my mother’s pain + some pleasure

It’s a story I have recounted to close friends dozens of times: “My mother’s first husband died within a few months of their wedding, and she had a miscarriage at his funeral.” I’ve always recognized that such an event had to have been traumatic, but last week, a similar situation occurred on an Australian series we’ve been watching, and seeing it reenacted in front of my eyes gutted me. I had come to care about these characters and was able to empathize with the bereaved partner in a visceral way that I had never done with my mother. It was searing, and it’s been continuing to roil my emotions as the woman in the story continues living with the absence of the partner she loved as her life goes on in subsequent episodes.

I have several drafts of blog posts, disorganized mish-mashes of random thoughts, but have not had time to focus enough to create something. [This is retirement?!] I finally saw a more unscheduled weekend ahead with time to write, and all those ideas retreated into insignificance when this emotional whirlwind, set off by a fictional story, threw me sideways. It’s taken me days to get this completed. I hope it doesn’t end up so long that it will take you days to read it…

It’s so many years overdue, this sudden, powerful identification with the 20-year-old woman who lived through this loss nine years before I was born. So please indulge me. I need to put my thoughts out there, to step back and examine them for a minute, hoping that doing so will settle something in me and in my (somehow) continuing relationship with my mother, who died in January 2013.

Bill, Dorothy, Bruce

Dorothy Ruth Schechter was the third of seven children born to Harry and Florence (Lupfer) Schechter on September 2, 1922 in Jetmore, Kansas. Compared to her two older brothers, Bill and Bruce, she shouldered a fair amount of responsibility around the house — well, of course she did! It was an era in which being female came with expectation of some degree of servitude, especially if you were an older sibling. In her memoir Sea of Grass: Grandchildren of the Pioneers, she tells about her mother, Florence: “… Mother was a very busy lady. She had no help, no time-saving devices (except for Dorothy) and money was in short supply.”

Front row: Vada, Florence, Richard, Harry, Dale Back row: Loren, Bruce, Dorothy, Bill

As she grew up, Dorothy distinguished herself in Jetmore with her musical ability and scholastic aptitude. At some point, she skipped a grade, and graduated at 16. Theirs was not a wealthy family, and it was the Depression, so I’m not sure how they managed it, but at least five of the seven siblings (maybe more?) attended Sterling College (in Sterling, KS – 100+ miles from Jetmore) after high school. Dorothy met and dated her future husband, Robert (Bob) Pinkerton, during her freshman year. The next fall, they broke up and she dated someone else, but clearly, there was a spark there that would reignite two years later. She was unable to afford to continue in college without working to pay off her debt, so taught in one-room schoolhouses in the area for the next two years (1941-1943).

1941 — Dorothy with her students, grades 2-8 — one-room school south of Jetmore
Outside toilets, no phone, janitor or handyman. She had to light the coal stove, pump water, clean AND teach for $70/month.

Within a year after Pearl Harbor, Bob Pinkerton, along with his two brothers and three of Dorothy’s brothers as well, enlisted. Bob was in the Army Air Corps, getting flight training in Texas, but during a leave in the summer of 1942 he went to the Sterling commencement, where he and Dorothy spent 10 days getting re-acquainted at the end of which they “knew [they] were serious.” Before she started her second year of teaching in Nickerson, KS, Dorothy rode a bus to Uvalde, Texas, where Bob was stationed, for a short visit. She visited again at Christmas, by which time Bob was in advanced training. They wrote each other often and a few of those letters survive. As early as August of ’42, Bob and Dorothy were tossing around the question of whether marriage made sense during a war. At the end of the school year in May 1943, Dorothy went to Texas again, where Bob formally proposed. They agreed on a tentative wedding date of July 12 and after a 10-day visit, she returned to Jetmore to convince her parents that a wartime marriage was a good idea. “They objected until they received a letter from Bob.” (It’s a good letter.)

