In the flurry of activity surrounding my mother’s death and funeral, I don’t remember how her letters ended up in my laptop case. But that’s where they were until, weeks later, I pulled out the case.
There they were, jammed in the bottom.
Some letters run back generations, the writers long gone. “It is Sunday afternoon so I thought I would write you a few lines,” writes Great-grandma Harman. This one, dated June 21, 1903, is addressed to “Deric,” my great-grandfather.
“We went to church this morning. It was a lovely day, only I wish you could have been home. Edgar and Mabel are out picking strawberries,” she says of her children. Fourteen years later Edgar would be killed somewhere in France at the end of World War I. Mabel was my grandma.
I know this much from family stories: Great-grandpa Deric was not kind to his wife, not at all. What’s unmistakable within the lines of her letters is her anxiety: “If I had been sure you were not coming, I would have gone into Sheboygan over Sunday. . . . I did not feel able to go . . . had pain all week but feel some better today. . . . It is so lonesome and we are afraid to be alone nights.”
There’s brokenness in the sentences, brokenness in her life.
“I get so nervous sometimes and do not sleep well all night. I wish you would go in business again so you could stay at home.”
My great-grandfather was a traveling salesman—farm equipment—obviously not home often. Mom told me that one of her earliest memories was going into a tavern on Indiana Avenue and watching her mother retrieve her father from a stool.
“Brother is still in Iowa,” my great-grandma wrote. “He wrote me a letter this week asking me about the auction and how much the land brought and who bought it but I did not answer.” The Iowa relatives say that “brother” was steered from Wisconsin by his wife, who would not allow her husband to work for or with “brother” Deric.
There’s another letter too, this one from little Mabel, my grandma, also dated June 21.
“Dear papa,” it begins. “It is Sunday and I will write you a few lines to tell you that I went out strawberry picking and I found a quart box full don’t you think that is pretty good mama thought it was good for me to pick that much.”
A little more and then: “My hand is so tired I cannot write any more so good bye write soon,” and “From your little girl, Mabel.”
These notes were probably never sent, a fact which carries as much brokenness as any sentence therein. Then again, my great-grandma kept both—as did Mabel, my grandma; as did my own mother, who wouldn’t be born for another 15 years. Now, more than a century later, those notes are here in my hands.
Reading my mother’s letters is a treasure. There’s a story here, a story that’s mine, for good or ill. I’m humbled to know that in joy and in sorrow, I’m not alone, none of us are. It’s like the psalmist says. We’re all alike, we’re all human, we’re all looking for love. We all need a Savior.
About the Author
James C. Schaap is a writer who lives in Sioux Center, Iowa.