I sat at the kitchen table and stared at the letters before me. Outside, the dog barked and then the tractor started up. Caleb was heading out to finish the summerfallow now that he was back from town with groceries and mail. I could faintly hear Maisie and Betty in the garden, weeding and laughing about something. Their voices drifted in and out with the breeze. The fire snapped in the stove just as the kettle began to steam so I got up, poured the water in the tea pot and brought it over to the table. Anything to delay the inevitable.
I continued to stare at the letters as I poured some milk and tea into the cup. I knew what was in them before I opened them. They were yet more letters from mothers asking for words of comfort when there were no words of comfort to give.
Dear Mrs. Higham, I heard about your son on the radio . . .
I sipped some tea then reached for the first letter. It was from somewhere in Ontario. I’d received so many letters like this.
Dear Mrs. Higham, I am so sorry to bother you but . . .
I wondered what perverse fate had saved John and his crew from death while others had perished. I knew what it was like to worry about your son serving overseas. How many times had I felt my stomach tighten as Lorne Greene – the Voice of Doom, they called him – read the list of men who were killed, and then breathed a sigh of relief when John’s name had not been mentioned.
Dear Mrs. Higham, My son is a rear gunner in the RCAF, and I was wondering . . .
How many times had I waited for a letter from John? Each time Caleb came back empty-handed, I had taken that as a sign of the worst. And then rejoiced when a letter finally did arrive. At least he was still alive the day he wrote the letter, I’d think. His letters were often censored – black strips blocking out dates or places or missions. What we learned from those letters had little to do with the war. He’d visited Dorothy and thought her daughter Anne was “quite a smart young lady.” Caleb’s brother Len would let him have one beer “on the house.” And then there’d be a long, tense, anxious wait until the next letter arrived, each one a sign that we had not lost him. Yet.
Dear Mrs. A_______, Your son died bravely and do not think he died in vain because he was fighting for you . . .
So, I was well-acquainted with those worries, but not with the sadness and uncertainty of not knowing what had happened to your son, a son who was now “Missing in Action.” That was why those mothers wrote me. Did they think I knew even though no one else knew? Or didn’t know for certain, or knew but wouldn’t say?
Dear Mrs. D______, I cannot possibly understand your grief, but . . .
Most letters were so full of grief and sorrow I could almost see tears drip from the paper. Others raged at what they saw as a senseless death and a bleak future.
Dear Mrs. Higham, Our son was going to take over the business and now he’s gone . . .
Mostly, they were full of questions. Could he have escaped from the plane as it plummeted from the sky? Did the resistance have him? Were they helping him escape? Could he be a prisoner of war? If he did die, would he have died quickly, without pain or suffering? I could hear the pleading in their letters, pleading for the merest shred of hope. Hope that I couldn’t give. I couldn’t lie to these mothers but neither could I tell them the truth. I struggled to find words. What would I have wanted to hear if we had lost John?
Dear Mrs. Higham, Thank you so much for your kind letter of . . .
John never did say much about what he experienced over there, but I glimpsed enough in what he did say to understand that there was no such thing as a quick death in a plane that was plunging downward. Escape was rare – men were trapped by debris or fire, or injured so badly they could not free themselves, or pinned by the force of the plane’s death spiral. Even if they did escape, they were shooting targets for the Germans, or their parachute didn’t open, or they were injured or killed on landing or they landed in the Channel and drowned.
Dear Mrs. Higham, You have given me some comfort in my hour of grief . . .
How do you tell mothers that? Mothers who are clinging desperately to the hope that perhaps there is the slightest chance that their son survived somehow. That “Missing in Action” means only that – missing, not dead.
I read this new letter through, then shook my head in sorrow. Why had my son been spared when so many had not? I felt the burden of motherhood weigh more heavily on my shoulders than it ever had before. How many mothers like this were there in Canada, England, and yes, even in Germany? Mothers who would never know for certain, who would live forever with broken hearts. Families forever with a hole that would never be filled.
I drank the last of the tea, now cold, sighed, then uncapped my fountain pen and began to write.
“Dear Mrs. T______”
(Note: Pilot Officer John B. Higham, son of Caleb and Mary Higham of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, was assigned to RCAF “Moose” Squadron #419, Bomber Command, in 1941. He completed 30 missions, then he and his crew were returned to Canada to tour the country to raise money for the war effort. John passed away this June, three weeks shy of his 100th birthday.)
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