Grateful for Small Things

I recently read a book on the recommendation of a friend. The December Project by Sara Davidson is a collection of thoughts she shared through conversations with Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, a higly acclaimed Jewish leader who landed in the US as a young man after fleeing from the Nazis.

The book inspires and assists people as they approach the ultimate check-out point in life. Its final section is a set of exercises to help people navigate their personal last chapters. I found several of those ideas to be applicable to life in general. They could easily be adapted to any situation, at any season of life—good habits to nurture regardless of age.

I will share some of those over the next few posts, offering them as the first building stones for a gap-spanning soul bridge to work toward healing our world.

The first exercise: “Give thanks. . .Why not begin each day by giving thanks?” One way to do this is to make a “gratitude walk” a regular practice. What is a gratitude walk? A short walk you can take anytime or anywhere. Attune yourself to the surroundings and feel gratitude for what you see, hear, or think.

Items in your home can spur memories from the recent or distant past. Offer a grateful heart. The scenic beauty of your local park or a vacation trip generate many reasons to be thankful. Smells in your kitchen can inspire thanks for nourishing food.

Another of the tips suggests hanging a bell in a place that often moves, such as on your car’s visor or mirror, or a frequently used door in your home. Whenever you hear the bell, pause a moment to breathe and think a thought of gratitude.

Lately I have felt overwhelmed by situations or events out of my control. It is hard to feel thankful. Recent election results come to mind, as well as the national news headlines. I find that I have to look small in order to find inspiration for gratitude, but small can be wondrous and beautiful.

April is a favorite time of year with the abundance of spring flowers. Two of my favorites appear on bushes, lilacs and spirea. Looking small, to the delicate whorls and tiny petals, I find reason to pause in wonder.

Together, the lilacs and spirea are a patriotic pair. We celebrate red, white, and blue as our national colors. But what do you get when you mix red and blue? Purple, of course. Mixed together, we are a beautiful spring bouquet, as intricate and miraculous as the tiny flowerlets of the spirea and lilac blossoms. I am thankful for the array of our differences.

While hunting Easter eggs yesterday, Grandson and I discovered a miniature miracle. Remember Charlotte’s Web? We found a clutch of newly-hatched and itty-bitty spiders dancing on invisible threads above the daylily leaves in our yard. These tiny creatures know nothing of the world’s human events. They just go about doing their spider things on a miniscule scale. I am thankful for the opportunity to peek into their lives, for the moment we spent watching on the bright spring afternoon, and the gift of being a witness to their launch.

Think small. You can always find something marvelous and be thankful.

 

Grandmother’s Stories

I remember being fascinated by the stories my grandmother told of her early days. Horses and wagons. Moving to Kansas in a covered wagon. The tornado which destroyed their farmhouse a few months before my dad was born. The floods they endured after record cloudbursts up-river.

What kind of stories will I be able to tell my grandchildren? Or my children theirs? What could happen if we don’t take immediate steps to change the direction we’re headed? These might become the good old days of fairy tales and adventure stories.

Just imagine. . .

The silver-haired woman smoothed locks of the squirming girl child in front of her. “Hold still, Cam, dear. Two minutes. I’ll get your braids done.”

“Aw, Gran,” the child protested. “I hate when you fix my hair. It hurts.”

“The longer we wait, the more it will hurt. Shush now and sit still.” She combed the locks with knobby fingers, veins of age rising on the backs of her hands. “If only I had a comb.” The woman sighed.

“What’s a comb, Gran?”

“It’s a tool to help work out the knots in a little girl’s hair.”

“You used to have a comb, didn’t you? Years ago, when you were little?”

“I had many things, Cam.”

“Tell me.”

“We had plenty of combs and brushes for our hair. And our teeth.”

“Teeth! You combed knots out of your teeth?”

Gran laughed. “Not exactly. We brushed our teeth to keep them healthy.”

“So they wouldn’t fall out of your mouth, right?”

“You remember, child. Yes. We had a lot of things you’d never believe.”

“Like what?”

“Like cars, to drive us wherever we wanted to go.”

“On wheels?”

“With rubber tires. And we had a whole house for every family. And plenty to eat, with appliances to fix our food.”

“What’s a ‘plance’?”

Gran laughed. “Appliance,” she pronounced the word carefully. “Appliances were tools for a house. There were refrigerators for cooling our food to keep it from spoiling, and stoves to cook our meals. We had tools that would chop our food, or mix it up so we could bake cakes and pies in our ovens.”

