We had a very quiet Thanksgiving and only one of our kids could come home. I cooked the complete turkey meal and baked a couple of pumpkin pies that morning too. By early evening our son had gone home. All of the dishes were cleaned up and the leftovers put away. I spent a few hours working in my sewing/craft room, then picked up a book that I like to read bits and pieces from often.
I keep War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll, on a small table by my recliner. A few years ago, I mentioned General Pershing’s famous WWI letter to his young son, Warren, which I came across in this book. General Pershing’s letter to his son was a father explaining the important values Americans fights to protect and preserve. It’s probably my favorite letter in the book, but a close second is a letter written in 1918, by Maude B. Fisher, an American Red Cross nurse. She penned one of the most touching letters to Mrs. Hogan, the mother of a young soldier, Richard Hogan, who died of influenza in their hospital. This wonderful nurse took the time to pen a very personal letter, so that a grieving mother would know how her son died. The letter includes details of how brave and cheerful the dying soldier was, the care he received, and even more than that this nurse wrote the details of the soldier’s burial:
“He was laid to rest in the little cemetery of Commercy, and sleeps under a simple wooden cross among his comrades who, like him, have died for their country. His grave number is 22, plot 1. His aluminum identification tag is on the cross , and a similar one around his neck, both bearing his serial number, 2793346.
The plot of the grave in the cemetery where your son is buried was given to the Army for our boys and the people of Commercy will always tend it with loving hands and keep it fresh and clean. I enclose here a few leaves of grass that grows near in a pretty meadow.
A big hill overshadows that place and the sun was setting behind it just as the Chaplain said the last prayer over your boy.”
page 171, War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll
No one required this nurse to write to this grieving mother, because the Army notified fallen soldiers’ families, but she cared enough to want this mother to have more details. The book offers a few details about each letter. Mrs. Hogan lost two of her other children back home in Woburn, Massachusetts, during the 1918 influenza epidemic. It must have been a great comfort for her to know her son far away was dutifully cared for as he lay dying and that he was given a proper burial. And imagine her relief knowing exactly where her son was buried.
Thoughtful good deeds, like Maude Fisher’s, used to be very common when most people were reared to put other people before themselves and when quietly doing the right thing was drilled into children and served as the cultural norm.
Almost every good deed now is posted on social media, hyped as some fake gimmicky publicity stunt for attention, or used to sell oneself as more caring than someone else.
Maude Fisher reminds me of the same kind of nurse my mother was. My mother sent me a little book of Psalms and prayers in 1980, when I was far away from home and going through a hard time in my life. My mother explained how she came to have this little book:
“… died in 1964 and this booklet was unclaimed by her relatives. She was a lovely old lady and it was a rewarding experience caring for her. I am giving this to you Susie, as over the years I found pleasure in reading psalms and prayers.
As you know I’m not a person to force religion on anyone. I do have faith in God and you will find comfort in reading psalms in times when you’re distressed and unhappy.”
In 1980, I was young and considered myself more agnostic than faithful, but my mother was right. Over the years, I have picked up this little book or my Bible and turned to the Psalms when I feel “distressed and unhappy”.
In 2001, my mother was hospitalized for several weeks and I began to worry a great deal, even though she and my sisters assured me that she was improving. My mother kept telling me there was no need to come to PA, because she would be out of the hospital soon. Still, I worried and I mailed this booklet to PA and asked my sister to take it to my mother in the hospital. My mother was happy to see it again and to read it.
My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly on the day she was supposed to be discharged to a local rehabilitation facility for some follow-on care.
My mother quietly helped as many people as she could. She never talked about it, she just did it, because it was the right thing to do. People like Maude Fisher and my mother used to be the rule, not the exception.
I don’t have the religious education to argue Christian theology and truthfully if something doesn’t make sense to me, like so much in most religions, I refuse to say, “I believe.” However, I think having rules or guidelines to serve as guard rails in life, to keep you on track, and sign posts to keep from getting lost, are very helpful. I reread the Sermon on the Mount often. I can understand that. Matthew 6:1-4 has served as the guide for how I try to live my life and it assuredly was how my mother and Maude Fisher lived theirs:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Watching America’s endless game of partisan one upmanship has caused me to reevaluate my own strident partisan views. Truly, so much of the extreme emotional investment in these “political hills to die on” won’t matter at all if the country is filled with raging partisans, who hate each other. The hate bodes poorly, with many Americans who refuse to even talk to anyone with opposing political views, some want those with opposing views silenced, and there are even some wishing those with opposing partisan views were dead.
We could all take a page from Maude Fisher’s and my mother’s book. Caring about other people is about more than clicking “like” on social media feeds or posting about every shallow thought that pops into your head. I wonder how many people attending a funeral today would take the time away from their smartphone to even notice that the sun was setting when a young soldier was buried or the pretty meadow. Assuredly, I doubt hardly anyone would take the time to pick “a few leaves of grass” for remembrance and pen a letter like this to a grieving mother.