plans can't be realized any longer. It was my intention to write a long letter to you this weekend, reminding you of October 14 and of your feelings towards it, but at present I feel as though I am no longer allowed to ever ask you to marry me. I want you to be happy, carefree, and contented. Life with me would mean for you to live under constant suspicion, to be talked about by the neighbors, and looked at with the eyes of gossip. I am used to it to a certain extent, and I hate it. could not bear, however, to see it happen to you.

I do not know what the future may bring and I do not dare to anticipate. Darling, only with a burning heart can I say this: I must let you be free and find someone who can give you the happiness and the life which I wanted to give you, but I can no longer. Maybe I should not write this to you but wait and tell you next week when we see each other, but certain things are easier written than said. It will cut a deep wound into me to give you up, a wound that can never be healed. To see you unhappy, however, would be death.

I shall see you once more next week; we shall decide then after you have heard and considered everything, whether we will be walking the same road or whether our paths will never cross again.

With eternal love,
Tom.

This letter breaks my heart. It is the first time in the whole process from leaving Germany to today that he genuinely loses almost all hope. He's lost his job. 
It seems everything I have built up as been blown down by a wind, to leave me alone, to start from scratch.
That is the sum total of humanity's desperation. Destruction by a mere wind, leaving us alone to start from scratch.

This only healing answer to this kind of easy devastation (which is true and extant) is that we are not alone. 

Even when we are, we aren't. Someone out there wants to help us. Always. I know this because I know some of these people. Sometimes it's easier to find that person, sometimes we push them away because it hurts too much to believe and hope again. 

We need to give ourselves a minute, a day, a month, to recognize and grieve what we've lost. We can do that with others, and then we collect ourselves and build again, like the beautiful stupid humans we are. It's really amazing. Every time I see images of people sweeping up the dust after a hurricane or landslide, I think: how can they do that? They are surrounded by debris and destruction and they are sweeping. How stupid it must feel. But they are not alone. Everyone grabs a broom. And somehow it heals. 

It's important to remember that emotions are not fact, but feelings. I don't mean they aren't valid, I just mean they aren't permanent.

It's important to know this because I think part of the reason we are afraid to express our real emotion in real-time is because people respond to it as if it is a fact that persists. We guard ourselves and others against this because it's hard enough to feel the feeling without having to add twenty caveats.

When Opa says there is a black mark against him which will never be erased, that is his most authentic expression of how he is feeling in the moment. He doesn't need someone to convince him that it isn't true. By the time the letter arrives in Grandmother's mailbox, the feeling has already softened, become less burdensome, and maybe even evaporated. 

Feeling your emotions and expressing them in real time with an open hand so they can leave when they need to, that's the way to do it. Shutting them down and locking them in a vault- bad idea - you create your own Pandora's box of some super charged emotions. Expressing them and having to defend them over and over to others only creates a groove for that emotion. You're required to keep feeling it in order for it to be real, in order to defend it. The truth is: you don't have to keep feeling something for it to be real. That's what we need to remember.

Emotions are perhaps the most real thing in the world, and because of that, they can't last too long. If they are trapped, they become something else.

The real facts I did learn in this letter, through the lens of Opa's authentic emotion, is that he really loved Grandmother so much that she was both the reason for his holding on to hope, and the reason he might lose it all. I learned that even optimistic and resilient Opa felt like it was too much at times. I learned that this moment, which felt like the biggest tragedy and destruction, created a path which altered the entire course of Opa's life. 

I never heard about any of this. These were not the stories Opa chose to share. He talked about his life after this, he talked about his life before this. The important thing was not this hinge, but the opening it allowed. 

In this moment in this letter, he doesn't know any of that. All he knows is how fragile life is, how fragile his freedom is, and how deeply in love he is. 

He hopes he is not alone, because when he was not alone, he was happy.

Friday, May 28, 2021

August 24, 1944: Double Jeopardy

 

Letter from Opa to Grandmother, August 24, 1944.

Transcription:

St. John
August 24, 1944

Darling, 

Today was a nice day to work, cool and calm, so that we got to shoot 15 holes in spite of a rather late start. The day didn't end up so nice, though. An official from the F.B.I. came here, to investigate in that old story where I was supposed to have been window-peeking. I got a bad start with him; he was at the office of Mr. Davison, the fellow who owns the house into which I believed I had seen Mary Wallen go. I was supposed to call his number and was sort of disgusted that Davison would start that stuff again, so I didn't call him at first. He called me down for that, probably rightly so. Then, I told the story, just as I told it in court, but he too didn't believe it. Well, I can't help that. I am afraid they may do something about it, don't know what yet. The F.B.I. man was rather unpleasant compared with those officials from the F.B.I. who come for routine investigations. He said he didn't like my "attitude," thought he had caught me in lies, etc. I was terribly nervous, but I don't think I said anything that wasn't so. Probably, the thing will be all over town by now. I believe I'm going to ask for a transfer.

This is just a short letter, honey; pardon me for it, but I am still kind of upset and also have to go and fix a cable break.

Lots of love,

Opa didn't sign this letter. I don't want to read too much into it, but I think it indicates just how upset he was. He was always the supreme editor, and would read things over before sending it out. This didn't get read over very much, if at all. 

This is bad news. The FBI is back, asking questions about the window-peeking incident (which happened July 31). It seems they came at the behest of Mr. Davison (what does he have against Opa?). The FBI officer is not kind to Opa and interrogates him with the assumption of guilt. 

Here's my question: how is this still a thing? Opa went to court and was fined for the event. He literally paid his dues. Isn't this some kind of double jeopardy thing? What else could they do? We'll find out.