The old woman’s fingers worked quickly, easing tangles from the child’s hair. She traced a part down the middle of her granddaughter’s head and tossed half the tresses to the front, across Cam’s chest.

“Tell me about the water,” Cam said.

“Oh yes. There was water, running from faucets in the kitchens and bathrooms—water to wash our food—and the dishes we ate on. We had water to wash ourselves. Even our hair!”

“You washed hair?”

“My yes. There’s nothing that feels so fine as a soft and silky head of clean hair.”

“And you could wash every day?”

“Every single day. Twice if we wanted to.”

“What about the flushes?”

“Our fancy toilets? Every family had one or two in their houses—special thrones for a privy. And you could flick the handle on the tank and flush your products down with swirling water.”

“Like magic.”

“It seems so now, little Cam. It didn’t seem magical to me then. When you have so much that is right at your fingertips, you get lazy. And you take it all for granted.”

“Like it will always be there?”

“Exactly. Like it was always there and always will be. Then something happens that shakes you awake and you realize how lucky you have been.”

Gran finished the second braid, knotted the grimy ends and tied a bit of twine around it.

“Tell me the story again, Gran. Tell me about how you lost my grandpa.”

Gran removed a polished stick from her own silver hair and shook her locks until they cascaded around her shoulders. “What—has Philip given you a day off?”

Cam grinned. “He’s off somewhere with the scouts. Tell me the story again.”

“About Grandpa Stefano?”

“Yes.”

“Ah. That story.” Gran combed her own hair, smoothed it into one long tress and twisted it to the top of her head. Holding it with one hand, she fished the polished stick from her worn skirt pocket and worked it through the twist until her hair was again secured neatly on top of her head. “I think you’ve heard this tale before. Where should I begin?”

“Where you always do.”

“Of course. It’s always best to begin at the beginning. Come with me, Cam. Let’s walk.”

Imagine the wasteland where Cam and her grandmother would walk. Then think of the huge wildfires we’ve seen each of the last two springs. Think of the erratic and unpredictable weather patterns. Think of the epidemic of earthquakes influenced by fracking procedures. We could be one, maybe two, generations from a life very different from what we now know. Our choices matter very  much.

Vote, while you still can. Vote for a candidate who respects the voices of the little guys. If we can’t change our leadership, our landscape and our future could look very bleak.

 

Diversity Lends Stability

One of the first lessons in Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is “Beware the One-Party State.” Isn’t that what we have now in our country? If not yet, we are certainly approaching it. There’s something immoral, unethical, and deeply wrong with a system that inaugurates a candidate even though his opposition won the approval of voters by a significant majority. There’s also something immoral, unethical, and deeply wrong with a system that allows the majority party in Congress to re-draw voting district lines so their candidates have a clear advantage.

It doesn’t take much intelligence to realize a society is stronger and more stable if all views have a voice in our capitals. The great art of negotiation and compromise benefits us all. We have been created with a wondrous variety in interests, opinions, and talents. Rather than try to squelch those who hold differing views and talents, we’d all be better people if we tried to understand and learn from those who are different.

Diversity lends stability. Sound familiar?

Those of us fascinated by the study of science understand that ecosystems thrive when populated with a wide variety of species. In such vibrant systems, even if one species is decimated by a disease, others can adapt to fill the thinning ranks. If an area is home to only one kind of plant, and a pest or disease invades, the area is laid waste very quickly.

Contrary to some popular beliefs, science and scientists don’t really have an agenda to thrust on the rest of us. Scientists are curious thinkers. They notice something in their world and they want to know why it is the way it is. They watch,  measure, take things apart, get into the very smallest building blocks with increasingly technological equipment. And they keep asking questions. Ecologists noted over and over that “Diversity of species lends stability to an ecosystem.”

Even if you’re not a fan of modern science, maybe you are concerned with finances and the economy. My advisors recommend a retirement plan that utilizes multiple funds, guarding against the dire possibility that one failure would wipe out your life savings. (“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”) Many people have watched their pensions disappear after economic disasters in recent years. Let’s not watch our entire country go the same way, with a government run by one party that answers to a few wealthy individuals.

Diversity lends stability.

If, for no other reason, this one reason makes it important for people to vote. Those of us with the opportunity to cast votes in an upcoming election must take the opportunity seriously. My congressional district is one of those. Advance voting is already open and I voted today. I voted for the candidate of the “other” party—the one not in power in Washington. To my friends and neighbors in this 4th district, I urge you to vote as well. Cast a vote to support a diverse Congress. Vote for James Thompson because diversity lends stability.

