In 1941, I lived with friends of my parents while my dad worked in a munitions factory in Parsons, Kansas. By the time I was in first grade, Mom, Dad, and my baby brother had returned to Kansas City. Dad then began to work at Salt Lake City, another munitions factory close to where we lived in Independence, Missouri. I was too young at the time to connect munitions with either war or peace.
Dad was thirty-six when the war began and blind in his left eye from a mining accident. Because of this he could not join the army. However, he hoped to become a Seabee. The Seabees were construction battalion units that built naval bases in the various theaters of war. Dad was a steamfitter; he felt certain he could serve his country with his work skills.
The Seabees, however, turned him down because of his blind eye. Not being able to serve devastated him. It made him feel, I realized much later, as if he weren’t a real man. The consequence of this was that Dad became an alcoholic. He drank for the rest of his life, always feeling, I believe, that he was a failure as a human being.
Throughout the war and during all my grade and high school years, my father’s drinking terrorized me. When sober he was a kind, thoughtful, gentle man. When drunk on hard liquor, he became belligerent and sometimes violent. The arguments Dad and Mom had at those times frightened me because I feared he would harm, and possibly, kill her.
I longed for quiet, for no arguments, for calm. That is how I began to think of peace—as a great calming of the waves of rage, fear, pain, and abiding grief within my father and mother.
When they argued, I would go to my bedroom, lie face down on my bed, and imagine myself lying on a grassy hillside. I’d be on my back, looking up through the branches of a white-blossomed apple tree while swallows swooped overhead amidst cushiony clouds edged with the gleaming gold of sunrays.
In that place. On that hill. Beneath that tree, I found peace—a peace that I came to know as serenity many years later.
As the arguments raged, I initially heard all the anger and pain because there was no door to my room, just a privacy curtain hanging in the frame. But as I lay on that hill and listened to birdsong, felt the whisper of breeze against my cheek, smelled the rich loam of the earth and the fragrance of apple blossoms, all my senses settled into the calm of peace. In a world of my own making, I lived beyond the arguments. That, then, was peace for me.
Many years later, Dr. Nimlos, the psychiatrist who saved my life, said, “Dee, if you hadn’t had that hillside you would, I think, be totally psychotic. Or dead. It saved you.” A few months ago, I heard for the first time the song “Pure Imagination.” Its lyrics helped me remember what Dr. Nimlos had said: it was my imagination that enabled me to live through those tense days. My childhood imagination had enveloped me in peace.
That blissful scene on the hillside may have saved me, but it also became what I expected from life. In the convent, I expected no dissension. In friendships, no dissension. I remained caught in the romantic notion that peace meant a life devoid of any kind of disagreement. It took years for me to let go of that idyllic view of peace. The peace I wish you now is not idyllic. It is hard won. Peace.