my sweet old etcetera
aunt lucy during the recent
war could and what
is more did tell you just
what everybody was fighting
isabel created hundreds
hundreds) of socks not to
mention shirts fleaproof earwarmers
etcetera wristers etcetera, my
mother hoped that
i would die etcetera
bravely of course my father used
to become hoarse talking about how it was
a privilege and if only he
could meanwhile my
self etcetera lay quietly
in the deep mud et
eyes knees and of your Etcetera)
(E.E. Cummings. “My sweet old etcetera.” is 5. New York: Liveright, 1926.)
is 5 was a collection of satirical and anti-war poems which Cummings wrote during his time as an ambulance driver in France during the Great War. That’s when he also began working on his novel The Enormous Room.
The above letter of August 15, 1918, is transcribed:
“My Darling little sweetheart,
Just a few lines hoping that my letter finds you in the best of health, I’m very well at present and my family the same, Well loving, you see I’m faithfully thinking of you,
You know I love you very well my little heart, I am never loving anyone else,
If you are killed I will stay with you all the time and with my little baby if you give me one, I hope to see you very soon,
So will leave you now with my best remembrances from all my family,
Best love, from your loving little sweetheart, wife very soon.”
The beautiful and painstakingly artistic letter has recently become part of the Love and War exhibit at the Australian War Memorial, who are asking anyone who recognizes the couple, a Martha Gybert of Saint Sulpice, France, and the Australian soldier to whom she writes, to notify them as to what became of the two. They believe the letter may have made its way to Australia because it had either come over from France with the bride, or was returned with the soldier’s body and other effects. Obviously, the hope is that it is the former explanation. More info here.
Yesterday, in lieu of my previous service plan for the 100th birthday of Mother Teresa, I was called in to substitute for my ill colleague again. So, during the time the children write in their journals, I had them instead follow a basic form letter and write thank you notes, with drawings, to soldiers who will be serving in Afghanistan. The Cappy (he has been promoted now but calling him the Commie seems … “off”) is hooking it up because he knows the unit and the chaplain to whom I’ll be sending the letters, for which I’m so thankful. It was a spur-of-the-moment idea that ended up working out much better than I could have imagined; I initially thought it was hackneyed but I hadn’t counted on the children’s reaction to the letter-writing. The kids were genuinely fascinated by the project, and we traced over the world map in the classroom to demonstrate the countries their letters would cross before they arrived in their recipients’ hands.
I was surprised by how engrossed they were in the idea and how the details of why there are U.N. forces in Afghanistan at all seemed so revelatory to them. (I stuck mainly with the line that there are bad people there who are keeping the good people in the country from having the resources they need to succeed, so we and other forces are trying to help the good people get their country back from the bad; like, how do you explain the complexities of involvement in Afghanistan to fourth graders? Even explaining it to ourselves is problematic.)
When a girl told me, “My grandfather is a vet. He lives with us now,” and I said, “Oh, was he in World War II, or Korea?” and she replied, with a look at me like I was deranged, “Vietnam. My uncle was in the first war in Iraq,” I realized that these nine-year-old American children have grown up with the Towers down and all manner of skirmishes and action in the Middle East as a matter of course. They were so “in to” the project because the idea of a military presence in the Middle East, with attendant nightly television news reports of suicide bombers and attacks on bases, is so completely de rigeur to them as to be almost meaningless; unless someone in their life has been personally touched by the violence, it is just another part of the buzzing adult world that surrounds them.
For most, this was the first time it occurred to them to put a physically human face on stories that are a regular — and regularly ignored — part of their daily lives. This was a first time of actual connection, emphathetic thought and prayer for people serving around the globe in wartorn places that are just names on television for the kids.
For my part, I’d been concerned, because it is a parochial school, about taking care not to conflate patriotism with a love of God because that can lead down such dangerous behavioral and judgemental alleyways, as well as being always wary of the wavering line between informed support and general jingoism. But I was surprised that, beyond drawing war planes and helicopters or crosses and flags, the kids wanted to know more about the actual lives of the people who would be receiving their letters: I learned something, too, from this project, and that was that I can be as guilty of stereotyping an abundantly adamant yellow-ribbon-sporting, SUV-driving fellow citizen as I suppose they might be of me, who approaches an understanding of conflicts in what I thought was a less black-and-white way. I don’t know it all and neither do they. These kids drew their symbols and wrote out their dutifully trite declarations of support, but it was from a place of real love, and curiosity, and empathy. They are the next generation who will decide how to successfully negotiate international conflicts, and they are not a lost nor entirely manipulable cause. It was a very sobering and educational experience for us all. Probably more so for me than them, but I am glad that they seemed to have derived a real pleasure from the project.