Aunt Ruthie figures large in my memoir, Mennonite Daughter: The Story of a Plain Girl. Though she stands as my most significant mentor for life, one of my chapters about her is entitled “Ruthie the Cheater.”
After her death in 2017, I discovered her diaries inside a painted chest in her bedroom.
The two entries below from 1945 (recording events happening 74 years ago) juxtapose ordinary life in her household with the detonation of a bomb over Hiroshima.
August 6, 1945
Rainy Monday, so we decided since we had all yesterday’s dishes to wash, we’d clean the cupboards. We cleaned the desk and the red [cherry] cupboard, washed all the dishes, etc. Uncle Joe stopped in for dinner. Today an atomic bomb was released over Japan. It is very destructive – weighing 11 pounds, it is equivalent to 300 carloads of T.N.T.
August 7, 1945
Sun in & sun out, so we washed – it dried & is ironed. This afternoon we had 3 showers – one a thunderstorm. Now it seems quite clear. Ray brought Janice down in the scooter [equipped with a rear bin] today. She’s only 10 months old.
That atomic bomb surely has been destructive although no one knows to what extent. It was never tested for there was no spot possible in the U. S.
Washing and ironing and cooking and cleaning amidst news of a BOMB exploding in a foreign land, killing hundreds of thousands of people, likely announced first on the radio, and the next day, in the newspaper.
Aunt Ruthie’s diary entry reflects the sentiment which W. H. Auden expresses in Musee des Beaux Arts, a poem he wrote just before the beginning of World War II in 1938.
Auden praises the painters, old Masters, like Brueghel, who understood the nature of suffering and humanity’s indifference to it.
He recognizes that all humans have painful and traumatic experiences that can change the course of their lives, but meanwhile the rest of the world continues on in a mundane way. He uses these examples:
- Children are born
- The elderly are waiting to die
- Meanwhile, skaters glide on a pond
- Dogs go on with their “doggy life”
- A horse scratches its behind on a tree.
In the Painting:
A boy falls out of the sky – the mythical Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, his wings melting!
A farmer keeps plowing his field though he may have heard a splash.
Sailors on “the expensive ship must have seen /Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
Life Goes On!
How do you reconcile cataclysmic events that explode in the world with your personal life?
What about those that burst into your own, ordinary life?
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I’ve no answers to your questions, but admit the questions are something I need to ponder. I wonder if Aunt Ruthie didn’t elaborate on the atomic bomb because she didn’t have the words to describe her sense of existential dread regarding it? Or if she just didn’t realize its true destructive power? Fascinating topic.
There was no BREAKING NEWS!! with blaring headlines on TV back then, just the radio at the Longenecker house. I think you are right on both counts. Also, she may not have had many details in her first comment. Yet, it’s obvious the explosion, even faraway, played on the edges of her mind.
Thanks for musing here, Ally Bean!
That raises goosebumps, doesn’t it? The mundane and the horrific side by side. Thanks for sharing.
Yes, the horrific and the everyday, side by side. Sometimes I glance at my iPhone with its noxious news while the birds are singing outside my window. Thanks for your observation, Arlene!
I love the examples given by Auden, Marian. Whether it’s events in the world or within my own life, prayer helps me to understand what’s happening and provides the faith that I’ll be okay because life really does go on. I enjoyed these journal entries.
I’m glad you enjoyed the dip into the past with Ruthie’s diaries. Faith makes a difference. As Emily Dickinson (and the Bible reveals): This world is not conclusion–[eternity] stands beyond. Probably, as you suggest, faith helps to bridge the gap.
Jill, you have captured my thoughts and feelings as I read Auden’s poem. Truly without faith and prayer just where would be day in and day out.
Good morning, Marian. A reflective post, for sure! Throughout time, people have lived their personal lives while the world goes on, as you show in your Aunt Ruthie’s diary entries. I suppose I cover that mix in my musings sometimes. Elizabeth Drinker’s diaries (published in a 3-volume set) mix her world with what was going on in with her family (and servants) while events such as the Revolutionary War were going on. People fall in love, get married, give birth, etc. during wars and cataclysmic events. I’ve always enjoyed that ekphrastic poem of Auden’s.
You view these journal entries with the eyes of a scholar and historian. I had to look up the word “ekphrastic” again.
For readers who might also read the comments: Ekphrastic from Merriam-Webster: a literary description of a visual work of art.
Thanks, Merril, for illuminating this post today–as you often do.
