Wednesday, May 11, 2016
My two strongest memories of my great-uncle Shirley are his piano playing and his great smile. He is my grandma's older brother and along with his wife, Donna, he lived right next door to my grandma on the same street where they both grew up.
He could play the piano by ear and would sit smiling and chatting and playing the piano. He passed away in 1992 and my great-aunt Donna died more recently. I wrote about the letters my grandma has from Shirley here. I've been gradually reading the letters to my grandma. They're interesting from a historical perspective and from a family perspective. It gives me a little window into what life was like in the mid 1940s. My grandma loves hearing them and remembering. She fills me in on details and smiles abashedly when there's mention of some boy she was dating. (My grandma = belle of the ball.) I have to steady my voice to keep from crying sometimes. This week we finished the letters from him--next we have the letters his family wrote to him while he was away and I'm excited for that!
Shirley mentioned with gratitude the wheat kernels his dad, my great-grandfather, sent. He wrote about the pleasure it was just to look at them. They were wheat farmers and far away in war ravaged Germany, a few kernels of wheat were a sight for sore eyes.
The biggest blessing in my life in reading the letters has been the glimpse I've seen inside my great-uncle. Turns out he was a lot more than a piano talent and twinkling smile. He was a man with a great depth of character and breathtaking optimism.
He wrote about how confused and horrified he was by racism he encountered when he was stationed in Georgia for training.
He wrote--without fail--in every letter about his gratitude for America and his parents and the way he was raised. At the same time he pointed out the good in the places where he was stationed. He commented on the beautiful scenery, the hardworking locals, how neat and clean Germans were.
He generously showed interest in what was happening at home. He complimented my grandma, his little sister, at every opportunity and encouraged her in all her pursuits. He responded to questions from home and followed the local high school sports teams.
He embodied what F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "Trouble has no necessary connection with discouragement." He was constantly upbeat in his letters. There is one solitary instance of his frustration showing through. It was after nearly a year of training in artillery when he was switched to infantry and sent to Europe as the war was ramping up. Not only was it wasted time in all the training but infantry was considerably more dangerous. By the next letter, he was done complaining and ready to optimistically look ahead.
At the end of the war, he wanted the soldiers that had been there longer and been in more dangerous positions to go home first. He had been away for years and had a young wife and son at home but he was happy to stick it out several more months because the other soldiers deserved home before he did.
I have wished over and over Braeden was there when we read the letters. (For one thing, he could fill in the gaps of what is happening with the war. Braeden knows WWII!) More than that though, I want some of Shirley's character to seep into the pores of my children. I want us all to learn from his kindness and good humor and gratitude and optimism. On every letter he wrote, Shirley closed with these words, "Keep smiling." Then he would add a tiny smiling face.
It is gratifying to me that when Mark and Emma write Braeden, they close their letters and emails the same way.