The Year Came In; The Year Went Out

http://www.amazon.com/Tears-My-Mother-Rashbaum-Burt/dp/145020399X

The year 2017 started for me in Japan. I read on my Kindle during the long flights and the first book of my year was Burt Rashbaum’s Tears for my Mother. It is a vividly graphic account of a family struggling with their mother’s encroaching dementia. Alzheimer’s remains a dreaded word for many families. It spares no group the horrors of mind disintegration.

Rashbaum’s account was deeply personal. The characters were patterned after some in his own family. He tapped vividly into the reality of what it could be like to watch your own self slipping away. Significantly for me, the author is part of my own family, the Jewish cousin who married into one side of my husband’s family. I enjoyed a few days in this cousin’s Nederland, Colorado home last summer, rewarding myself with a writing retreat in the artsy mountain community.  Before I left, Burt and I had swapped books and I came home with another novel of his, the 2015 release of The Ones That I Know.

http://www.amazon.com/Ones-That-I-Know/dp/1511961716

Like Tears, this story is based significantly on events in Rashbaum’s life. One of the characters resembles him a great deal, and another resembles his wife. Through the pages of this book, I again found myself immersed in post-holocaust Jewish reality, which unless you’ve been there is hard to imagine. It tells the story of a group of neighborhood friends, who grew up together in NYC and lost touch as adults. They reunite when one of them publishes a book about their youthful adventures. The book examines how connections of family and friends possibly go beyond the grave and revisit the same group in a fresh incarnation. It explores life’s purpose, as well as its challenges. It is a snapshot view of a variety of contemporary issues that have a basis in historical drama.

At the end, after reading these books, I felt I knew and loved my newly found cousins much better.

The year 2017 was ushered in for me by Rashbaum’s novel Tears for my Mother. It is fitting to conclude this book journey series with The Ones That I Know. Through my reading adventures in 2017, I felt my family expand. My circle of friends has grown as well, and that’s no small matter in today’s uncertain world. We hear much about alternative facts, conspiracy theories, rigged elections, international threats and climate change. The news media is under fire. Our courts are being stacked by extremists. Our constitution itself is on shaky ground. If one thing is clear, I believe that “the ones that I know” have something to say. As long as our constitution stands we need to exercise our right to write, to share our thoughts and ideas, our hopes and dreams, our memories and fears.

Americans consider free speech to be a birthright. It is guaranteed by the first amendment. Free speech serves to hold the powerful accountable and for that reason we must defend it fiercely. Our freedoms and rights will exist only as long as we keep using them.

For all my writing friends and cousins scattered across the country—“the ones that I know”—I say, “Write on!” And may the force be with us all.

the december project by Sara Davidson

http://www.amazon.com/December-Project-Extraordinary-Skeptical-Confront-ebook/dp/B00DB3D348

Sara Davidson’s the december project is a  treatise on how to navigate the December of life and “not freak out about dying”. It is a joint endeavor by Davidson and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, wherein “An extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery.”

Having the distinct privilege to meet some cousins of my husband’s during the summer of 2016, I came home with the realization that there are Jewish people in my own family. Not only that, but Jewish writers and kindred souls who appreciate the counter-culture of my youth more deeply than I do myself. And, though I do not personally know Reb Zalman, my cousins do. That made the book intensely more personal. Cousin Burt explained, “Reb Zalman was the closest I’ve ever come to meeting/knowing a true ‘holy man.’ It seemed every breath he took, and every word he spoke, was holy.”

Returning home from our 2016 visit with some reading recommendations from cousin Sharon, it was early 2017 before I got around to reading them. the december project was one of those books.

I was enthralled with Rabbi Zalman’s story. He had escaped the Nazis in Europe during the Holocaust years, and struggled with his faith upon arrival in his new country, America. Years later, after personal audience with the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton, among other notable events, he became a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.

I read the book because my cousin recommended it, and because I figured I was on the verge of my own life’s December phase. The book concludes with several exercises to help folks prepare for their check out. I found many of them to be good tips for any stage of life. Among them:

Begin each day with a thankful heart. Give thanks often.

Practice forgiveness. Forgive others who have wronged you. Ask forgiveness for your own mistakes. And perhaps the toughest, Learn to forgive yourself.

Review your life. Explore your purpose. Claim the life that is yet yours to live. What is urgent and needs to be done before you feel complete?

And one that speaks to my introvert’s craving for personal space: Make friends with solitude. Create an inner sanctuary—a place to go where you can feel the spark of the divine within you.

Solitude and sanctuary are concepts that are fast becoming archaic among the younger generations. Yet, I crave the space to find myself. And I wonder, if we can’t stand to be alone with our own selves, how can we expect others to find solace in our company? We came into this world alone, and most certainly we will leave it in a solitary experience as well. Get to know and love yourself.

 

Up next: About contemplation, or Discovering a few Kansas poets

Your Dreams are Over

Tribute to a Friend who Died much too Young

J. Scott, your dreams are over,

Snared in your youth by the Big M—

            Heartless,

            Trickster

            Devil.

Your gentle tortured soul now free

            But

Your words live on in our troubled world.

The genius of your soul—

Kneeling in awe of the literary greats

F. Scott (you know) Fitzgerald

            Hawthorne

            Rowling

            Thoreau

            Bronte

            Tolstoy

            Huxley

            Tolkien

            Dickens

            Lee

Spouting quotes from the pens of the masters

You read long before.

Once.

Genius.