Wow. I love how you matched Aunt Ruthie’s diary entries to Auden’s poem. I can’t help thinking of our lives today–how we hear about so many awful events via the news or social media. We have only seconds to react to them before we return to our lives. A verse comes to mind (Romans 12:15): “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Even if we’re far away, we can’t help mourning with those who mourn life’s tragic events.
Thanks you for mentioning the verse from Romans. If we hear of horrific events, we can pray for those concerned. We can even do something, if it’s in our power.
The danger, I guess, is that we become desensitized–or overwrought about what we can’t control. That’s the quandary, especially for sensitive souls.
The juxtaposition of these diary entries and the Auden poem is perfect, Marian. You are bringing all you are and all you have been to this book and this blog. How deeply gratifying.
I am savoring your book and hope to put my review up on Goodreads soon.
The closest I got to understanding Auden’s poem was in the parking lot of Hess Mennonite Church in 1980. We were burying my father’s casket and some farmer was in the field next to us. Plowing or harrowing. I felt a flash of anger and then a wave of mortality crash over me.
Thank you for comments that often show the long view, open up the “big picture,” Shirley.
Your father’s death was sudden, no wonder you felt a flash of anger at the incongruity of death and life right next to each other. Right now I’m thinking of another Auden poem, “Funeral Blues,” which expresses a similar sentiment: “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/304354-funeral-blues-stop-all-the-clocks-cut-off-the-telephone
Ruthie’s diary note about the atomic bomb reminds me of when I was in grade school in Spokane, Washington. Every so many days we would hear the scary siren whaling eerily over many city blocks indicating an atomic bomb alert. It made goosebumps on your arms and necks and with wide uncertain eyes we as students scrambled quickly under the desks in case there was a real attack.
To the west of Spokane we had Fairchild Air Force Base. Sometimes the B-52s would come low over our house and the surroundings would rumble and shake for a minute or two. I’m sure if there were a real attack from the enemy, one of their targets would probably be our air base.
Living on the Pacific coast, you must have felt the threat from Japan more real than those who lived on the east coast. Still, I remember hearing the eerie siren sound and then with my classmates, crawling into a ball under my desk. Thank you!
Wow, Marian. This post is amazingly close to what we all live with today … the speed of terrorism within our own country, never mind across the world, is horrific and keeps us from true understanding and grieving all that we are loosing every day.
My housekeeper is here today cleaning after just losing her best friend to cancer yesterday. She wouldn’t take the day off. She says she has to keep busy. She is still grieving but she needs something solid to hang onto. So she works. I know when I’m feeling low, doing simple chores helps me to begin sorting throughly my sadness.
Your are right, Joan: the world seems to be unraveling at warp speed, and we simply can absorb it all. We know too much; it’s humanly impossible to process it all. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.
You were kind to offer your housekeeper the day off. Still, you probably understood that working a regular routine was more therapeutic to her than sitting at home, perhaps feeling alone. Like you, cooking or cleaning helps me cope with the blues. Not dusting though. I HATE dusting; that would push me over the edge. Ha!
Marian, thanks for this poignant post. I remember as a refugee child, being utterly surprised and amazed when we came to Canada that while our family left everything behind and fled their beloved home to unknown places, dodging bullets, running for their lives, scrounging for food, people in North America were going to movies, eating leisurely meals, enjoying life. I thought, in my childlike innocence, that the whole world was at war. How could people be going to movies, when so many were suffering. Didn’t they care?
Thank you for bringing a different perspective to the dilemma, Elfrieda. How old were were when you immigrated to Canada? How long before you felt safe? The suffering you endured must have been much like that of soldiers who return from battle with PTSD.
For several decades, my grandmother and aunt took in refugees from all over the world: First Vietnam, then the Middle East, a country in Africa, and finally a woman from the Philippines (I think.) That’s how I learned that doing something about the plight of those who suffer is the best way to cope with it, the Mennonite way!
I was 9 when we came to Canada from Paraguay, and 4 when we left Germany for Paraguay. I don’t remember anything about the refugee years since I was a baby when my parents left Ukraine, and 4 when we left Germany, but I heard lots of talk and crying as many people had PTSD. I always felt safe, because I was never separated from my family, although my father was recruited into the German army just a few months before the war ended. We were reunited just after my sister was born in a barn in South Germany.
You have had to deal with A LOT, Elfrieda. I believe God protected you because you were never separated from your family, the ultimate trauma for such a young child as you were!