The Unknown Factor in any Book

This has been a strange week for me, reading two books simultaneously. Both are good books, and neither probably would have been one I would pull from a library shelf had I not encountered them individually somehow. However, I am not sorry to have read them. And reading them together produced a strange melding of thoughts from within, reminding me that the one unknown quantity in any book I might write lies with the reader. Active reading is a creative process, as much as the writing endeavor. Each reader will understand the content of a book, essay or poem within the parameters of her own personal history, making the read a unique experience for every person.

The two books I have been reading are On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder and Wisdom Chaser by Nathan Foster. Put them in the context of my need to search for building blocks to start bridging gaps in our current society, and interesting things happen.

If I find some things to remember in a book I read, I consider the book to be a great book. With Foster’s chasing of elusive wisdom, each chapter included some points he’d learned from climbing mountains with his dad. Described with poetic clarity, many of his points resounded in my soul. For example, Foster described a concept of time. “When we share our time, is this not the pinnacle of human sacrifice? . . .The only thing I have any control over is what I do in this fleeting moment. Time, my most valuable possession, is quite possibly my only real possession.”

And we fritter away so much of that precious treasure. Leaping to Snyder, I find a chapter exhorting us to “Be Kind to our Language.”  “Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”

Ah. The internet. Fortunate is the person who hasn’t been lured into skipping from one site to another, conveniently linked together with the seeming purpose to see how long those webworms can keep you distracted from the rest of your life. Too often I tell myself “I have ten minutes. I’ll just check email.” And then–THEN–I see something that I just have to look up, and something else, and before I know it, an hour has passed and I’m almost late to an appointment. And I have accomplished nothing except wasting sixty minutes of my precious time, stolen by the internet.

The internet, a practiced thief. It is one of the best, for it steals your time with no apology whatsoever. A theft of time is perhaps one of the most heinous of crimes, for along with lost time is lost potential, those things you might have accomplished if you’d directed your efforts elsewhere. Where might we be now if we had not been seduced since childhood by the ease and temptation of impersonal connections online?

Select a book. Enlighten yourself. Escape with some well-crafted characters. But decide when to return to your life, and close the book with a book mark. To be continued. Books are great, aren’t they? Snyder recommended a few books to help us put today’s trending events into perspective. How do they compare with historical examples of other places at other times? And what happened to the people in those situations?

I recommend both of these books to any one who wants to exercise their own thinking while reading. Additionally, Snyder recommended Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell’s 1984, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and even J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. 

Any book which places an endearing character complete with personality flaws woven into their compassion and integrity could give a reader pause to think. What would happen if it was you who faced some dire circumstances? Would you even recognize the threat? How far would you go to defend your principles? How much are you willing to sacrifice to assist someone less fortunate than yourself? How much time would you give to save a helpless child? Or an immigrant? Or a refugee?

Then there’s Foster: Giving someone our time and attention is the ultimate sacrifice. That is all we have to give, after all, and in the end it is the only thing we can decide how to spend.

Just my reader’s musings after pondering points from two good books.

Thanks for allowing me a few minutes of your time. . . .online even. May we all find a new direction.

 

Building Bridges

I’ve been thinking a lot about bridges. The schisms in this country seem to only get wider. Political storms intensify in parallel with extreme storms that our changing climate generates. Echoes of hopelessness in both instances bounce off canyon walls as the dire and increasingly hopeless conditions show no signs of abatement.

The latest foul suggestion of “liberal genocide” implies the answer to our differences is to kill those who disagree with you. Not a very pro-life sentiment, if you ask me. But you didn’t. And perhaps that is the problem. Still I can’t believe that the vast majority of those on the other side of the opinion world genuinely have a death wish for the rest of us. But the gap spreads. The rift grows. How do we turn the tide?

We desperately need a bridge or two across the raging storm current beneath.

What do I know about bridges?

Their purpose is to aid travel across chasms, canyons, or river channels.

They come in many sizes

and many different designs.

They can be a simple as a fallen log spanning a water-filled gully, or so complex they take years to build.

They can be artistic treasures, offering the best of humankind,

and are often sought by artists or photographers as worthy subjects.

Some draw tourists to unique examples of beauty merged with utility.

Bridges can be found almost anywhere.

They are built with the future in mind, to assist the travel of those who follow the bridge makers.