The journeys you drew me into

Expanded my understanding of family.

We are all part of

            The human one.

You took me places I’d never dreamed.

            Courtroom witness stand

            Visitation at a Maximum security

Lockup

            Pre-dawn in the empty parking lot

                        Of the Johnson County Jail

            911 emergency call for an

                        Ambulance

            Visits to a residential rehabilitation home

Through it all you shared your dreams

Your hopes

Your disappointments

Your fears

 

Your open, gentle spirit showed great devotion

To young Kassidy, a child sister ripped by cancer

From this heartless life.

“I love God,” she taught from her heart.

“And God loves me. That’s all there is

            To it.”

In your world religion rejected and

            Judged you

            Without mercy

For your deviations from the norm.

Kassidy showed you—God Is Love.

But not even she could stop Big M.

You searched for your place,

A home that would love you always.

On the journey, you befriended

            The friendless,

Fought for those

            In the margins.

You took up causes of those

With little voice.

And you wrote for them.

Because you were one of them

And they needed you.

The Pen is Greater Than the Sword, Scott. Or the Needle.

And your words live.

            Even if you don’t.

Big M stole you from those who care.

In this age of rigid conservatism

And legal discrimination,

The civic powers criminalized

Your disability.  Your addiction.

When you needed help,

They served you blame.

They pulled the rug of security

And assistance

            From under your feet.

And you fell.

Forever.

In your words, “Life is suffering. . .

            But God is Love.”

As your spirit takes its first

Hesitant flight in freedom,

May you find the Winds of that Love,

And may they bear you

            Ever higher.

                        Scotty.

The wind is blowing.

Rise up with it and ride.

Decades of Memories: Memories of Decades

Sunrise. Sunset. Sunrise. Sunset.

Swiftly fly the years.

One season following another

Laden with happiness and tears.

                        -Sheldon Harnick

So goes the song from Fiddler on the Roof.

Earlier this summer, I was honored to be asked to photograph the fiftieth anniversary reception of some cherished friends. Fifty years. Five decades. Half a century.

Some time after that, I realized with a shock that my summer of 1967 held momentous memories for me as well. I had just turned twelve. In early June I was fitted in a Milwaukee brace, a structure of total spine length, from chin to pelvis. This was an attempt to combat the progressing scoliosis (curvature) in my spine and I wore the brace 24/7 for the next two years.

Fifty years ago. Overnight, my life changed. Childhood ended in an instant. One day I was rolling down a small hill in a friend’s yard. The next, I met sadness, despair and heartache. My life was changed. There was no return. Events and encounters during that time of life shaped my personality in many ways, some subtle, others blatant. Before the summer was over, my family moved two states away from the only home I’d known. Trauma after trauma.

I’ve heard it said that without the sad moments, you’d never know when you were happy. This rings true. Happiness and tears go hand in hand.

Swiftly flew the years, though it didn’t seem so at the time. Jump ahead to 1977, one of the happiest times of my life, forty years ago. August 6, 1977 was my wedding day, a day when I started a new life with my best friend from college, Craig Winter.

It was a hot morning. We had discussed the idea of an outdoor ceremony, but Kansas in August can be brutal. Instead we chose the small Methodist church of my grandmother, and fed everyone homemade ice cream at our simple reception.

Forty years have flown by, filled with happiness and tears. Alone today in Nederland, Colorado, I honor Craig’s memory. Our marriage lasted seven and a half years, until the day he flew away, an angel struck down by cancer at age 33. But he left me behind with a beautiful daughter to raise, another experience filled with happiness. And tears.

I headed west a few days ago, bringing seven-year-old grandson Donte, Craig’s grandson, to visit his mama in Denver. Donte had asked to visit Craig’s resting place. In the innocence and openness of childhood, he wanted to know where I “planted” my first husband. We took the short detour to the country church cemetery outside Lincoln, Kansas on our way to Denver.

Donte honored the grandpa he’d never meet, days before the 40th anniversary of our wedding. Words do not exist to describe the poignancy of the moment.

Forty years. Four decades.

I remember, Craigie. Happy anniversary.

Tears for a Tree

 
Passed daily on my way to anywhere—
The world’s most beautiful tree,
Stately, spreading limbs, shading
Cattle on hot summer days,

Praying to the sun through winter’s dormancy,

Rustling leaves in a fresh spring breeze,

The symmetry—the shape—taking my breath,
My admiration, my appreciation, my awe.

Set in the valley downstream from our pond,
Water and sunshine in abundance,

A monument along the highway,
A monument to life, the perfect cottonwood tree.
 
But not quite.
 
Mired against a culvert passing beneath the pavement,
The roots incomplete, impossible to anchor against moving water
Or against steel.
One night rain poured in sheets

And the wind blew.
The gale caught those beautiful boughs and
Toppled the tree.
 
The entire tree.
 
Next morning the sun shone on the ruined giant,
Uprooted by wind where the roots found no anchor.

I cry for the tree. And I wonder:
How many times have I been seduced by the
Appearance of perfection?

How many times have I basked in the seduction
Of incomplete beauty?
 
How many times have you?
Have we all?
In the dearth of the stately tree,
May the dry crumbling leaves

And the severed roots and branches
Remind me that beauty may beckon
Though it is flawed with hidden imperfections.
Monuments which steal our devotion
May crumble in life’s storms.
 
Beware what we revere lest a wind come
And topple the monarchs we extol.
Nothing, but nothing, is without a fault
And danger
Waits within that which is most alluring.

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.