November 21, 2012

Letters of Love and Thanks Between My Late Wife Diana and Her Parents

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday since it is focused on family and friends without all the commercialism that has overwhelmed Christmas. The importance of family bonds, particularly in times of crisis, is on clear display in a moving exchange of correspondence I recently discovered between my wife and her parents back in 1948, ten years before we were married.

The LeBlanc Family

Diana LeBlanc Schappi
7/26/1928 - 5/23/1979
Diana was born in Sendai, Japan, where her father was on a teaching sabbatical. She grew up in  Cincinnati, Ohio and graduated from George Washington University in 1948 with a degree in political science. She began her career as an editor at the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA -- now Bloomberg/BNA) and worked there until her death from cancer in 1979.

Anna G. LeBlanc
10/2/1896 - 6/18/1986

Known to me (and others) as Nancy -- and to my children Todd and Ann as Nana -- Diana's mother was  born in  Lithuania, spent her early years in Baltimore, and then moved to Cincinnati  where she married Dr. Thomas J. LeBlanc.  

Thomas J. LeBlanc
6/28/1894 - 9/8/1948

Dr. LeBlanc received his bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan in 1920, his M.S. from the same university in 1916, and his D.Sc. from Johns Hopkins in 1924. He served with the Rockefeller Foundation as a fellow and then a staff member until 1922. In that year, he became assistant professor of  preventive medicine at the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine and became head of the department in 1934.

The Emperor of Japan honored him with a scroll for his service as head of the Institute of Human Biology at Tohoku Imperial University in Sendai, Japan. Earlier, Mexico presented him with a gold medal for his work in yellow fever control. During the epic Ohio River flood  in 1937, Dr. LeBlanc with two helpers inoculated over 24,000 people in six days for tetanus, typhoid, and other flood-related illness.

He was a true "Renaissance Man." His short story, Boyhood in the Bush, is included in anthologies of American non-fiction. He wrote for H. L. Mencken's American Mercury. I've framed several notes Mencken sent him urging him to submit more stories. Hanging in my office den where I'm now writing is a "Dear Tom" letter from Sinclair Lewis thanking him for writing "one of the best reviews of the book Arrowsmith either in America or in England."  LeBlanc and Lewis were friends.  In a letter to another friend, Lewis commented that Tom LeBlanc "was pretty much the model for Dr. Terry Wicket"  in Arrowsmith.

Here's my favorite part of Lewis' letter to Tom:
I deny your right to be called a scientist, because I have been reading your stuff in the "American Mercury"  and you're too good a writer to be from now on  respected as  a scientist.
He was a gourmet cook whose recipe for a curry dish is included in a best-selling cookbook of the time. That curry was frequently featured when we had dinner guests. As if all that weren't enough, he was an avid boatsman who built a fine sailboat in his land-locked Cincinnati back yard. I also have some lovely etchings he drew.

The Summer of 1948
The correspondence that follows concerns two major events in the LeBlanc family's life from the summer of 1948. Diana graduated from George Washington University that summer; soon after, her father died. He had been hospitalized several times in the spring and was operated on during the summer. Her parents had tried to keep Diana from knowing how life-threatening her father's situation had become. But she wasn't fooled, as you'll see.


Letter from Diana to her parents

August 24, 1948

Dear Mother and Daddy:

                Now that I’m completing my last semester of college, and will soon be on my own, I think I should try to express some of the feelings which I have had for so long, but have never put into words (and for which I know words will be very inadequate) – to try to thank you for all the many things that children are inclined to accept as their rightful share without question – to thank you for your love and patience and for my education; not just sending me to the best schools, but for the innumerable intangibles which you yourselves have taught me – honesty, loyalty, perseverance and appreciation of life.

                I know raising children must be a thankless job in many ways, and often in my more nasty moods when I seemed exceedingly unappreciative, you must have wondered if it was worth all the trouble and heartbreak. I think it has been to me – I am very, very proud to have you as my parents, and I know that whatever good there is in me was instilled by you carefully and patiently over twenty years.

