Trees Must Bend
Kate tore the letter open eagerly. Letters from Dan were few and far between. Her eyes scanned the page in one fell swoop, looking for danger. Then her face relaxed and she went back to read for details. Kate always read letters from her children that way. She supposed all mothers did. It was the same way she looked her children over on the first meeting after a long separation. The kids called it “Mom’s assessment.” They joked about it, but they knew better than to try to hide anything from Mom.
Kate read as intently as she listened; picking up clues, probing for more. Letters, thought Kate, are very unsatisfactory, and she went back and reread the brief letter once more. Her face was troubled when she finally laid the letter down on the table in front of her. I have to show this to Ben, she thought. It’s not right to keep Dan’s letters from him. He loves Dan just as I do, and I would never forgive him if he kept a letter from me.
But Dan’s letters were becoming increasing foreign to both of them.
Dan had been a missionary priest in Chile for almost three years now—since shortly after his ordination in June of sixty-five—and he was due to come home for a visit. Three years had seemed like an abnormal length of time to be away from home. But Dan had told them that that was what they could expect as long as he worked in South America. Kate was beginning to think that would be nothing short of his lifetime. After all, it was all or nothing with Dan, and his letters sounded as if he had found a purpose and was prepared to give everything.
Kate could understand that, and she loved him all the more for it. But Ben saw differently. He simply couldn’t understand; couldn’t and wouldn’t. Ben was in from the field now. He walked over and kissed her lightly on the head. “There’s a letter from Danny, Ben.” She touched his rough hand lightly; a reminder.
“I know. I know,” said Ben, picking up the letter. He then mimicked Kate’s words grumpily, “Be fair. Be understanding. I try, Kate. But I have to say, his letters are starting to get under my skin.” He patted Kate’s hand and went to his reading chair by the window.
The first part of the letter was fine. Dan wrote of the school where he worked in Santiago and some of the changes he was trying to bring about. He wanted the education to be for everyone and not just those who could afford the tuition. He had added a work farm to the school. At the farm the students could learn and earn tuition. Ben thought that was great. Everyone should have an education, and learning about animals and gardening was something he would recommend.
In fact, he couldn’t understand it when Dan said that some of the upper-class parents objected to the farm. They thought manual labor was below their children. They looked down on it and on those who did it. Ben thought they were dead wrong, and he was proud of Dan for wanting to change their snooty attitude.
But Dan went on to say that these parents were objecting to the free education and work program by calling it Marxist infiltration. It sounded as if they were accusing his son of believing in Communism. Ben felt his anger rise. These people must be insane. No son of his could be a Communist. But in the second part of the letter, Dan wrote again of the desperate straits of the poor, the economic upheaval and the political unrest, and as always the United States was presented as an oppressor. It galled Ben through and through to read what Dan had to say about that.
Months later, when Dan arrived home, he seemed glad to see the family, but it was clear to Kate that he felt like a stranger in their home. Her immediate assessment had told her that. They had truly lost him. She remembered his ordination day. She had felt the loss that day, but she hadn’t understood. She hadn’t known then who would take him from them. Now she understood. He belonged to the poor and the oppressed. And somehow that seemed to put them on the other side in Dan’s eyes.
“Why did Dad get a new truck and tractor, Mom?” Dan asked one morning soon after he came home. “I see you’re still driving the same old car.”
“Ben wants me to get a new car, but you know me. As long as it runs, that’s all I care about.”
“But Dad, on the other hand…”
“Your father has a lot of pride, but you need to remember that he started out with almost nothing.”
“Is that why material things are more important to him?”
“It could be. But he has every right to be proud of his accomplishments.” She studied the fire burning in Dan’s eyes. Sometimes she saw an anger there that was new. What had he seen to put the anger there? He didn’t say much about his day-to-day life, but she knew something of the poverty that he lived with.
“You could be more tolerant, too, Danny,” she added softly as he hugged her on the way out the door. Kate knew that if she were suddenly put into the situation Dan was in, she also would be angry at the injustice. She also would be looking for someone to blame.