a year of morning thanks
An old note of sympathy (i)
The hand is not cramped. It's a mannered cursive that would be perfectly readable if it weren't so tiny. Fancy G's on God. An extra swirl on upper-case Ws. He learned his penmanship well. And I can tell, simply by the smooth hand, that he was still a young man, a young father, a young preacher.
"Dear Friends," it begins--somehow he knew them. "One cannot help to express our heartfelt sympathy in your terrible grief and affliction." The hand and the voice is my grandfather's, and he's writing to a couple whose son had just died, age six. It was written from Jenison, Michigan. The date is April 8, 1918. Here's how I picture it--he's writing this note at the kitchen table. My grandma Schaap sits in the chair beside him, reading perhaps. She is almost seven-months pregnant with my father.
"We were greatly shocked at the news that your dear Nelson had passed away." The card that accompanied this letter, written in more of a cramped hand, explained that the letter itself belonged to her grandparents, who had treasured it greatly, having received it in consolation of their terrible grief, just after the death of their son, who had died suddenly of scarlet fever.
"Scarlet fever" is one of those childhood killers all but banished from our lives today, but the name still horrifies, as if the chill is archived in my DNA. A red mask covers the face, a light rash covers the body, a strawberry tongue. Laura Ingalls Wilder's sister went blind from it, and when it came on back then, a century ago, in some communities it came as a plague.
"Mrs. Schaap burst out in tears when I told her what had happened at your place," my grandpa says. I'm sure he's not lying. Neither of them have need to dramatize.
"We can more feel for you since it is yet so fresh in our memory when we lost our little Agnes, of about the same age as your little boy was."
Read that sentence again. I teach writing and have for years. It's my job to evaluate style as well as content, and I can't help but recognize that the most fractured syntax in the entire letter sets this sentence apart from any other. My grandfather is bi-lingual, of course; the language of his childhood is Dutch. There's a bit of Dutch in that sentence, especially in inverted word order; but it's more than that. That sentence came haltingly from both mind and pen because putting what he felt into words was no simple task. Simply bringing Agnes's death up required pain as he sat there, his wife beside him. All by itself, the awkward syntax of that sentence weeps.
Their little Agnes died of something unknown at the time. Doctors tried to save her life by a procedure thought then very cutting edge, one of the first even attempted in the state of Michigan--something called a transfusion. For some time, Grandpa Schaap lay beside his precious daughter, the doctors having created some means by which the draw his blood out to flow into her veins. For three days, prospects brightened immensely. She seemed to be in recovery. Then, suddenly, she was gone.
My aunt once told me that she remembered her father, my grandpa, lying face down on the floor of the manse after his firstborn's death. She was a child herself, but the darkness persisted, she told me, until he packed the family in the wagon and took a call to a country church in Lucas, Michigan, where the people of the congregation met the family on the lawn when they drove up, and where, she told me, he stepped off that wagon as a new man.
Some of that story is in this short note. He doesn't tell it to the recipients. Perhaps they knew anyway. But it's here nonetheless in composition--in bothwhat he wrote and how he wrote.
My grandpa, the writer, and my grandma, his wife, as well as the letter's recipients have all been gone for more than a half century; but when I read this 90-year old expression of deep sympathy and grief, the story lingers, as do the characters.
There's more to be read here, more to be felt, more to be learned. . .