                Sometimes it seems difficult being an only child, since there is the feeling that you alone must embody all the most cherished hopes of your family, and if you fail there is no one else to carry on. But I have always tried, and will always try to live up to what I believe you expect of me, and if I disappoint you, it will not be because I have not grasped what you have taught me.

                Often the lessons were not easy for me, and I realize that many times, it must have been painful for you to pursue them – it is so much easier not to bother – I can remember quaking with fear and hysteria at the prospect of telling my Scout Leader that I had lied to her. I remember my adolescent misery at having to face a party which I felt would be my social downfall – and numerous other little incidents. And at the time I thought surely these were cruel parents to abuse their offspring in such a manner. But because the object lessons were so forcibly demonstrated they have become indelibly etched on my mind, and every time I consider telling a lie, or evading some responsibility, or doing anything you have shown me was not right, I remember.

                And there were many other lessons which were easier – tolerance, love of music, of education and above all perhaps – the development of an open mind. These principles have become an integral part of the philosophy of life which I shall always carry with me and which I believe will equip me to meet any situation calmly and with courage.

                The two of you in your own lives have set me the best example there could be, and if I can do half as much for my children and for the world as you have done, I will consider my life well spent. For you have endowed me with the richest heritage life can offer – a happy secure home, a good education and the finest parents anyone ever had. For these, and for everything, I thank you.


Two Days Later, Diana's Letter to Her Mother

Washington, D.C.
August 26, 1948

Dear Mother:

                Your last letter was not so much as a shock to me as you might have expected.  Actually it only verified a conclusion which I had reached and prayed was not true at the time of the operation.  Sometimes it is easier to interpret what one sees in the faces of others than it is to interpret things people tell you. In a way, your letter was a sort of relief to me since I have always found it more difficult to face uncertainty and doubt than the truth. I have been torn between accepting what I guessed was the true situation and then reproving myself for indulging in fantasies like a little girl who imagines she sees odd forms lurking in the dark corners of her room. And yet I dared not press you for the truth for fear that you did not know it and would only succeed in unduly alarming you.

                However, even knowing what one must prepare for, it is not easy to reconcile oneself. Not all the platitudes and logic in the world can ease grief and fear and justify the loss of someone you love. But I suppose there isn’t anyone in the world not loved by someone, and to try to explain why some are taken and others are not is like trying to explain the order of the Universe when we can never get far enough away to get any perspective of overall pattern.

                I think that a few years ago, I would have been overwhelmed with the unfairness of suffering and death, but living through a war has convinced me of the futility of rebelling against the inevitable.

                I admire your courage more than I can say, and I know it is much harder for you than it is for me because I believe that the love which brings two people together out of the many millions is the strongest tie there can be, and a tie that can be broken only with the greatest pain.

                I suppose there is little else to say –


Letter to Diana from Her Father, Written 12 Days Before He Died

Saturday morning
27th of August, 1948

My very dear Diana:

                This is to thank you as emphatically as I can for your letter of the 24th. I cannot understand the amazing timing, but it could not have come at a more perfect moment. It is the parental accolade that pays one back a thousand fold for all that one has done as a parent. The parent goes along doing his very best to play his role as perfectly as he can, but is never quite sure that it is being well played. Then after 20 years comes the applause, the “Well done!” that makes it evident that the role was well played, and the beauty of it is, that your letter is self-proving, that is, it contains within itself evident and positive proof of the verity of the statements that it makes. There is a day, not far away, but it is coming for you, when you will know all about this, and on that day you will realize how priceless such a letter as yours can be.

                One thing that pleases me no end is that you are able to sense when the going  was tough for us as parents. That means you already have some idea of what the duties and responsibilities are, and that you will make a good parent yourself. Yes, it is very much easier to let things go at times than to be a good parent. I am glad you sensed the times we were tearing our hearts to shreds, simply to teach you one little principle. It would have been easier for everyone not to go to the scout leader, but it would not have been the right way. It would have been easier for us not to let you have a New Year’s Eve party, but if on that one day of heartache we could teach you about alcohol, then it was a good investment.

