Long-ago lessons on love

By Charles Cooper, Special Contributor
 
I am reading letters my parents wrote while my father was in Korea. He went over in 1954, less than a year after the cease fire. My mother moved back home into a rental house in DeQueen, Arkansas. She had two kids. Korea was still scary, and my father was on the DMZ. He said he looked through his binoculars one day and saw a Red Army soldier looking at him through binoculars. It’s Hollywood stuff, but it happens.
 
My parents wrote about the weather. In September it was hot in DeQueen and cold in Korea. They wrote about the kids—potty training and playmates. They wrote about money, the allotment checks and bills, which my mother itemized to a penny. 
 
A big topic was the romance of my mother’s mother and a local widower named Fritz. They were both over 60 when they slipped off one morning to Texarkana and got married, then spent their honeymoon in the Ozarks.
 
These lines of a letter written in September 1954 have to do with comments in a Sunday school class after my grandmother returned from her honeymoon. They also have to do with a piece my Aunt Elizabeth did for the local paper, The DeQueen Bee. 
 
My mother wrote, “Mother went to Sunday School at the Presbyterian Church….We haven’t had a preacher yet. Mrs. Capgras [not her actual name] hurt Mother’s feelings about the write up of the wedding. She told Mother it sounded like an obituary. Mrs. Capgras went on to say that it would have been alright for teenagers but not people Mother’s age. She turned to Elizabeth and asked her if she put that mess in the paper.
 
“By that time the whole class was in sympathy with Mother and looking daggers at Mrs. Capgras. One woman behind Mother was crying a little. She married for the first time late in life. Mother turned and asked her if they talked to her that way. She said, ‘Not to my face.’ The Sunday school lesson was on love.”
 
My poor mother suffering a miserable summer with temperatures over 100 and no air conditioning, and her husband away in a dangerous place and not for the first time, and my sister crying all night and me running out the door and into the street all day—she did not need this ugliness in Sunday school of all places.
 
I can picture Mrs. Capgras. Those were the days when women in church wore dark dresses and sat with their backs straight. I can picture her speaking with red lips pursed as if she were throwing her voice into a wooden caricature of herself.
 
Perhaps she had had designs on Fritz. Or maybe her comments came out of a less specific envy. My grandmother was tall and athletic. (She could, family legends say, stand before a door flatfooted and kick the top of the doorframe, and had the legs to make it look good.) Or maybe Mrs. Capgras just enjoyed the sport of throwing tongue daggers at other people’s hearts. No matter. It hurt my mother and grandmother and made some gentle soul sitting behind them cry.
 
I have a letter my mother wrote a few days after those caustic comments. She said, “I took him [him being me] to the church supper last night. Elizabeth baked an extra pie for me. Charlie wore the suit Elizabeth gave him for his birthday. It’s size 4…. Charlie had a big time. There were 25 or more children there. They ate at low tables and sat in little chairs.”
 
I am sure Mrs. Capgras was at that potluck, doing what she did best and eyeing the crowd with metaphorical field glasses, but there is no mention of her. What mattered to my mother was that she was in church finding the support she needed, and that her son was making friends.
 
My father wrote in that same September, “I was cold all day yesterday. I couldn’t seem to get warm. We don’t have stoves in the tents as yet…. It is also raining and has been for the last few days. The wind has been strong enough that it blew down three tents.”
 
My father was happy to report that “yesterday we drew our winter sleeping bags.” He said, “It felt good last night. The bags have an inner liner which is filled with feathers, something like a feather bed with a zipper to fasten it around you.”
 
So there was my father pushed up against the cold reality of the Cold War, all zipped up in his bag and remembering what he had read in his letters from home. I suspect he was glad to think about the church supper; I suspect my mother was glad to think about the sleeping bag and the promise of a stove for her husband’s tent. 
 
That’s how we get through war and Mrs. Capgras. We remember, as my mother did, that the Sunday school lesson was on love, and as Paul says, we think about what is good: “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8-9).
 
Think about church suppers, sleeping bags and love letters. 
 
The Rev. Cooper, a retired elder, lives in Fayetteville.