Sadly, bridges are often targeted for destruction during warfare.

Model of the A-bomb detonation found in the Hiroshima museum. The target was believed to be a t-shaped bridge.

But some are designed with strength enough to withstand unspeakable devastation.

The t-shaped bridge today. Unlike most of the rest of the city, it was not destroyed by the atomic bomb.

Others succumb to heavy flooding and raging water.

But they can be re-built. Some bridges have been re-built with pride multiple times by different generations. They endure for centuries.

Construction of bridges would be most efficient if started from both sides to meet in the middle. But they can be built from one side alone.

Many chasms are born when a trickle of rainwater starts to flow in a miniscule crack. When the rift is deep enough, travel across it is impossible.

But the stones to build a bridge often come from the same geologic formation on opposite sides, and the planks come from sister trees.

Though the views are mirrored from either side,

 

a traveler sees the world


 

differently from the middle of a bridge.

 

 

 

With scant leadership from our Capitol, the healing process may fall to us, the people. We need a few bridges to cross the growing chasms in our political and social landscapes.

Stone by stone.

Pile by pile.

Time’s wasting. Let’s get started.

 

 

 

 

American Chess Game

american-chess

In recent weeks, overwhelmed by the gut-wrenching posts of gifted writers, I have written little worthy of sharing. But I spend hours reading what the rest of you write. And I hear you, friends. I share your pain. I understand the disbelief, the anger, the recurring horror following an election that spoke NOT for the majority of voters, but set us up for a nightmare administration that shakes us to our very foundations. We do, indeed, grieve.

Chatting with my thirty-something son yesterday, he shared his disappointment. “I really thought we were better than that, as a nation.”

I thought so, too. I grew up believing that we, as Americans, stood for progress, for humanitarian support around the world. Through our influence and assistance, we could help other people achieve the freedom to speak for themselves, without fear. When I was a child, I felt pride in my country. That is not the case today.

Echoing a dear friend, I say, “I so want us to be the good guys.”

Yet now, it seems even though the majority of us still subscribe to decency, integrity and honesty, it matters less than if you have a lot of wealth and can buy your way into a misleading and dangerous leadership position. This is what happens when there is only one recognized litmus test for success and that test is money. Those with a lot of money control the game. The rest of us are pawns. We’re expendable. It’s a big game of power and apparently it’s been going on for decades.

Two weeks ago, on a long flight returning to the US from abroad, I chose to watch a movie on my seat’s private screen. All the President’s Men was available. Remember that one? It was the true story of two reporters in Washington DC who uncovered the Republican Party’s involvement in and cover-up of highly illegal activities intended to manipulate and influence the election in 1972. I was a high school student then, a member of my school’s Teen-Age Republicans. Watergate became a huge story. As a youth, I had no real idea what it meant, but it ended Nixon’s term early.

Watching the movie in 2017, all I could think was—“Republicans have been manipulating elections through any means available to them for a LONG time.”

To what end? This morning I read a post by Jon Perr, “The simple, sinister reason for the GOP’s never-ending war on Obamacare”. He described how the recent attack on the ACA was not an attempt to promote a better system or better care for millions of American people. There is nothing proposed to replace the contentious health care act. Indeed, the number-one reason Republicans chose to repeal Obamacare was apparently to stifle public approval and support for their opponents, the Democratic Party.

We are indeed pawns in a mega-chess game of power.

No wonder we grieve. We have suffered great loss. No stranger over the years to heart-wrenching farewells and grief of many origins, I recognize that our national reaction to events in Washington DC reflects many facets of loss. What are some things we have lost? Beyond the assurance that our healthcare needs will be answered, we grieve for much more.

We have lost the leadership of a remarkable president who consistently demonstrated his dedication to the welfare of our people and others around the world. Instead, through some political shenanigans, the reigns are handed to a tyrant who seems to care little for the majority of the people.

We’ve lost faith in the ideals and processes of our people-driven government. What might have been and where could we be now if, instead of choosing every action to make the people’s president fail, our senators and representatives had worked together for our common good? What might we have become over the past eight years? We will never know and can only wonder.

We’ve lost our belief in the basic goodness of humanity.

We’ve lost hope for the betterment of our future, for the preservation of a pristine and sacred planet to pass on to our grandchildren.

We’ve lost a dream of a future where each of us is treated with respect and dignity, and all things matter on a healthy and robust planet.  Instead, we have a vision of an Earth such as the one Wall-E was cleaning in the animated movie, because all that matters is money. Who has the most money and how will they use it to manipulate us pawns for their own greedy ends?

