A hundred or so years ago, when Marilyn’s grandmother Ursula was a young adventuress, the world itself reeled from what it called the Great War. The gentlemen who spent their late afternoons in the widow’s parlor represented the fathers, uncles, elder brothers of men who had served in Europe. Even in this small town, virtually every family had been touched by loss.
The men who survived returned to their homes and families, took up their occupations, made their way as providers. But they were changed. Their wives and sweethearts knew it; their children, if they were old enough, felt it. Families rarely spoke of it. At that time, as now, the American style is to look forward, not backward; to focus on the positive; to grieve, if absolutely necessary, in private, not in public.
Ursula’s father had been with a unit in France, serving as its chaplain. The girl was too young to have firm memories of her father before his experience at war. She could recall the smell of his pipe tobacco, and the warmth of his arms when he carried her to bed. She also remembered the loneliness in her mother after he left, and the pervasive worry of their household while he was away. “Away” became a thick and heavy word, one that dominated their days of waiting for her father to come home.
He returned with life and limb intact, and a broken spirit that could be temporarily restored by copious amounts of alcohol. It broke her mother’s spirit, too, making her into more of a nursemaid than a wife. Much later, as her father lay dying, he finally spoke to Ursula about his experience in the war.
“Mud, blood, and helplessness,” he said. “I lost count of how many bodies I prayed over, too late to help, hoping to send them to heaven instead of the hell around us. I lost count of how many times I wished to join them, hoping the next bomb would land on me, sending me to heaven. Or anywhere other than the trenches filling with mud, blood, and helplessness.”
Ursula took his hand, gently, noticing how thin his skin had become, almost translucent over the delicate bones of his fingers. How easily it bruised. How long it took to heal over.
“I felt a fraud, little bear. There was no God out there, and yet I had to convince men there was. A God, a purpose, a reason for their suffering. There was no God, no reason, no purpose. Just mud, blood, and helplessness.” He closed his eyes.
Marilyn wept when her grandmother told her this story, decades later, in the middle of yet another war. She wept for all the men who had died, all the men who returned with maimed bodies, maimed spirits, all the families who received them, all the damage done by war, all the mud, all the blood, all the irreparable loss.