Joseph Andrew Haynie’s eyes were blue. Reading his Army discharge papers fifty-eight years after his death, I learned this simple fact. Joe Haynie married Katie Louise Clyde in the tumultuous year of 1941 – and left not long afterwards for the war. He returned two years later following a serious illness and a lengthy rehabilitation. Joe and Louise set about to create an ordinary life of work and family – a life that came to a sudden and unexpected end, when Louise, eight months pregnant, walked in one afternoon to find Joe collapsed on the floor. When their daughter was born four weeks later, she entered this world already fatherless.
Katherine Rebecca Polaski’s eyes are blue. Holding her in my arms minutes after her birth, I learned this simple fact. Her vivid eyes were perhaps the most salient feature of her tiny newborn face. We knew the color wouldn’t last – many babies are born with blue eyes and almost all of them change within a year or so – and we had no blue-eyed family members from whom she could have inherited their startling hue. So – we were greatly puzzled when her first birthday passed – and then her second as well – and her eyes retained their unexpected color.
My grandmother’s death in July of the year Kate turned two was neither sudden nor unexpected – her cancer had caused a steady decline since Christmas and had left her so miserable that by the end her death was a blessing. And yet, we grieved deeply as we mourned the loss of the woman who had loved us and shaped us and made of us who we were.
In the ragged weeks after her death, my mother and I were sorting through her family papers when we came across the Army discharge papers of Joseph Andrew Haynie – my mother’s father – and learned for the first time that his eyes – like those of his great-granddaughter – were blue. It was an unexpected blessing – a sudden inheritance in our time of grief — the realization of a gift passed secretly through three generations and more than fifty years.
When Joe Haynie died in 1945, my mother and I lost not only his presence but his memory. He and my grandmother were married for just four years – and for two of those he was away at war – by the time my mother was old enough to be aware of his absence, and certainly by the time I arrived – he was a part of the past – not a secret, but simply a story seldom told. And then suddenly one word on a yellowing piece of paper introduced us to a man who had never lived in my lifetime – who had never lived in my mother’s lifetime – who had been to us a name on a tombstone – a man who looked out at us with love and laughter – in the vivid blue eyes of my daughter Kate.
Four years after Joe Haynie died, my grandmother met Hyman Lurey, the man who was to be the enduring love of her life. They spent the next fifty-four years together, sharing the good, bad and ordinary days of their lives together. For more than five decades they loved and yet they never married. For he was from a strictly Orthodox Jewish family – and his parents, immigrants who kept up their Old Country ways until their deaths, could not have brought themselves to accept a non-Jewish daughter-in-law. Tradition dictated that had he married my grandmother, his name would have been crossed out of the family record and never spoken again. We never saw his family — many of them did not know of my grandmother’s existence and that those who did either preferred not to or simply respected and held the secret of their relationship.
After my grandmother’s death – Hyman, who had been in declining health for several years, began to worsen. My mother was his primary caregiver, caring for him in his home as long as his condition allowed and then helping to find a nursing home when he needed full-time care. The walls between our families began to be chipped away by necessity as she communicated with his siblings, nieces, and nephews about his care. Knowing that the end was near, I wondered what the funeral would be like. I pictured us on the back row, unacknowledged and excluded. When the end did come, it was not at all what I had feared. His relatives – some who had known of but seldom spoke of us – and many of whom had just learned of us – included us as full members of his family. They insisted to the funeral director and the rabbi that we be seated with them. They invited us to gather with them for lunch following the service. At the lunch, to Kate’s great delight, was another four-year-old, Abigail – the great-great granddaughter of Hyman’s youngest sister. As we broke bread together, we told stories – about Hyman and my grandmother and the life they had together. Several of his nieces – who had regarded him as a lonely bachelor uncle, told us how happy they were to learn that he had after all had a rich and full life – that he had loved and been loved. One niece cried when I told her that though he had never felt free to call me his granddaughter, in the nursing home, he introduced Kate as his great-granddaughter. Kate and Abigail shared dolls – chased each other around the hotel – and joined hands for Ring Around the Rosie. Seeing them turn in a dizzy spiral, I felt we had all come full circle – after decades of separation, we had found the warmth and inclusion our families had not been able to grasp in earlier years. As Kate and Abigail turned and tumbled, I felt healing in the room, healing of pains and separations never fully named or recognized until we came together in our time of grief.