It is no wonder that we grieve. Loss of a dream is hard.

As a novelist, I find myself pondering some of the plotting techniques I learned in workshops over the past few years. Consider, for a moment, that we are collectively the protagonist in an edge-of-the-seat thriller story. The poor protagonist experiences set-back after set-back, crisis after crisis, conflict after increasingly intense conflict. Just when you think you’re in the clear, you’re not. (Election of Barack Obama as US president.) Just when you think it can’t possibly get worse, it does. (Inauguration of Trump, and his cabinet choices.)

Collectively, as a character in an on-going drama, we are riddled with internal conflict. The election of November 8, 2016  is one giant plot twist, catapulting us into the final climactic scenario. How will we cope? Can we find the means to pull through this era of consternation as a better nation? Will we even survive?

We pawns must write the ending to this story. Recently a Facebook friend shared a thought about grief. “Grief is really just love with no place to go. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot.”

The way to move ahead is to find new avenues to spend that love, in honor of those people, dreams, or ideas we have lost.

I sometimes have the opportunity to counsel others working through grief. It’s hard. There’s no denying that. The event, the compound losses, have changed our lives. It’s up to us what we do now. We can work through it, and become stronger in the process. Or we can wallow in it and drown.

We can either let our grief make us better people and a better nation, or we can let it break us.

I choose to let it make us—make me—better. I’m not off the board yet. I may have little or no influence in Washington’s big game, but I can influence my home and hometown. The question is, “How?”

I refuse to be overcome by fear and suspicion of neighbors and family members on the other side of issues. I can choose to share love, to smile at strangers, to listen with compassion. I can increase my support of humanitarian causes, here at home. I can be an ambassador of goodwill wherever I may go. I can support the ideals of freedom and equality. I can defend the first constitutional amendment just as adamantly as others have defended the second amendment.

(Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.)

I can march in a near-by Sister March on Saturday morning, a peaceful way to celebrate human rights, diversity, freedom, and equality for all. (www.womensmarch.com)

Who knows, if pawns in every hometown opted to spread goodwill, understanding, and justice, maybe the sorry protagonist in this suspenseful story will manage to pull through and save the day after all.

Do you have ideas about ways to resist with love and compassion? If so, please share them in the blog comments. If you’re shopping for more great ideas, check out  johnpavlovitz.com/2017/01/14/10-acts-of-resistance-on-inauguration-day

Possibilities!

It’s exciting to be invited to participate in the Kansas Library Association’s 2016 Author-palooza. In addition to presenting their books, authors are instructed to share their experiences in presenting public programs.

I have been amazed at how many opportunities opened for me after my memoir was released. This is a new chapter in my life, and a very rewarding one to be sure.

Here’s my list of appearances:

In the Shadow of the Wind readings and inspirational programs on grief and healing

perf6.000x9.000.indd
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00NUA5VVU

October 23, 2014  Grace United Methodist Church discussion

March 7, 2015       Douglass United Methodist Women spring tea

April 25, 2015       Fredonia First Baptist Women spring tea

May 6, 2015          Potwin United Methodist Women spring tea

July 10, 2015         Writers of the Wheat, Sunflower Plaza, Wichita

October 7, 2015    First UMW, Arkansas City, meeting program

October 14, 2015  Rose Hill UMW, meeting program

January 17, 2016   Howard and Severy UMC Sunday guest speaker

January 21, 2016   First UMW, Winfield, meeting program

 

Suspense Fiction (Sundrop Sonata) and writing programs

Sundrop Sonata Cover
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AZUMTZS

May 6, 2016          Winfield PEO: “The Legacy of Words,” featuring the WWII letters of my uncle Lester Harris, posted on my blog.

June 11, 2016        Kansas Authors Club, District 5 program, “Using Fiction Techniques in Writing Memoirs”

October 2, 2016    Kansas Authors Club, annual convention, “Note by Note/Scene by Scene: Crafting a Suspense Novel”

And the adventure continues!

 

Ripples Through the Generations

            It is now seventy-two years after the accident in the whale boat, three times the span of Lester’s short life. What happened to the folks during those ensuing decades?

            Shortly after World War II had ended, the family received medals Lester had been awarded posthumously for his dedicated service. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABefore a decade had passed, Frances and Gloyd were blessed with a boy and a girl. the first children of the next generation. Born just three years after Lester’s death, Frances named her son David Lester in honor of her brother.

            OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn that first decade, Lester’s father Charley died of heart disease. “He took Lester’s death hard,” Wallace told us, “and never got over it.” Wallace was convinced the accident in Narragansett Bay was a contributing factor in his father’s death.

            Sometime in that first decade, Josephine met and eventually married another man. The home wedding was attended by well-wishing members of Lester’s family, and officiated by his aunt Mabel, the first woman in Kansas to be an ordained pastor of the Methodist Church. Though Lester’s mother kept in touch with Josephine for many years, they eventually lost contact.

Josephine's wedding. Lester's aunt Mabel officiated.
Josephine’s wedding. Lester’s aunt Mabel officiated.

            Before ten years had passed, Wallace, a high school senior in 1942, had gone to college, met and married the woman who would be his faithful partner for fifty-three years, Helen Peterson.

The wedding of Wallace and Helen. The two youngest children belong to Frances and Gloyd.
The wedding of Wallace and Helen. The two youngest children belong to Frances and Gloyd.

            In the second decade beyond Lester’s death, Wallace and Helen welcomed three daughters to the family.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

            In that second decade, Lester’s sister Frances met him at the pearly gates, a victim of cancer. She left her school-age children in Gloyd’s care. Her son David, Lester’s only nephew, enlisted in the US Navy upon his graduation. He began an involvement with the navy that continued through the rest of his life, with active duty and the naval reserves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA            Lester’s mother Georgia persevered with a broken heart. Though she had lost much in a few short years, she devoted herself to her remaining children, and then her grandchildren. She was a trusted and beloved friend to many people. After Charley’s death, she managed the farm with astute business sense. She rarely spoke of Lester, but he was never far from her thoughts. His portrait hung on her living room wall for decades after she moved the farm house to town. She guarded her memories, stored the photos and other memorabilia in the attic, and mourned privately.

            Still there were times when she mentioned her son, and alluded to his sunny personality, always with a tenderness in her voice, and a reverence that spoke volumes about the depth of her love and her loss. I recall waking in the middle of the night during a visit to her house to hear her sobbing alone in the darkness of her own bedroom. She died fifty years after Lester, in her 99th year, to finally join those who had preceded her.

            Perhaps young Paul suffered as much as anyone from his brother’s tragic death. Only seven years old at the time, Paul grew up in a house shadowed by grief. His father was never the same. His mother carried on the best she could. But her heart was wounded. Maybe Paul never even remembered, in the end, what life had been like before Lester’s death. He grew up, left home, attended college for a while, and spent most of his life alone, bouncing between jobs in the kitchens of various Kansas City restaurants. He died alone and nearly penniless at the age of seventy.

            Lester became a legend in the family. Life moved on. He was gone, but not forgotten.

            That brings me to the point of this whole project with the letters from 1942. Lester Franklin Harris was a good man. Through his twenty-four years of life, and his sudden, unexpected death, he impacted the world around him. Like pebbles tossed into a still pond, the ripples started during his life continue to spread outward, undulating through generations of people who weren’t even alive when Lester left this world.

            If he were still alive today, my uncle Lester would be 96. My cousins, sisters and I would have grown up to know the good-natured generous soul others loved, but we never had that opportunity. We knew him only through the occasional story, a fond remembrance or gifts shared once in a while.

            When I was establishing my piano repair shop, my father  (Lester’s brother Wallace) gave me a portable shop vise. In a voice filled with reverence and love, he explained, “This belonged to Lester. I want you to have it.” Lester’s vise has assisted me with numerous projects over the years.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

            In the late summer of 2013, my cousin David Lester Pickett passed away at the age of 68. At the family dinner following his service, his widow handed me a small new testament, covered in a zippered canvas case. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt had been a gift to Lester when he enlisted in the US Navy. In my imagination, I saw our grandmother passing this booklet to David when he entered the navy, with the same sense of reverence and honor that my father displayed with he passed the vise to me.

            Over the years, the fresh wounds that jolted the hearts of my family in 1942 had two effects. Either they contributed to a sad life and an early grave, or the wounds healed. Scars would never disappear, for Lester would never be forgotten. His mother and his siblings had to learn how to carry those scars like badges earned in the storms of life.

Lester's flag.
Lester’s flag.

