A Wartime Era Revealed: Digging through my grandparents’ World War II correspondence

During my extended stay in Illinois, my mom and I have continued  to prepare for her upcoming move to her smaller home, a move now delayed due to the pandemic.  We’ve been digging through rats’ nests around the house and came across the above:  a bin full of over 500 letters saved by my mother’s parents during World War II.

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My grandparents, Connie and Marvin, as I knew them in the 1970s and 80s.

I always wondered where my love of writing came from. With this letter discovery, now I know that I received the itch to record from my maternal grandmother, whose name was also Cornelia (or Connie), and my grandfather, Rev. Marvin Maris, a Congregationalist minister.

Before the war, Marvin served as a pastor. Here he stands on the church steps with a children’s Bible school class in Lawrence, Massachusetts.  Connie, his young wife (before my mother was born),  is in the back row to the far right.

In 1942, he joined the US Army as a chaplain.

He was shipped out to New Guinea in 1943 and served in the South Pacific for over a year. During this time,  the two sent letters back and forth.

Cornelia (Connie) Maris, seen here in an her 20s.  During the war years, she was in her 30’s.

Sometimes, my Grandma Connie wrote 2 to 3  letters a day to her husband, whom she often chastised when a week or longer would go by with no news from him. Many times, his letters were delayed, lost or censored due to security reasons and landed all at once on her doorstep, helter-skelter amid week-long lapses, or not at all.  This she understood but it didn’t stop her from criticizing him from time to time in her own correspondence:   “I know you must be busy, but …”, “It’s been 10 days since we’ve gotten a letter from you.  Maybe it’s in today’s mail ….”, “Your last letter gave very little details of what you are doing to occupy your time.  I suppose you think it’s boring and we wouldn’t be interested but, I assure you, we would find it very interesting.”

My grandfather did write in detail about so many of his daily routines, problems among the soldiers, the mothers who wrote to him about their sons, the food, the jungle environment (incessant mosquitoes and rats were a problem),  encounters with “the natives” (New Guineans and, later when he went to Manila, the Philippinos), the “Jap” POWs and the list goes on.   However, I will admit that he didn’t write as much as Connie did.  From the letters I am going through, all saved by my grandfather, she obviously was the more verbose of the two.

What I am Learning 

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Snapshots here show a new pastor, Marvin, and his wife in 1933. My mom is the baby. Who would have thought the two would be separated by war, 10 years later?

Every night, before bed, I’ve been reading a few letters at a time.

I first tried to match the replies from both to give a better picture of their two separate worlds, so distant and different from one another yet so connected through their shared friends, acquaintances, family relationships, church congregation dynamics, Biblical knowledge, and Christian theological thought and philosophy.  While I managed to pair a few responses with dates, I finally gave up due to the large volume of letters.  Their haphazard ordering was just taking too long, plus I was impatient.  I wanted to get to their stories without spending hours organizing them all. I came up with a system of my own.  I’ve been concentrating first on Connie’s letters to Marvin by year, month and date.  Later, I’ll go back and do the same for my grandfather’s replies in which  he recounted his life happenings to her.  Another time, I’ll deal with coupling reply to response.  For now, it’s delving deep into the past lives of both, beginning with Grandma Connie.

Connie (Cornelia) Maris

Revealed in all my late-night reads is quite a woman.  In the current timeline I’m going over, Connie Maris is in her late 30s, with 2 children (ages 5, my uncle Rolf, and 10, my mother Priscilla), living in Holland, Michigan in a rented downstairs house.

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Priscilla, my mom, and her younger brother, Rolf, during the war years.

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The house today in Holland which my grandmother rented. She and the children lived on the 1st floor; the owner (a school teacher) lived on the second floor.

The move to Holland, Michigan from the base in California was due to her husband’s deployment.  She no longer had an officer’s house to live in but was required to leave.  She ended up moving to Holland, her husband’s hometown and where his  parents lived, Harvey and Ebba Maris.

Pictured here in Holland, Michigan: Harvey and Ebba Maris with my mother, Priscilla, and her brother, Rolf, during the years Connie wrote her letters.

Harvey, in his late 70’s, was the local barber and had a shop downtown.  Ebba was a  housewife, a very religious, devout, and conservative Methodist.  Their home (below) is still standing today on Washington Street.

My mom and I visited Holland last summer. All that my grandmother writes about  in her letters about Holland, I am able to understand even better having been there.

