Sunday, January 25, 2015

Readings and Greetings: Souvenir, A Daughter Discovers her Father's War

Simply written, I believe there are no accidents.  This book was published in 2001, at a time when my mind was spinning in other directions, and before I discovered my own father's Japanese flag from World War II. Thanks to an earlier post about my father, a distant cousin had read this book and emailed me the note, "This book is a must for you."  

"In January 1944 when my father crossed the Pacific for the first time, he did not know where he was going.  He did not know that he was headed for New Zealand.  He did not know that after a year of training and waiting....he and his buddies in the Twenty-first Infantry Division would be transported to northern Luzon, the Philippines, where they would sweat out five and a half months of combat."  Louise Steinman's prologue captured my soul and my gut.  I could have finished the book in a day and called it a fast read, but I realized that each letter her father wrote home could have been my father writing, so I stopped after each letter and reflected on what I knew about my father's war in the Pacific. 

The author basis her true story on hundreds of letters, her father wrote to her mother during World War II, and a flag. After the death of her father in 1990 she and her brother began the process of cleaning out his home.  A rusted box was found in the underground storage filled with manila envelopes. Carrying it upstairs to the light she writes, "I opened it (the manila envelope) and found a slippery piece of white silk, folded in eighths.  I held it up to the light.  Pin pricks of daylight showed through the fragile fabric--tiny holes where the fine strands had given way.  The orange-red disc in the center was faded.  Brushed over the surface were Japanese characters, and speckled among them, faint drops of red-brown.  Could they be blood? Spooked, I quickly refolded it and put it back in the envelope, back in the box."  

This is where I stopped reading for the first time.  I knew my father, too, had returned from the War with the same flag. For days, I searched my memory for what few facts I might have remembered about my father's experience, but like so many of us born to those amazing men and women, their stories remained hidden from their families.  

What I know about my father's war can be seen on the flag he returned with and the story in pictures of his years in the Army-1940--45. 

The entries include his departure from Wichita in December 1940, followed by his tour through the Philippines, New Guinea, Japan, New Guinea, and the Aleutian Islands.  I have no idea of the order of events nor of the battles.

Reading The Souvenir helped me to understand not only my father, Johnie Stapp, but the men at Miami Golf and Country Club; the men with missing limbs, who leaned next to the Security Bank and begged for food or money; the men who smoked a couple of packs of cigarettes daily; the men who worked hard all day then spent their evenings in the local bars and taverns; the men who had nothing to say about the war they survived.  

10 September 1945 (Norman Steinman writes) 
When I get home, I never want to be reminded of the Philippines.  Everything on this island will always bring back sad memories and remind me of six long months of hell--living in fear--seeing such horrible sights day in and especially the nights of being awake and always on guard wondering and waiting.  

 Louise Steinman takes the journey into her father's past: to Japan to return the flag to the family of the young Japanese soldier who died; to the American Cemetery in Manila; to Luzon and the battle fields of Balete Pass; and finally to the beauty of the swans in Suibara.  The book is worth the time spent in reading, absorbing, and reflecting on life, death, and the grace of unconditional love.

There are no accidents.  Louise found her father's flag and told his story which eventually led to helping me understand my father. 

Letty Stapp Watt
Johnie Stapp's daughter and historian

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Answered Prayer

The drive from her home of sixty years was only a few blocks to her new apartment at the assisted living community, but it felt like time was holding our breath and would not release it.  I could see the tears run down my ninety-one year old mother-in-law's face. For months we'd all prayed for God's help in caring for her.   "Alleen, we only want the best for you.  You are lonely and scared in your home and afraid to cook.  Please give this a chance.  You might really like your new apartment."  I pleaded.  "I don't see how I can." Then she put out her bottom lip and dropped her head in resignation. My heart sank even lower, and I asked myself, "Whatever have we done?"

It was a long slow walk down the hallway, as Alleen pushed her walker with her two sons Jack and John beside her, and me walking behind carrying a few bags of household items. Unbeknownst to her, Jack and I had already moved in a new dusty rose colored love seat, an end table, a small table with two chairs, wall mounted TV, a new twin bed, with bedspread and drapes in shades of watery blues and muted rose, and shower curtain of soft rose tones with raised flowers decorated in pearls and lace adding dimension to the curtain.  Now we carried pictures and wall hangings from home, some kitchen ware, lamps, and shelving to call it home.  