And so then what do I make of these stories of my life? What do I ask you to make of them? The truth is that it all remains jumbled up to me – grief and grace and life and death and pain and healing. Even as I have walked through the shadow of death, God has been with me. Grace has surprised me when I have least expected it. And yet I know too that it is not that easy – grief is real and powerful and abiding. Joe Haynie never held his daughter – my grandmother’s life and my mother’s were shaped in unchangeable ways by his absence –– Hyman Lurey never knew the joys and struggles of married life, never knew family acceptance of his beloved, could never be fully who he was with them while he maintained his secret – my grandmother spent decades unrecognized by the family she made great sacrifices not to harm – my mother never knew the full embrace of an extended family. Blue eyes and Ring Around the Rosie do not erase all of that.
My practice of peacemaking is to try to welcome it all into into my heart — to embrace and tell the lovely stories of grace along with the wrenching stories of unredeemed grief and the stories that I don’t yet know how to define or understand. I have to – we have to – make peace with the fact that this is the world in which we live – if we are to act with any integrity within it, it can only be by taking it all in, keeping our hearts open to both the deep pain of this world and its deep joy and beauty.
There’s been a lot to take in of late, hasn’t there? I think you’ll know what I mean when I say that I look at the news and see that everywhere and always pain and joy are mixed together – in how people react to everything from the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality to the removal of the Confederate flag to the reception of unaccompanied immigrant children on the US border. Grief and grace, life and death, pain and healing, hatred and love – they are all so very real.
I sat with a young pastor this summer, having just heard about some of our work she asked with tears in her eyes, “How do you not fall apart?” That’s a good question. If you open your heart to the pain of the world, if you take it all in, how do you not fall apart?
I told her that though my work reminds me again and again and again of the suffering of the world, it also introduces me again and again and again to people responding to and changing that suffering. In every place of pain I know – every place – in strife-torn villages in Kenya, among sexual minorities in Uganda, with survivors of domestic violence in Mexico, in detention centers and prisons in the US – I know people who are pouring out their lives, acting in creative and courageous ways to make a difference.
One of my heroes is a young man in our membership named Eh Nay Thaw. He left his native Burma (or Myanmar) at the age of 2. By “left” I mean that his mother carried him while leading his 4-year-old brother by the hand as they and all their fellow villagers made a desperate race to the Thai border ahead of the Burmese army, an army with a stated goal to destroy their ethnic group, the Karen. Eh Nay Thaw spent all his childhood in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to the US as a refugee as a young teenager. After coming to our annual conference for a few years, he told me that he’d always dreamt of going back to Myanmar as a soldier as it was the only way he could imagine helping his people. But his encounter with peacemakers within the BPFNA had changed him so that he now dreamed of going back as a human rights activist or a diplomat. It seemed to me to be a far-fetched dream. But earlier this summer, he did go back. Having just finished his freshmen year of college, he took a month-long internship in Myanmar to teach English. He came to our conference not long after returning to the US and shared a remarkable story. He told us,
“Because of [our] losses and suffering, many of the Karen people blame all of the Burmese majority. [M]any Karen parents influence their children with their viewpoint and encourage them not to be friends with the Burmese. I, myself, sometime got confused by this dominant idea and I didn’t know where to stand. While [back] in Burma, I was afraid to identify myself as a Karen person. Even though Burma is my birth country, I felt like I was a stranger. [But] I was touched how the Burmese people welcomed me, took care of me as if I was their priority, their fellow countryman, and most importantly, treated me like their own family. Their kindness and generosity was something that I would never have imagined. I was wrong about the Burmese people. I was wrong that I would a have difficult time making friends with the Burmese, I was wrong that the Burmese do not love the Karen people. In Matthew 25, Jesus said I was a stranger and you invited me in. After this experience, I was no longer a stranger, I am loved, I am welcomed by the kindest people that I could ever imagine.”
Eh Nay Thaw returned to the place where he’d faced the greatest danger, rejection, and fear – the place where his people have known deep suffering — and he kept his heart open – and in so doing, he found a gift he never expected.
If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.
The only question is: How are we allowing it to happen in us?