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J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
rial service attended by 150 people, American and Chinese,
even though none of her family could be there. The mem-
bers of her Nanjing sewing circle had a tribute to her in-
scribed in Chinese calligraphy on silk and signed by 31
Chinese and five Americans. In Tegucigalpa,
El Diario
printed a long obituary eulogizing her work at the deaf
school. Mary Lou’s death at 31, at the height of a good and
productive life, came as a shock to many people.
But most of all to us. Dad had to take care of Fred and
me, continue his work and respond to the condolence let-
ters. He handled all this with his usual calm strength,
though mourning took its toll. His grief was eased some-
how by all the deaths he had already seen.
As he put it in a letter to his sister, Phyllis, on March 24,
1950: “Sometimes the sense of loss pierces me like a knife,
yet being in China has helped me to see my loss in truer
perspective. Here, in this dreadful famine year, tens of
thousands are dying through no fault of their own. Hus-
bands are losing wives, parents are losing children; whole
families are disappearing from the earth. Mary Lou’s death
looms large to us, and yet the important thing is not her
death but her life — and what its influence can mean to us
in daily living.”
For Fred and me there was just loss, absence, Mother
not there. Memory could not fill the void, and still can-
not. My memories of her are vivid but fragmentary. The
touch of her cheek bending over me in goodnight, the
sound of her scolding voice once when I skipped kinder-
garten, the look of her tenderly holding my sick brother
on her lap.
When recollection fails, I turn to other sources. In pho-
tographs, home movies and letters, she is always her young,
warm, compassionate, enthusiastic self. She is now somuch
younger than I, and I sometimes smile at her scrawly hand-
writing and her quirky turns of phrase — amused, like any
aging man reading the correspondence of a young woman,
and slightly guilty, as a son reading the letters of his dead
mother, who cannot shield her privacy from his eyes.