When she at last looked up after walking into the apartment, her eyes saw the new turquoise watery blue drapes with the winter sun flashing through the shades, then her eyes saw the new rose colored love seat.  She looked no more and pushed the walker to the love seat and plopped down.  I didn't know whether she'd smile or cry.

One by one her sons carried in framed family pictures, painted artwork from her kids, a prized picture of bears photographed by Art Wolfe, and a few what nots.  Alleen is never without words, so when she caught her breath she began, "You shouldn't have.  You shouldn't have.  This is so pretty.  I had no idea you would buy pretty things for my apartment.  That's a new dresser isn't it?  Now I can open a drawer, and it won't fall out on my foot.  Everything I have at home is old and broken."  She paused to smile, "I don't deserve this.  I've just been a cry baby for months now and made your lives miserable.  Why did you do this?"  Before we could even speak she continued, "Is this all mine?"  

A collective sigh of relief spread throughout the room as John, Jack and I smiled and reassured her how much we loved her.  One by one the boxes and sacks were emptied, with Alleen orchestrating the final set up on her new apartment.  I unwrapped a twelve inch pale white stone statue of Mary on a donkey holding the baby Jesus with Joseph walking beside them.  It had been hidden on a shelf back in Jeannie's old bedroom, but when I discovered it, while packing, it seemed it needed to go to the new apartment. I held it and asked where she'd like placed or if she even wanted it.  

She smiled and took a deep breath.  "I want it right there on that shelf."  She pointed to the half wall shelf dividing the living room and bedroom. "Where did you find that?"  Her breathing suddenly became labored, and we all stopped. With her hand on her heart she continued, "I haven't seen it in years.  You gave it to me a long time ago, and I just loved it.  I worried that we had broken it or lost it somewhere." 

I looked again at the statue.  I did love its humble beauty. "Are you sure I gave it to you?" "Oh, yes.  One year when you lived in Kansas you bought it," she replied.  I studied it again, and then recalled how I enjoyed shopping at Stutzman's Nursery at Christmas time when the greenhouse was filled with poinsettias, and the gift shop sparkled with ornaments and Christian decor. We both smiled at the recognition.  "You're right Alleen, I did buy this. I'm so glad you remembered."  

She smiled and dropped her head down at a sideways bow. "Thank you.  Thank you."  She began.  "We can leave it there all year to watch over me."  

She seemed happy and relaxed for the first time in months and months.  I quietly reflected, God does amazing work in our answered prayers.   

If you'd like to read the prequel to The Answered Prayer click on the link below to read "The Move."
One Woman's Day story

Friday, January 9, 2015

Miami Memories: A Lasting Imprint

I'm one of the few 6%, and I have Mrs. Louise Watson, Shari Lewis, and Minnie Pearl to thank for that.  Not long ago The Today show discussed career choices people have made.  In a study in the Journal of Social Forces, just 6% of adults have ended up in the careers they had aspired to when they were kids. Then I considered mine, and what about my friends or classmates.  Did any of us even think about careers back then?  If we did was it a dream, a goal, a vision of the future, or was there someone we wanted to be?  

For as long as I can remember I really just wanted to be a mother, secretly a comedian, but LuJean Howard was already our class clown, so that job was taken.   I loved performing tricks at my parent's parties, and telling stories to the neighborhood kids, but Hollywood never beckoned me.  If I were going to go to college then of course, I would be a teacher, but sometimes I dreamed of becoming a race car driver or a world traveler who published stories about exotic places to visit.    By high school, I knew after reading On the Beach that I'd become an English teacher, move to Australia, then naturally, I'd make a difference in the lives of hundreds of people and change the world along the way, if we lived that long. 

Along the way life opened and closed several other doors before I found my calling and career.  By age 19 I was already a substitute teacher, then I worked with Head Start after Katy was born, but my lucky break came when the Miami Public Library needed a children's librarian.  Suddenly, I had the best job in the world, and it blossomed to be one of the best choices of my life.  The Saturday morning and afternoon story hours were empty because there was a new yellow big bird on television that had garnered every ones attention.  To be honest I was nervous about telling stories to children, so when no one arrived I felt relieved, but then it became a challenge.  How to fill the library with children at all hours of the day.  I began to reflect on my recent childhood and recalled how much I loved Minnie Pearl, Shari Lewis, and so many entertainers I'd see on the Ed Sullivan Show.  