Dear Marian, This is an amazing post, and I too get goose bumps at the many pairings you provided us with here.
My most recent ‘cataclysmic’ day was June 4th when I got to be with my daughter as my grandson (only one so far) was born. Because I’m somewhat prepared for these ‘bubbles’ of chaos inside dailiness I was not so overwhelmed by how normal every one else seemed.
The event that prepared me most for this kind of happening was at age 15 when my older sister died so unexpectedly. She was 1000 miles away but it totally changed my life. Meanwhile everything at school was going on as though nothing happened.
First of all, congratulations, on the birth of your grandson. I like you you use the expression “bubbles of chaos” in this context, Dolores.
But then, my condolences on your sister’s death. Though it may have happened some time ago, the memory still aches. It seems as though time should come to a screeching halt, when an earthquake such as the unexpected death of a loved one rocks our own world.
Thanks for sharing all this!
I am jealous of everyone who is already reading your book…..
Soon, Dolores! Mennonite Daughter will be available on September 14 through Amazon, softcover and digital, your preference. 🙂
Marian — As you know, yours was the only book I took with me to a yoga/meditation retreat on Martha’s Vineyard. I savored the turn of each delicious page to the satisfying end.
Yes, Laurie, I am honored that you chose to read this book on your vacation and then follow up by writing a stellar review. Now that the dust is beginning to settle as I move toward publication, I wonder what Aunt Ruthie would think about some of the revelations in my story. Oh, my!
The contrast between the mundane tasks of cleaning, washing and drying clothes with the horror of what was simultaneously happening in Hiroshima is quite chilling and I have no doubt that your aunt didn’t realise at the time how horrific it really was and how long the fall out would affect the local inhabitants, as she doesn’t show any emotional reaction to it, seeming quite unfazed by it even.
Nowadays, we immediately know about the horrors of war anywhere in the world and are more vocal about it, people often demonstrating demanding peace and an end to armed conflicts, signing petitions, boycotting governments, etc, but we still carry on with our ordinary lives: what else can we do?
I get the impression, too, that Aunt Ruthie was stating facts, unable to allow the truth to penetrate. The bombing by the United States was unprecedented, so she had nothing to compare it to at the time. Days later, there was another bombing, this time in Nagasaki. You are reminding me to take a look at her entry for August 9. Ghastly thought!
You are right though, Fatima, what else can we do but carry on with our everyday lives, spreading positive energy with kindness whenever we can.
But will we ever learn to live in peace as a species? That is the crucial question. Why can’t we?
My take: We live in a broken world, not like the Eden of God’s creation. Human beings have free-will, and we can choose violence or peace, like you and I do. We make this choice every day. The people that do not choose peace, dominate the headlines, unfortunately.
Thanks for the follow-up comment, Fatima! 🙂
Amen to that! 👍
It’s always interested me how much suffering there is in the world, side by side with ordinary mundane happenings. Who knows what grief that person in front of me in the queue at the shops, is feeling, but that person knows that others cannot imagine.
But it’s important I reckon to be aware of the grief in the world, whether it’s fires out of control, drought, shootings, deaths of loved ones and to know that we do not know for whom the bell tolls.
Thanks Marian for this post and W.H. Auden’s musings …
You are welcome, Susan. And you brought up an interesting thought: Who knows what grief that person in front of me in the queue at the shops, is feeling”? When I’m not in too much of a rush, I pause to pray for them, knowing that a smile may conceal heartbreak within.
I once saw a plaque which read: “Be kind to everyone you meet. You have no idea what suffering they are going through now.” So very true!
It feels so eerie to read Aunt Ruthie’s writing about war. I can’t imagine she even knew about its full impact at the time.
Almost finished your wonderful book. I feel as though I know your aunt from all you’ve shared about her through the years, right through the book. Your relationship with her reminds me of my Aunty Sherry, who I write about in some of my books. 🙂 x
Your Aunt Sherry was very “motherish” and maybe a tad meddlesome too, just like Aunt Ruthie. That’s why I included her in a chapter “My Two Mothers.” I guess I needed them both. Ha!
Thank God for your dear Aunt Sherry! And thanks for mentioning her here, Debby, sweet memory! I’m glad you are enjoying the book.
So true Marian! 🙂
Finding treasures like Aunt Ruthie’s diary is an exciting event! But to find in it the entries expressing the daily activities the women handled alongside the news of the bomb dropped over Hiroshima is somewhat reminiscent of some of the daily news items we hear about car bombers and men gone mad with AK-47s. And what do we do? We get back to what needs to be done. I’m thinking this is just life and Aunt Ruthie proves it.
