Tuesday, October 7, 2014

14. 'Her life was early spent, but not in vain'

Bonnie Pride, summer of '48.
Dad and Bonnie, on his homecoming, 1945.
My sister Bonnie (Elizabeth Jeanette Pride) was born in 1943 with a congenital heart defect. The common term for the defect was a hole in the heart. This is literally a hole in the septum, the wall between the heart’s two chambers.

When Bonnie was 5 years old, the doctors recommended surgery to repair this defect. On Nov. 22, 1948, Bonnie had the operation at a Boston hospital. She fell into a coma and died that day.

As my mother and dad told me the story much later, the medical team made her death even more traumatic for them than it would normally have been. The doctor who performed the surgery could not bring himself to speak with my parents. While Bonnie lay comatose, a nurse told my mother all had gone well and she could see her daughter soon. My parents learned the truth only later.

A letter from my mother to her parents to be published in the next post will give a sense of how Bonnie’s death affected her and my father. They never got over it. I was 17 when John F. Kennedy was shot. Mom and Dad seemed not just shocked and saddened by the assassination but also personally devastated. Only later did my mother explain that it had occurred on the 15th anniversary of Bonnie’s death.

My dad had been home from the war for nearly three years when Bonnie died. For a while he drove a bread truck in Stratford, Conn. Years later, he told us a story about this. One morning he felt rotten but left home to drive his bread route anyway. While making a delivery, he heard a backfire, thought it was enemy fire and dived under a parked vehicle. When an ambulance came for him, his temperature was 105. It took a while for doctors to diagnose his affliction, but then they had had no experience dealing with malaria.

My cousin Don, who was about 12, remembers going out on the bread delivery truck with Dad another time. Dad took an interest in him and his twin brother, Ron. He bought them a football and peppered them with passes. Dad had one of the first television sets. They watched the Joe Louis-Billy Conn rematch with him on June 19, 1946, a little over a month before I was born. Boxing was one of Dad’s lifelong passions.

Me with Bonnie, 1947
Later Dad returned to active military duty at Fort Devens, Mass. Among other duties he helped put on shows at the officers’ club. My parents lived on or near the fort when they took Bonnie to Boston for the operation. Don remembers coming up from Connecticut with his family to support them. “I vaguely recall a nightmarish night of waiting for the news,” he wrote in an email.

As I mentioned early in this series of posts, during World War II Bonnie had become a beloved symbol of the future for my family. Her Uncle Carl Nordstrom, my mother’s brother, wrote to my mother 10 days after her death. Words mean little after such a loss, but Carl wrote from the heart, and my mother kept his letter for as long as she lived.

Carl, incidentally, had been a tank commander in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army in Europe. He survived the Battle of the Bulge and the invasion Of Germany. You can read more about him on this web page, posted after his death in 2010 at the age of 91.

Here is what he wrote:

                                                                                              4 W. 601 St.
                                                                                              Shanks Village
                                                                                              Orangeburg, N.Y.
                                                                                              Dec. 2, 1948
Dear Bern,

On an imposing cliff, overlooking the mighty Hudson, there stands an impressive tomb, the magnificent mausoleum erected in honor of a great American General.

Carl Nordstrom (right) at Fort Campbell, Ky., 1943.
In well swept Luxembourg, planted on a pleasant field, is a simple cross. It is the grave of a great American General.

Each in its private way is erected in memory to a great leader. Each in its particular way helps the living to live a little better. The tomb of General Grrant, a silent symbol of our magnificent heritage, is a friendly anchor to reality in a mad city. The unadorned cross of General Patton is a symbol of fellowship with his living and fallen friends.

Our family, in its own way, wants to recreate the memory of Bonnie. We deeply respect the spirit that brought so many and such beautiful flowers to her funeral. But today is a day of world hardship. The terror of war has cracked the heart of humanity throughout Europe and the Orient. The little children especially have felt its awful breath. And, tonight, many are wandering down a lonely road, homeless, parentless, helpless and frightened.

Christmas is coming. This is a proper season to think of others and to help others who are less fortunate. We think Bonnie would remember her playmates, and those who might have been her playmates. She would want to help those who might need her help. So, in her memory, we are going to try to make this Christmas happier for some little children somewhere in the world.

I thought you might want to have this poem I wrote. I penned it that Tuesday night. The words are yours, Charlie’s, Mom’s and Dad’s.

To Bonnie

A little flow of light has dimmed and faded out.
A little laugh, once so bright and clear, has stopped.
A little flower folded in its beauty and took its leave.
A little girl has closed her eyes and gone to sleep.

The little girl, at the kitchen door, with her flowers and her smile,
The little lady, in her bed, and hugging to her doll,
The little mother, with her “Mike,” and all the other kids,
The little springtime bloom in her gentle blue and shining Mary Janes.

Her panties – a mite too long,
Her proud step, on her way to school,
Her lunch box, the badge of growing up,
The golden doll and the dirty knees.

 A fragile friend, who stayed to visit us a while,
Who smiled, and brought a world of goodness with her while she stayed.
Her life was early spent, but not in vain,
Our little stranger from the infinite.
The cheer, the hope she brought, relieved the pain
When futile war, with awful force, had hit.

For a little while we must part from you.
Your work is done, your rest is well deserved.
You’ve sowed a little seed of good in all of us.
In time each seed will surely bear sweet fruit.

We’ve still a little work to do, a little joy to bring into the world ourselves.
But when our task is one, and we’ve tried as best we can,
We’ll meet again, and romp and laugh and think of days far gone.
The image that you’ve left with us tender and is sweet.

So, Bonnie dear, one kiss upon your cheek,
A gentle pat, a parting smile from all of us.
Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.

                                                                      Love, Carl

Next: 'As lonely as I get for my baby . . .'

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