One day I found an old puppet in a closet and brought it to life when the puppet found the warmth of my hand and saw the smile on my face.  I imagined I was Shari Lewis talking to Lamb Chops.  I then taught myself how to make puppets, so children coming to story hour would have puppets to use. 

Serendipitously, a class on storytelling was being offered and I thought, "how perfect and so easy."  I was so wrong.  I worked day and night for three weeks to learn one story that only lasted about eight minutes!  In the end, I was hooked, and I spent the rest of my life pursuing stories to tell for children and adults.  How lucky can one person be. I did my best to reflect on the smile and
enthusiasm of Minnie Pearl.  Her voice still echos in my mind, "How Deeee folks. I'm jist so proud to be here."  Her smiling face convinced me that she meant every word she spoke. Her jokes and funny stories made us all laugh, and I loved to hear my parents laughing while watching her.

The hardest lesson came when I realized that I'd never make a living as a librarian without a college degree.  Being a single parent made the choice easy, stay near family and finish my education.  Now raising a little girl,  I wanted to become an elementary teacher or librarian.

It was the quiet sincere librarian, Mrs. Watson, who had left the greatest imprint on my life by sincerely believing that books and reading could make a difference in our lives.  At Central Jr. High we had a 3rd floor study hall with a tiny room filled with books.  A few hours a day Mrs. Watson worked up there while her remaining time was in the real high school.  I loved to be in that hushed room and smell the paper and books.  Even when those ratty old boys became

obnoxious in study hall, little Mrs. Watson could quiet them down. High school was no different, a large study hall room and small dimly lit library, but again her smile and passion for reading set me at ease.  She handed me a thick historical romance and suggested I read it cover to cover. When I finished that book I felt empty on the inside, like I'd lost a friend or a family. It was about a woman who was to marry Napoleon, but fate changed her life. Perhaps, the pulse and heartbeat of love on the pages of a book changed my fate, too.

Mrs. Watson had me hooked for life, and now more than 50 years later and a career as a librarian and teacher, I still smile deeply inside hoping I made a difference in at least one person's life.  

Letty Stapp Watt, storyteller and historian


Friday, January 2, 2015

When Exercise Became Sexercise

No matter the weather our Lucy dog needs exercise or we have no rest.  Sadly, Jack and I need even more exercise, so to satisfy our bouncing begging dog 

we often take her to the walking trail on North Base. This winter we've experienced several weeks of fog and drizzle which makes the waking slightly miserable.

So when the sun came out we jumped at the chance to walk the dog and then perhaps enjoy a delicious lunch at LaBaquette, never mind the cold blowing wind sailing in from the northwest.  The winter view of the setting moon relaxed Jack and I, as we bundled up and began our hunkered down walk into the brisk north wind.  

Lucy paid no attention to the wind nor to the afternoon moon, and in no time at all she was out of sight.  We slowed down, held hands, and giggled like a couple suddenly without little children running through the house.  Our eyes cast around looking for a low area out of sight, but this not our old Kansas field with tall grasses and miles of privacy.

Then without notice Lucy came charging from behind like a greyhound racing out of control.  Always aware of her clipping abilities and how hard the ground can be when we fall, we both automatically stepped aside as she barreled through us.  How proud she was when she galloped lightly back to us, with her helicopter tail in full spin.  We'd been caught just thinking about sex! How reminiscent of moments with our children.

The remainder of the walk was just for Lucy, filled with chase scenes and hide-and-go-seek maneuvers by Jack, while I exploded with belly laughter as the two of them played.  In the end, we loaded our now hot and sweaty bodies into the car.  As Jack drove to Sonic (not even near LaBaquette), I noticed a text message from a friend.  I felt compelled to explain why I hadn't replied earlier, so I wrote, "Jack and I have been out in the field sexercising."  

She immediately replied, "What did you do?"  Then I saw the error, and once again I laughed out of control.  I guess it was either a spell check error, a Freudian slip, or perhaps just a wishful expression. 

Good Night Sun.  Good Night Moon.
Here's hoping that all of your New Year's Wishes come true.