The wedding was indeed on July 12. The wedding announcement from the paper is full of details — the names of many out-of-town guests, what each female in the bridal party was wearing, the exact address to which the couple would be moving… and they say WE have a lack of privacy. (I’m quite sure no one was required to sign a waiver agreeing to share all this information.) Dorothy’s Sea of Grass memoir talks about the excitement of that day and their move to a small house in Austin. One line that is typical of her wry humor is “The house was probably nothing to write home about, but I did.” Bob still had to be gone a lot, but she kept herself busy making curtains on a treadle sewing machine she rented and making friends with her neighbors. Bob was home on the 8th of September for a belated celebration of Dorothy’s 21st birthday. He “mentioned to me that if anything happened to him, he wanted me to go back to Sterling to get my degree… The next morning he handed me an official paper, his beneficiary arrangement.” His beneficiary was thereby changed from Bob’s father to her.

The following day, September 9, less than two months after the wedding, Dorothy got the news that two planes had gone down in an unexpected storm and ten men were missing. Two days later, the wreckage was found about sixty miles from Jetmore. Dorothy and nine other loved ones of the accident victims were sent messages with the news. She and Bob’s brother Bill made a train trip to Nampa, Idaho for the funeral, where Dorothy met her parents-in-law for the first time. After the service, she “left Nampa with one goal in mind. I would take Bob’s suggestion given to me on our last night together… It was the first faltering step toward the lifelong journey of a life I had neither chosen nor ever intended to live. And, thus it was, with this simple and painful beginning of a plan, I returned to Jetmore and my people.”

I found two V-mail notes of sympathy to Dorothy, one from her cousin Oliver, another from folks I don’t know. Oliver quoted Tennyson: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost… ” then recommended that she “consider the book of Job.” The other note said, “He wouldn’t have wanted you to mourn. . . . rather rejoice in his victory — Eternal Life through Jesus Christ his Lord.” I can’t imagine that these messages, however well-meant, were effective in easing her pain. I can’t imagine that any message would have helped.

I also discovered a spiral notebook that Mom had labeled “Keepsake Scribblings,” which was a sporadically-kept journal. There were several typed poems in between the pages. This is one of them.

I said at the outset that my mother “had a miscarriage at the funeral.” She told me this one day when I was in high school, sobbing to the point that she could barely speak. There is no mention of this in her memoir, nor in letters — except for one that Dorothy wrote to her parents from Nampa, Idaho, that could be alluding to it. The letter is dated September 20, 1943 and starts: “Finally I feel well enough to write. Saturday and Sunday I had a terribly upset stomach which the Dr. thought was just a nervous reaction after the funeral.” But then, why would she not tell her parents that she miscarried? (On the other hand, why would she tell me she had a miscarriage if she didn’t?) What confirmed to me that she had indeed been pregnant is what might have been Bob’s last letter to her (helpfully dated “Tuesday evening”). At the end, there was a P.S. followed by a P.P.S. that read, “Here’s a little contribution for Jr. from his Daddy.”

Why is this story so deeply meaningful to me? Well, Dorothy was in many ways a wonderful, talented, caring human being. She was, however, prone to anger, and tended to nurse grievances against those close to her, especially my dad, Ralph, who could never quite measure up to the romantic figure of Bob, who I believe remained a presence in Dorothy’s memory until the last few years of my parents’ life. (They died two months apart, Ralph in November 2012, Dorothy in January 2013.)

I don’t want to speak for my four siblings, but my relationship with my mother over the years, which was most often loving, cordial and full of humor, was punctuated throughout my childhood and adulthood with unpredictable encounters with her irrational, out-of-proportion anger and hypersensitivity to what she considered personal slights. I have always wondered whether this behavior, which certainly affected my sense of myself, was connected with the unresolved trauma of Bob’s death. That trauma, and Bob himself, seemed to remain present in our mother’s life, and, by extension, in ours. I don’t remember NOT knowing of Bob’s existence. My older brother Andrew, born in 1947, has told me that he always kind of thought that Bob might have been his “real” father.

I found fresh evidence of the long-lasting nature of her trauma in another old letter. There was an amazing, gracious one written in March 1967, nearly 25 years after Bob’s death, to Dorothy from Bob’s parents. It was clearly a response to one she had written to them. She had evidently come across letters from Bob that flooded her with emotion that she spilled out in a letter to them. His parents, always called “Mom and Dad (or Grandma and Grandpa) Pinkerton,” were quite elderly by then, and their reply to her was kind and understanding, but also an attempt to help her put Bob’s death in perspective: “But now, Dorothy, let us turn our eyes from the past — not to forget it altogether, but to make use of what we learned then, in the Present and the Future. There is still need for Courage and Hope — and more need for smiles than tears. (Tears, by the way, do no good, except to wash the dust out of our eyes, that we may see things to smile at).”

