Memorial Day and the Wartime Widow

LEAH FARISH|GUEST

On Memorial Day, I remember our veterans and brave civilians who gave their lives for this country.  I also remember a woman who died peacefully in her bed at age 90—my mom.

Jane was a vivacious young bride when her fighter-pilot husband was called to battle.  World War II was raging in the Mediterranean and Africa at the time, and the couple was particularly unwilling to be apart because Jane was pregnant. She remembered times as he trained in flight that he would swoop over the boardwalk where she strolled and “waggle” his wings at her. He began to write letter after wistful letter from “somewhere in North Africa,” and she would write back coy, sprightly notes, concealing her loneliness. She had always been the life of the party, and returned a series of five different engagement rings before she settled on Bill. They were going to be fine.

Jane tended a Victory Garden and planned purchases around her monthly ration book.  She threw herself into her career as a nurse—which at least diverted her attention for eight hours at a time. She struggled to quit smoking, fought her own morning sickness as she tended to patients, and learned how to paint a seam up the back of her leg when hosiery was scarce. When rumors surfaced of “concentration camps” where Jews were starving in Germany, she and her friends shook their heads in disbelief and assumed it was some kind of American propaganda. Sometimes she prayed, sometimes she just waited for the mail to come.

In one letter, he told her they had had ice cream that day in camp, gallantly assuring her that things were probably harder for her than for him.

But it was a telegram, not a letter, which permanently changed her life. The government regretted to inform her that William Taylor was missing in action. Later a buddy told her he had witnessed the fateful moment: “Bill just flew into a cloud, and he never came out.”  (Jane always suspected that was a sanitized story, but appreciated the gentleness of the friend.)

Jane’s torment was doubled at the prospect of her child never knowing a father. She wept profusely and took long walks alone, uncharacteristically avoiding her friends and family.  Her only chum for a few months was a neighbor’s rather stupid but docile Pekingese pup, whose feelings she didn’t have to prop up and for whom she didn’t have to be strong.

In dreams she saw that he had returned, whole and radiant, ready to go on with their lives.  But then she awoke alone in bed. Jane worked hard, but in a daze. The baby was born, a girl, and her community and her grieving in-laws surrounded her with sympathy, gifts, and reassurance. With a beautiful infant in her arms, she began to heal.

In a couple of years, with the war still going on, she felt sturdy enough to listen when a doctor she worked with asked her to join him in a volunteer opportunity. There was a POW camp near their town and he was going to make visits to care for the German soldiers held there. She not only went, but she took her daughter, Sharon.

My mother later told me that she had had no hesitancy to go to the camp. The men there told her they had been forced to serve the Nazi cause—that their families were threatened if they did not. The men carved little toys for my sister from slats of orange crates; we still have a rather homely doll made by one of the POWs.

The men were well cared for; my aunt remembers going to a Christmas program at the camp, where the men doted on the toddler whose father had been killed by their colleagues. The program included Christmas carols sung by the prisoners. After the war, they were returned home, and a couple of the men even wrote to my mom with appreciation for her visits, asking about little Sharon.

I Peter 4:1 (NIV) says, “Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude.”  It surprises me that one who suffered sacrificially called my mom to arm herself, not to go out for revenge, but for the great spiritual battle of loving our enemies.  I imagine my mother drying her tears and walking into that POW camp, armed with love and holding her toddler’s little hand. She walked into service, walked into healing.

1 Peter 2 sheds light on the path she walked: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you might follow in his steps….When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.  Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.  He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.”

Few of us are called upon literally to die for others.  But through the example of Christ, we can live for others.  My mother, entrusting herself and her baby to him who judges justly, did not condemn those German men, but found life in forgiving and serving them.  She confided that a few times her grief was so piercing, she wished to die. Living for righteousness was harder, and for her, took longer—decades, in fact. But I am grateful that she accepted the gifts of Christ: his blood for salvation, his example of forgiveness, and his grace to live for righteousness.

 

Leah Farish teaches college courses on law, language, and public speaking in Oklahoma.  She also heads a nonprofit which encourages volunteerism.  Leah and her husband are members of Christ Presbyterian in Tulsa, where, being party animals, they are also preparing to celebrate the church’s 50th birthday.

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