We also attended the Holland United Methodist Church, where my great-grandma Ebba was a member and where Connie was quite active.  It is a new church building, not the one my mother remembers, but is located on the same site.

My mom and I attended church on Sunday morning, in the hopes that my mom would meet some elderly members who might have remembered her or her mother. Sad to say, my mom didn’t find anyone.

Although a new church building, the former having burned, my mother (from her childhood) did recognize this stained glass window which survived the fire. We had our picture taken beside it before we left.

Religious Conflicts:  The younger generation vs. the older generation

As opposed to Ebba, Connie, on the other hand, was of a more progressive nature in her religious thought and upbringing.  This caused some rift between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and definitely got Connie into trouble, especially among the  elderly ladies of the Holland Methodist Church.

For example, attending dances or playing frivolous games was considered an unworthy pastime, especially for a pastor’s wife. One of her stories involved the latter.  When my grandmother joined the young adult bridge club, many of whom were Methodist parishioners, she was chastised by the elderly Dutch women when her name appeared in the paper for having won a bridge prize.  After retelling this story in a letter to Marvin, she continued with: “If I want to play bridge, I’ll darn well play bridge! I like to play bridge, and I enjoy the company of the others.   I don’t care what anyone else thinks.  Your mother will just have to put up with it.”

An Active Church Member

My grandmother was the youth choir director at the Holland Methodist Church. My uncle, her son Rolf, is the the child standing off to the side on the far right.

Being a pastor’s wife, and a woman of strong Christian faith, she was extremely active in the Methodist church.  She was the youth choir director, attended all church functions (speaking engagements of missionaries, visiting pastors, inspirational faith-centered talks), attended Bible studies, participated in religious educational seminars and weekend adult church camps, hosted Army chaplain wives’ luncheons (there were 7 in her area), led religious-based workshops and organized many special activities.  One included the church’s Mother – Daughter banquet, which my grandmother proudly wrote about in various stages of preparation and then the final results. My mom recalls helping my grandma pull an all-nighter to make 167 favors and programs, a sleepless night due to her mom’s infamous last-minute tendencies.  Connie did mention this, saying daughter Priscilla helped her with the hand-done stenciling and program compiling:  2 hours in one stretch, 5 hours in another and the final 6 hours which completed them all right before she headed off to the church to set things up.  Talk about down to the wire!

Aside from reporting upon her activities, she often launched into deep theological thoughts, sharing what she’d read through her books on religion and asking Marvin’s opinions on the matter. She outlined sermons she’d heard and suggested, in his upcoming messages to the men, he might want to include such-and-such an anecdote or use a particular illustration which she found appropriate for certain situations.  Of course, all these suggestions she couched with: “I am not doing the speaker justice in any of these re-tellings. I am not as eloquent a speaker as they or you are.  I am sure you can use these ideas much better than I and would be able to develop them cleverly into any of your sermons to the troops.”

Ah, Connie!  How well you know how to build up the fragile ego of your spouse!

Forging Onward 

With this extra time available to me, I continue to plow through these WW 2  letters. I am piecing together more and more what kind of person this Connie Maris was:  her personal secrets, unspoken thoughts, hidden qualities, young motherhood burdens, worries and fears, inadequacies, disappointments, as well as her triumphs, joys and proud accomplishments.  Not even my mother was aware of the depth to which these letters are revealing a woman she thought she knew but perhaps did not.

Connie Maris’s itch to write, incessantly scratched during these war years, is for me, fast becoming a treasured family heirloom which I never would have had time for in the past. This delayed return to China, even in the midst of so much anxiety and upheaval, helps me remember that blessings can still be found even in the worst of times.

From Illinois, here’s wishing you平安 (ping ahn), Peace, for your day.

 

 

 

 

About connieinchina

I have been in the Asia region for 30 years as an English language teacher. 28 of those have been spent with the Amity Foundation, a Chinese NGO that works in all areas of development for the Chinese people. Amity teachers are placed at small colleges throughout China as instructors of English language majors in the education field. In other words, my students will one day be English teachers themselves in their small villages or towns once they graduate. Currently, this is my 13th year in Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. The college is located in Luzhou city (loo-joe), Sichuan Province, a metropolis of 5 million people located next to the Yangtze River .
This entry was posted in A Visit Home to Marshall, Smalltown American Life, Visit To The States, World War 2 Letters. Bookmark the permalink.

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