Isn’t it fascinating how death both is such a big part of our lives and still not part of it at all? We, who are lucky (?) enough to be amongst the living do all we can to not think about death, until it hits us or our close ones. If we survive, the scars remain until our time ends as well.
My great grandmother, Olga, endured many deaths throughout her life. The first, that scarred and defined her, was the one of her own father. It taught her to never take anyone for granted, and it taught her to not let life simply pass her by – being only nine years of age when she lost him.
Olga was a strong believer. She listened to the priests who came out to her island in the Stockholm archipelago, and she fantasized about far away countries, where brave missionaries saved lost souls and were rewarded with eternal life in the heavens. As she grew up, she would become one of those missionaries herself. But it was not an easy path to choose.
In fact, her path was lined with the deaths of both loved ones, patients (she was also a nurse) and her fellow missionaries who – just like herself – were always subjected to danger in a very chaotic time period in their designated work area – China.
She had to bury her own four-year-old son, not being able to save his life in spite of her medical training. This must have been a very hard blow and something that left an immense scar. Since she wrote home to her missionary society a lot, with detailed descriptions of her work and surroundings, I have tried to find something about the death of her son. Perhaps it will turn up in my ongoing research, but as of now I haven’t found any personal records of this. At the time, the missionaries were expected to take every loss and every endurance with stoic calm and trust in God. Being an avid contributor to the Mission’s own paper, the closest I come to Olga being struck by the death of her son, is her not publishing any reports for some months following his passing. For someone who is present in almost every issue, that is probably a sign of not having the strength to go on like before.
As I read the missionary reports from the field, they describe horrific events, like armed assaults, decapitations and beatings, but the missionaries subjected to it (or those witnessing it) always seem to find comfort in their strong faith – and remain motivated to keep spreading Gods word. To die, is to be called upon to sit at Gods’ side, and that is an honor and something to strive for in their world.
When Olga loses her husband Nils in 1942, they are in China. It takes a long time to get to the nearest hospital and the chances that an operation will be successful are slim. On the 16th of October, he is pronounced dead due to an unsuccessful operation for ileus. Olga writes home to her two daughters in Sweden. Her daughter Edna – my grandmother – had just become a mother herself. She gave birth to my father just five months earlier and was eagerly awaiting the possibility to have her parents meet her son. Now, her father will never see his first-born grandson, and the grief must be immense.
I remember my grandmother telling me about this in her old age. She said she had begged her parents not to travel to China again. They were in Sweden on vacation (having been away for seven years already) and she was so happy to have them home. Her father Nils’ health was not all that good, and she thought the situation in China would not be safe for him – getting a doctor and travelling to a hospital, was a big deal at the time.
But her parents were missionaries, and they put that calling above everything else. They were set on dying practicing their calling, and they relied on God to help them through any future difficulties just like he saved them in the past. Thus, they went, and Edna got married and had her first child without them being present. She wished they had put their own children before their calling just this once. But it was not to be.
Olga writes home after Nils’ funeral in Changan in the Shensi province in China:
“It was a nice, peaceful moment, in spite of the grief. The coffin was shrouded in flowers and wreaths. There were roses in many different colors as well as chrysanthemum. Your dear old father has now gotten his rest and his peace. When he was ill back in Pucheng, he said: “No pain and no suffering anymore – that will be such a relief!” Now, he has gone to where he will never feel pain again. I have asked God many times to not take me before him, because it would have been so hard for your father to be left alone without anyone to care for him.”
A bit further down in the two-paged letter, she goes on to talk about her faith:
“We, who hear the Lord, do not have to grieve, like those who are without hope. God willing, we will meet again, when the Lord comes for us. May we all be ready when that happens. Our beloved Pa (Nils) has had his peace and quiet. He need not suffer anymore – neither his body, nor his soul. Many times out here, he felt a heavy burden, due to the very difficult situation. Now he can rest, and be with Christ, which is much better.
Don’t worry about me, I do not want to think about the future. If we meet in the heavens, all is well. “Earth does not have the peace I seek, no I long for, yes, I long for Gods city.”
How is my dear grandson? I haven’t heard from you since he was born. One letter came on the day of Nils’ burial. It was sent on the 9th of October last year – over the U.S.A. Thank you! Perhaps you’d better send this letter on to your aunts, if their letters are delayed as well.”
When Olga got the letter from her daughter, it was over one year late. Perhaps not so strange, since it was during the Second World War and had to be sent via the USA. I am pretty amazed that it got through at all…
I have looked through quite a few letters written during this period of time – 1938-1946 – and the only mention of the war is when Olga gets delayed on her trip back home. She travels from China, via India, over the USA and then back to Sweden – and it takes her about a year to get back home from China. Of course, she stays on with friends in the USA, as she probably reconnects with her husbands old acquaintances back there (he started out as an immigrant to the States, before deciding to go to China as a missionary), and this period also seems to be a period when she can finally think about herself. She doesn’t have all those souls to save, and she doesn’t have to fight any longer.
It must have been hard on her daughters, that she didn’t come home straight away after their father’s death. Another lost opportunity to be together as a family. They longed for her, and wanted her to come home, but she put God and work first. She didn’t feel she could leave the missionary station just like that. In her letters to her daughters, she claims it is not God’s will that she go home yet. And she stays on in China for over two years after the funeral.
In February 1945 she leaves China by air to India. Somehow she finds a way to telegraph to the Swedish mission at home. She recounts her journey thus far:
“Unexpectedly I got permission to enter the United States. I left Pengshan, Szechuan, on the 4th of December. First I travelled to Chengtu, where I – after three days – was taken to an airfield. I waited there for another three days, and then it took only three hours to fly to where I am now. Sometimes one can go very far in a very short amount of time. Now, I await my entry permit to India. When I have that, I hope to undertake the next part of my journey. I hope I can get to Sweden by summer. But that depends on how fast I can get to the United States. I will probably have to wait for some time in India. It takes a long time to get a cabin on a boat. I hope I will manage to pay for my travel myself, so as to not cause any expense for the Mission. By selling some, yes almost everything except what I have given away of my possessions, I have procured means for this journey. I haven’t written to the secretariat for some time now, but that is because I have not received a single letter from you since my beloved Nils left this world. If you have written or not – I do not know. I want to believe that you have, but I have not received anything. And then I felt: why write and pay expensive stamps when you don’t receive the letters anyway? “
It seems Olga gave the Mission the benefit of a doubt. It was during the war and of course letters didn’t arrive as they should, but I feel her pain, her loneliness. And her need to say that she can make do on her own. She sold off and gave away everything. She didn’t want to be a burden – even though she had served the Mission for forty years. She puts on a brave face, but I think this left another scar in her, that never healed. She felt betrayed in her time of need.
She ends the letter by a hopeful sentence, saying they can address their letters to M. Pettersson in Los Angeles and write “To await arrival” on the outside of the envelope.
I do hope she received a letter from the Mission when she finally arrived in the USA!
I know she left Bombay in June that year – together with 600 other missionaries – and arrived in New York in August 1945. She stayed for 6 months in the States, until she reached Sweden in February 1946 to finally be reunited with her longing daughters.
She never went back to China after that. Her husband and son are buried over there, but I would be surprised if the graves are still marked. The beautiful stone she put on her husbands’ grave, with a loving inscription both in English and Chinese will probably be long gone by now, having no one to look after it.
And Olga wore her scars with pride. Scars that showed she had lived and above all survived. At least until her time was up as well.