I like books that echo in my mind long after I have read them. Frederich Buechner, whose collection of daily readings I am working through, writes about his love for words that echo like the tones of a choir in a large cathedral. I would like to expand that idea to whole books that stick with me for several days, sometimes weeks, echoing and re-echoing, inviting me to reread certain sections.
One such book is Scott Turow’s Ordinary Heroes, a novel about the experiences of a son who discovers among his deceased father’s papers a letter revealing that he was engaged to another woman before marriage to his mother, and secondly, documents that show that his father, a U.S. officer in World War II, was court martialed at the end of the war and condemned to be executed. Yet clearly that hadn’t happened, for he lived a fairly uneventful life as a lawyer in the United States, married to a Jewish woman and raising two children. Using military archives, letters and his father’s own notes, the son uncovers the truth of his father’s life.
I had read the book before, racing through it to find out what happened. This time I stopped along the way to savor key actions of the main characters, both chosen and stumbled into, and the truths unfolding along the way. Turow also describes the almost indescribable horror of war as seen first-hand by a soldier in combat. Some ideas kept echoing in me, especially the main character’s thoughts about his relationship with his parents over the years. His parents had kept the details of what happened during and after the war secret. They had lived a lie. He comments that parents deliberately keep secret certain details of their lives.
Because I have been working on a biography of my parents’ lives for several years, I was forced to agree with Turow’s main character. In telling me about their lives in that faraway land of the Ukraine, Mother and Dad had picked and chosen what they wanted to reveal. Some of it was too painful to talk about, I think, so they hid it deep inside themselves. Now years later, as I try to piece together their lives I wish I had asked more when they were alive – but at the time I didn’t know what to ask.
I have long believed if my father had been freer to speak about his experiences during World War I when he was a medic with the Russian Red Cross on a hospital train bringing the wounded back from the front to hospitals for treatment, life might have been a little easier for him in his later years. Now and then a story would slip out, but in the main, the war experiences were a closed book. That and the horrors of the Russian Revolution and the famine, pestilence, destruction of property and lives by the anarchists, and loss of a much-cherished way of life in the Mennonite colonies. Someone has described this earlier ideal period as “forever summer, forever Sunday.” If a story accidentally dropped out of my father's memory bank, he regretted it. He knew it would come back to haunt him at night in the form of vivid nightmares.
Turow writes, “When our parents talk about their lives, they relay what they think is best, for their sake or ours. And as their children, we hear what we want, believe what we can, and, as time lengthens, pray and judge and question as our needs demand. We understand them in that light. And when we tell our parents’ tales to the world, or even to ourselves, the story is always our own.”
And so, as I write my parents’ story about their lives in Russia and in Canada, am I actually telling the story of my own fears and travails of the spirit? I wonder.
On a more humorous note: Buechner comments that the umlauts of the fathers are visited upon the sons. People with an umlaut in their name know that anyone seeing it written doesn’t know how to pronounce it and anyone hearing it pronounced doesn’t know how to spell it. Umlauts are the burdens of children.