Dorothy Schechter Pinkerton as homecoming queen after her return to Sterling

Well, that was a long story, huh? I didn’t really expect you all to keep reading, but I had no choice but to keep writing.

A quick encapsulation to tie up loose ends: Dorothy did return to Sterling and, with the anxieties and further losses of World War II rumbling in the background, finished her coursework in music (piano/organ) in May 1945. She taught music and art in yet another country school the following year, and went home to Jetmore for Christmas. She attended a gathering that included the new Presbyterian minister, Don Morris, and his wife. Don’s brother Ralph was there to visit, and was listening as Don sang “A Letter Edged in Black” (in Mom’s words, a “grim song”) while Dorothy played the piano. Ralph was smitten with her immediately. They went out a few times, then corresponded: “As Ralph tells it, he’d write and eventually I would respond.” Long story short, Ralph and Dorothy married in July 1946. They had five children, of which I am the third.

As a reward for getting this far, here are a few diversions:

from the mouths (and pencils) of kids

A bit of background for those who have never taught beginning reading: Many little ones can recite the alphabet and recognize capital letters, but they assume that the name of a letter is a clue to the sound it makes in words. This is true for some letters, (e.g. B, D, P, T), but the names of the letters C, G, H, W and Y do not give a clue to their primary sound.
 
Adam, now a fourth-grader, came for tutoring when he was in first grade. He had mostly learned letter sounds, but occasionally lapsed into relying on the letter name when attempting to sound out words. Early in the year, he brought in a spelling list of silent-e words (e.g. mile, gate, like, etc.). We had analyzed the effect of the silent e on the previous vowel in each of them, studied the words, and near the end of the session, just to change it up a bit, I told him I would give him the initial letter and a clue to each word, then he would guess the word and write it on the whiteboard.
 
So, I said, “This word starts with G. If you were in the backyard and wanted to leave, but the house was locked, you would look for a…”
 
Adam was very puzzled, thought for a few moments, then said, “A jainsaw?”

A song for Advent with my friends Connie Jahrmarkt and Liz Galpin:

And now from my friend, Parker Davis, birder extraordinaire:

Finally, the latest virtual choir video from our UU choir, final mix by Sam Plattner:

7 comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this…xoxo Pais

    On Wed, Dec 9, 2020 at 9:14 PM itsjustapuzzle.com wrote:

    > Boo’s Thoughts posted: ” It’s a story I have recounted to close friends > dozens of times: “My mother’s first husband died within a few months of > their wedding, and she had a miscarriage at his funeral.” I’ve always > recognized that such an event had to have been traumatic, but” >

    Like

  2. Susan – This blog entry is riveting. You wrote about it in a manner that captivated me. The only time I was at all taken out of the story was when things like ‘if you’re still reading’ snapped me back to reality. Of course I was still reading! The old photos and writings give it extra depth and fascination. I think that women are impacted more than we know (or discuss) about either their own miscarriage or that of a woman close to them. It’s courageous of you to write this piece. I’m impressed that you tackled such a challenging topic and the written result is quite amazing. Frances.

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    • Thanks for your response, Frances. It’s a riveting story to me, obviously, and I’m not surprised that it also was for some readers. There’s a deep need for self-deprecation in me, hence the “If you’re still reading. . . ” Love to you, and thanks for the tamales! We’ve already indulged in some, with lots more waiting in the freezer.

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  3. We never knew this deeply moving story. It was beautifully written and clearly from your soul. It made me think about my own parents and all the things I don’t know about their lives. There are many mysteries around my father’s family, but he died when I was 15, so I had no time to ask him all the questions that I have now. Your piece makes me want to search for some answers.

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    • Yes, families hold many mysteries. I was fortunate that I had letters and photos to fill in the picture. I hope you do find out more about your parents, especially your dad — sounds like a mystery worth exploring. Love to both, S

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  4. What an intriguing story and reflection. Family histories are precious. Did writing give you the resolution you hoped for?

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