                When you sense the intangibles you have hit upon the real importance of parents. The school gives only certain things; the really important things come in the home.

                As to being an only child, we never wanted another. I never did subscribe to the thesis that the population of this world should necessarily increase or even maintain itself. It seemed to me we needed quality; and not more people but more intelligence, understanding, tolerance and humility. As a parent I am willing to hand down my contribution to you, an only child, and after your letter I have no concern as to how adequately you will discharge this responsibility.

                The open mind is a very important thing, but it is a two-edged sword, and it is the one thing you will have to guard against. You may have a tendency to do things just to make some sort of physical or material gesture that shows you have an open mind. This is the tendency of youth and will decrease as times goes on. You must be careful you do not make serious mistakes along this line while you are still young. The essence of the matter is that no one exists alone in a vacuum. You as a person, ramify, and often what you do as a person affects someone else who had nothing to do with your act. Suppose for example I believed so firmly in the sanctity of the human body that to demonstrate, I walked down the main street at noon, nude. Now if I existed completely alone, I could do this and take the consequences, whatever they might be. But if I have children they have nothing to say about all this and I must hesitate before I inflict on some innocent, the results of my own convictions, no matter how laudable they may seem to be. Just remember, man changes very, very slowly, and don’t expect the good, the true, and the beautiful to burst forth overnight because a few vigorous youths are willing to do anything to show open-mindedness. Practice it quietly, teach your children and move with the facts of life, not with life as you would have it.

                Mommy and I are not perfect, no human is. We have tried to be as good parents as we knew how, and your letter has satisfied me a thousand fold. We have tried to teach you to think for yourself and succeeded. And don’t forget as a form of thanks and rich return, you have never caused us one moment of worry or shame, which is saying a good deal these days. Neither of us has lost a minute’s sleep over your conduct, so as a daughter you have scored perfect in that respect; and we have always been conscious of that great boon. And as you have sensed, even though there are times when a child can be difficult, you can rest assured that in your case these times were no too frequent, and watching you develop in between times amply repaid us. In other words, being a parent is a richly rewarding experience, providing you are willing to invest a little in the adventure.

                Perhaps when you are a mother you will realize what a wonderful one you had. I know there were many times when she seemed to be doing very wrong in your eyes, but she was always the mother and doing what she thought was best for you. And the very best I can wish you as a mate, is that you will be as lucky as I was. It has been an interesting road that we have traveled, and I am glad I had mommy all the way. (This is the kind of thing you can’t put into words.)

                As I near the end of this letter I am trying to think of what I should underline as being most important to you, and I have concluded that it is that you must guard against impetuosity of youth. You must remember that you are an accelerated product and are really a little ahead of things. So look around, try various fields of endeavor, various cities if that can be arranged. In other words don’t jump at the first of anything that comes along, because you really have a couple of extra years on deposit to invest in just that way.

                Well, Toots, this is about my limit of handwriting bad as it is. Forgive the scrawl and mistakes as I am not at my best. Again thanks millions for your grand letter;  it is priceless to your Daddy  who has loved you very, very much, since he first saw you stretched out on the forearm of a Japanese nurse.


As Diana said in closing her letter to her mother, "I suppose there is little else to say."


Linda Fernandez said...

John, thanks so much for sharing. What wonderful sentiments and in what wonderful style.

Brian Lockett said...

Just lovely. And so timely. Enjoy the day with your family.

Nancy said...

Thanks, John, for sharing the moving letters between Diana and her parents. . .what a touching Thanksgiving reflection on the really important parts of our lives.
Keep on bloggin'!

Barbara said...

John, this is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

Harriet said...

Absolutely beautiful. I feel all the more privileged to have had Diana as a good friend at BNA. Yesterday we had our entire family -- all 18 of us -- together for the first time since our son's funeral three years ago. We all feel so strongly that the essence of all that is good in life rests with those we love, especially family. Under these circumstances you may understand how profoundly Diana's letters effect me. Thank you.