My grandmother learned how to laugh again. My favorite memory of her is her belly-busting, whole-hearted laughter. But she never forgot Lester. She kept his letters, the flag which accompanied him home, a box full of cards and notes, two memory books from the funerals, the medals, a photo album and a few personal items. Upon her death, the memory box passed to Wallace. Upon his death, it passed to me. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUntil 2010 I had no idea the letters existed. But when I read the words written in his own polished penmanship, Lester has come alive for me after seven decades.

            None of her grandchildren knew our beloved Grandma Georgia before her heart was scarred with grief. I wonder what we missed. What was she like before? Who would she have been if Lester had lived?

            The love my family felt for him and their grief at his loss crossed generations to impact those of us who never knew him. That experience in 1942 led them to support me with compassion and empathy when I struggled with a series of losses four decades later. That, in the end, is the greatest honor we can give to those whom we have loved and lost: to use the pain, and the healing, to assist others when they face their own storms in life. None are immune to grief. When you love somebody, you risk the pain of loss. If we can honor those memories with compassion to others, then the world will be better for it.

            Ripples from Lester’s life continue to spread towards the horizon in every direction. He was a good man, and the world is a better place because he lived.

Lester Franklin Harris
Lester Franklin Harris

(Lester’s World War II memorabilia will be displayed in the Dunlap, Kansas historical museum housed in the former Dunlap Methodist Church.)

Western Union Telegrams, December 1942

The day was drawing to a close on December 4. Chores were nearly done when a lone vehicle approached the farm home of Lester’s family. The driver bore a telegram for CF Harris from Arlington, Va.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA420  pm 4

The Navy department deeply regrets to inform you that your son Lester Frank Harris fireman first class US Naval reserve is missing following the capsizing of a motor whale boat in Narragansett Bay on December second. If remains are recovered you will be notified and every effort will be made to conform to your wishes regarding disposition. Further details probably will be communicated to you by his commanding officer. Sincere sympathy extended to you in your great sorrow.             

     Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, chief of naval personnel

Even without today’s social media, news of the family’s unfolding sorrow spread like wildfire in the close-knit farming community. Hardly a soul remained who hadn’t heard the news when a second telegram arrived on December 10, the birthday of Lester’s sister Frances.

330 pm 10

Supplementing our dispatch of Dec 4 1942 The bureau of Naval personnel  has been informed that your son Lester Frank Harris fireman first class USNR previously reported as missing lost his life in line of duty as result of submersion when a motor whale boat capsized December second. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARecovery of remains is not probable. Further details will be sent you by his commanding officer. Sincere sympathy extended to you in your great loss

                 Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, chief of naval personnel

Refusing to believe the news could possibly be true, the folks carried on, rising each day with the hope that Lester would contact them and all would be well. Lester’s brother Wallace, then seventeen years old, recalled decades later, “When we were notified of the accident and his probable death I could not believe that it had really happened. I kept thinking, ‘This is not real. I must be dreaming. When I awaken I’ll find it’s a dream and that Lester is really alive.’ Eventually, I came to accept the fact that it was no dream; that we had been separated, completely and irrevocably by death.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn an effort to learn what had actually happened, Lester’s mother carried on a furious correspondence with his buddies Harry Haring and Joseph Feingold. Haring dissuaded her from trekking to Newport, assuring her there was little she could do that wasn’t already being done. He wrote, “No, Mrs. Harris, I’m sure that there is nothing to be gained in coming to Newport. It’s cruel I know but it’s hopeless. A body will rise after the third day and then if not recovered it again sinks. I’m afraid the sea will not give up her bodies until the final day. For a man of the sea, Mrs. Harris, there is no finer resting place than the sea when the man sails.”

By the end of December, Lester’s personal effects had been shipped home. Included in the shipment were several sets of his navy uniforms both white and blue; bedding; towels; a sewing kit; a shaving kit; a shoe kit; two bundles of books; a slide rule; a gauge; miscellaneous letters and stationery; and “one unopened package addressed to Mr. Harris.” He had never opened the Christmas package sent by his sister.

That Christmas surely was a difficult time for the family. On January 3, 1943, one month after the ill-fated accident, Lester’s family and friends gathered for a memorial service. It was to be the first of two funerals for him. Over the weeks and months after the accident, several of the sailors’ bodies were discovered and identified. In July 1943, seven months later, a body was found and determined to be that of Lester. The presence of Lester’s personal billfold with a water-stained photo of Josephine aided the final identification of his remains.