Thank you for summarizing the essence of this post in a nutshell. If we tried to control everything that goes on, we’d go mad. Brava, Sherrey, for this reminder.
I sometimes forget that our personal experiences, feelings, and catastrophes are universal. Somehow, all of us mistakingly think this particular thing or that only happened to us. Nope.
On the other hand, when disaster hits elsewhere, even though we are all similar human beings, it’s sometimes hard to imagine how it actually affects those people and their families. I try to put myself in their shoes, but often, it makes me sad or helpless. Then I think about our own awful situations and how nobody else even realizes what we are/were going through and I can relax a bit. And see things in perspective. We are all born and we all die. Life comes with blessings, suffering, and happiness.
I also find it interesting that it is easier to feel pity for people we know or relate to disasters in cities we are familiar with. Our personal connection/affection sure impacts our emotions and feelings, despite all of us being human and going through similar things in life.
You have the mind of a writer, analytical and curious. Thanks for sharing your take on my post. Finding the universal in the particular, that is the writer’s challenge.
You comment reminds me that it’s been a while that I checked your “diary”! 😀
Life and disasters seem universal, sadly.
. . . and inevitable.
You are doing your best to broadcast the good with your vividly colorful photos I enjoy every week. Thanks, Lady Fi!
I’m British, our solution to traumatic events is a cup of tea plenty of sugar. I’m ashamed to say that, but in truth , we are helpless to big things aren’t we . We just have to get on with it , I suppose . I’ll be honest with you , I have stopped watching the news, there is not enough tea in China to ease my worries about that .
Best advice I’ve heard so far, Cherry!
I don’t watch the news much either, except for the weather. Actually, there is plenty of good news around, but the media likes to scare us, instill fear. I dream of sharing a cuppa someday with you – plenty of sugar to sweeten the brew. 😉 oxo
Wow, oh, Wow, Marian. Those diaries! I feel our world is in a crisis beyond me, so what do I do other than give donations to organizations like Natural Resources Defense Council and go to protests when I can and vote? I raise Monarchs because they need help and I need healing. Just to remind me of the nature of life, a female was born with one deformed wing yesterday and a problem with one of her legs. She’ll never fly, but I’ve given her flowers and peach slices for nectar and sticks for climbing and soft flooring for when she falls. I’m not sure she’s eating. It’s up to her. Just a little reminder that I can’t protect anything, including myself, from mortality.
In my personal life as I’ve dealt with hard cancer deaths in my husband and brother plus a long decline in both my mother and mother-in-law, I’ve made it a point to look for beauty and kindness in the small things. Writing has helped mark the significance I don’t always absorb at the time. I look at Aunt Ruthie’s comments about the bomb in this way. People had no idea. My mom’s second husband was relieved because he was on a ship filled with terrified soldiers prepared to invade Japan and now the invasion was off. My dad was in the North Atlantic taking supplies in one direction and prisoners of war in the other. They didn’t know, except Oppenheimer who was head of the project to create the bomb. He knew. He later quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
As I read your thoughtful reply, many lines stood out, but this one in particular: “Writing has helped mark the significance I don’t always absorb at the time.” That’s true for you, for me, and for Aunt Ruthie. I wish I had time now to look beyond August 7 in her diary, but haven’t except to note that she did not mention the bombing of Nagasaki that happened two days later on August 9.
You inspire us on your Facebook pages and your blog: caring for wee living things regardless of whether life continues or not. Priestess of Playfulness, you are healing your soul as you exercise self-care, by showing us how it is done.
I’m thinking now of Maya Angelou’s quote: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” Evil cannot triumph over good as long as we continue to spread kindness and LOVE.
Thank you for all of this, Elaine, including your references to events in your own family at the time. 🙂
Very thought provoking, Marian. It reminds me of 9/11 and what we did during that day, with 3 small boys, although the impact was much greater because we were attacked and lived close to NY. The kids had no idea, but we did and went through many of the normal activities of the day. I can see it was similar for your aunt after the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s hard to reconcile daily life when there is destruction.
I remember coming into the office at the college after teaching a class with the TV blaring the news in Florida. Losing close to New York would give greater magnitude to the shock, I would think. Yes, it is “hard to reconcile daily life when there is destruction.” But you had to do it for your boys – and for your self too. :-/
Thank you for adding this poignant reflection from the past, Barbara.