Another set of telegrams brought the final news, this time to Mr. and Mrs. C F Harris.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA959 am July 17 1943

Supplementing our dispatch of December tenth 1942 the bureau of personnel has been informed that the remains of your son Lester Franklin Harris fireman first class US Naval reserve have been recovered. Please telegram collect to the Bureau of Medicine and surgery Navy Department Washington DC whether or not you desire to have remains sent home or interred in any National or Naval Cemetery you may select without cost to you. If sent home all expenses of preparation encasement and transportation will be prepaid to destination and reasonable necessary expenses not to exceed fifty dollars will be allowed towards funeral expenses subject to reimbursement by the bureau of medicine and surgery navy department. If the body is sent home please advise whether or not you desire an escort to accompany the body. The department extends its sincerest sympathy to you in your great sorrow.

                     Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs Chief of Naval Personnel

His parents must have responded immediately, as requested. Of course they wanted him to come home. Another telegram arrived the following day.

1943 Jul 18 P M 4 39OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

=URTEL SEVENTEENTH NAVAL HOSPITAL NEWPORT RHODE ISLAND DIRECTED FORWARD REMAINS YOUR SON LESTER FRANKLIN HARRIS CONSIGNED TO YOU AT DUNLAP ACCOMPANIED BY NAVAL ESCORT WITH TELEGRAPHIC NOTIFICATION GIVING DATE ROUTE AND SCHEDULED TIME ARRIVAL HOSPITAL ALSO REQUESTED HAVE JOSEPH FEINGOLD ACT AS ESCORT IF PRACTICABLE LETTER FOLLOWS.

=BUREAU OF MEDICINE AND SURGERY NAVY DEPARTMENT.

                                                                 

Though no confirmation of Joseph Feingold’s attendance is among the existing memorabilia, it’s nice to think that Lester’s last journey was accompanied by his good friend. He had come home at last.

This photo is labeled "Lester's Navy Friend." He is not identified by name, but this is likely to be either Haring or Feingold.
This photo is labeled “Lester’s Navy Friend.” He is not identified by name, but perhaps this is Joseph Feingold who may have escorted Lester home in 1943.

The family and friends gathered again for a second funeral on July 24. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis one completed the solemnity, for there was no hope remaining that Lester might one day return to favor all with his friendly smile and warm hugs. He was gone.

I wonder if anyone read from his high school salutatorian address during the service. He spoke these words before his classmates at their graduation ceremony:

“When a ship starts on a voyage, it is loaded with fuel. If the ship is large or the voyage long, stops may be made at several fueling stations. . . .Ships are always in danger of being veered from their course by storms, of running onto hidden reefs or rocks. . . .However a ship does not by any means sail blindly. It has a pilot, lighthouses, and buoys to guide it and mark the dangerous spots.”

Nobody knew better than Lester how dangerous the sea could be.

Gherardi at sea

As time passed, Lester’s story was told to a new generation. Thus, his nephew and niece (Frances and Gloyd’s children) and three nieces (daughters of Wallace and his wife Helen) learned the story of their uncle’s World War II service. The pain still showed in the somber faces and the irony persisted. The most poignant detail ended the tale. “And he wasn’t even supposed to be on that boat.”

But he was.

Lester Franklin Harris, 1918 - 1942
Lester Franklin Harris, 1918 – 1942

 

Though evidently Lester was one of the last of those fifteen sailors to be found, there was one more body discovered in August 1943. It was damaged beyond recognition and unidentifiable. According to a Wikipedia article (referenced under USS Gherardi), the final body was identified conclusively through DNA analysis in 2006, more than sixty years after the accident. Those remains were determined to belong to Raymond Johnson, the coxswain of that whaleboat. Two other sailors have never been found.

The Wikipedia article described a 2006 plaque commemorating the ultimate sacrifice of the fifteen sailors, commissioned for the US Navy Memorial in Washington, DC. Names of all fifteen sailors are listed on the plaque. The USS Gherardi received five battle stars for World War II service. In 2004 the USS Gherardi Association dedicated a plaque to her service from 1942 through 1955, claiming “She safely returned all those who served in combat.”

Sadly, she didn’t have the same good fortune in protecting her sons from a storm off the coast of the homeland.

choose thankfulness

This is a beautiful piece that shows the depths of a mother’s love, even through unspeakable heartache. I admire this young mother very much, for daring to choose thankfulness even when her heart is breaking and for the courage to share these words with others. She is right when she says thankfulness is a choice. In the end, it is our choices which will define our character. I am thankful Lexi found my blog. My heart goes out to her, and I send wishes for a happy birthday. Blessing to you and your family, Lexi.