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“Count your blessings”

By December 9, 2016 9 Comments

Some psychologists want to drop the last initial in PTSD. They claim that to call PTSD a “disorder” makes the condition appear unusual. It isn’t. They claim that if you’ve been to war, you have post-traumatic stress because war is trauma.

I can’t help thinking such distinctions wouldn’t have mattered to the woman in the casket yesterday. She had a husband who took Nazi fire at the Battle of the Bulge and came home with a purple heart from wounds that were visible–and some that were not. “He just wasn’t the same when he came back from the war,” one of his relatives said to me some time ago. Then the guy shook his head with a kind of stoic inevitability.

Her husband died already 32 years ago, but he could have gone to his Maker at least twice before that, once in a snowy battle in Europe, then again by a truck accident that did almost everything but kill him. She suffered through that also. It was cancer that took him finally. He was always a heavy smoker. She was there too.

She died last Thursday, her 96 years it’s own kind of Life magazine. She’d seen a whole lot more than most of us ever will, a whole life of trauma, if you count the tears. 

She had a baby boy in 1945, when she received word that her GI husband had been wounded in Belgium. She had to have understood that all three of their lives wouldn’t be exactly as she had imagined. I don’t know if she ever talked much about getting the news–where she was or how it came. What her family knows is that she got that telegram with a little boy, six months old, in her arms.

The obit says she was born in Estelline, South Dakota in 1920. She went to country school through eight grades, then “worked out,” which is to say moved into houses whenever and wherever farm wives needed help, generally after having babies. Thirteen, she may have been, maybe fourteen, doing every last thing farm wives did back then, and they did every last thing. 

The Dutch Reformed of Estelline in the 1920s were not an affluent bunch. Most had moved west to homestead cheap land, hoping to make a life on a landscape that didn’t always take kindly to taming. She was a child when the stock market crashed. I’m sure she remembered the Dust Bowl, when dark skies full of Oklahoma and Kansas dust drifted into every corner of a farm house. 

Chances are, when she got married, she hadn’t thought about her sweetheart going off to war. It was eight months before Pearl Harbor, and it would be two years before he was drafted. They were in Iowa then, right up close to the South Dakota border, hilly Sioux County country, not prime land, but greatly livable. Knowing her, I can’t imagine she wasn’t happy.

Then came the war. And then the man she loved returned, not exactly the man she’d married. Back then no one knew the initials PTSD, and she probably wasn’t the only woman who nursed all kinds of wounds. Back then, people just didn’t talk much about it.

She and her husband had another five boys, six in all. Six boys trying to make a go of it on a hardscrabble farm.

In 1965, that oldest son of hers was killed, a passenger in an accident the newspaper described this way:

Early morning fog covered Highway 18 as the local men attempted to pass a gasoline transport. As he pulled around the truck he was driving east a milk truck. . . was approaching from the east. The Rock Valley man attempted to slow down and pull back into the right hand lane but in doing so he collided with the rear of the transport which tossed the pick up broadside in the path of the oncoming truck.

She was likely at home on their farm when she and her husband got that news. 

Fifty years later, she buried yet another son, my brother-in-law, after he’d been killed instantly in a construction zone on a Wisconsin interstate. He and my sister were on their way to Minnesota to visit their kids and grandchildren. 

She was a resident in the Rock Valley old folks home, and in a wheelchair herself. That time, her remaining four sons delivered the news.

By a country mile, her allotment in sadness and death exceeded what most of us will ever know. But yesterday, at her funeral, when the pastor spoke and her family reminisced, the sweet face that appeared right there in church was smiling because she always did. One after another, her grandkids claimed her giggle was perfectly infectious. And it was. I swear when they spoke, it echoed through the sanctuary.

One of her sons told the audience that with six rough-and-tumble boys growing up on a small farm where there was no end to work, there were weeks and months, even years, when there was no end to trouble. Once, he said, when he was in it, when he was right there in the heart of concern, his mom looked at him, offered that smile, and said just three words: “Count your blessings.”

That testimony plays in a league all its own.

Funerals do good work when they concentrate attention. This one did. 

Once upon a time, in a moment that doesn’t need to be detailed, she looked at her boy, one of six, and this woman who’d suffered so much sadness, so much trauma, gave him a line to live by, a line that to me, up until yesterday, when her son repeated it, seemed little more than an empty cliche. 

“Count your blessings,” she told him, smiling. 

Never in my life have those three words carried so much love.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Dale Cooper says:


    No few words and comments of mine can tell you how much your reflection on this elderly saint have blest me this morning. Good writing–that goes without saying. But more important to me by far, I was reminded to cultivate the spiritual practice of expressing gratitude–to name (my) life’s gifts “one by one,” and then to respond with a simple, heartfelt “Thanks” to their Giver.

    Dale Cooper

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you so much for this moving testimony. God bless her and welcome her. I am learning, as I age, to heed her admonition.

  • Judith Hardy says:

    Amen. Among the chief blessings: the power of words. Thank you.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Jim–One word only for you several hundred word reminder about three words: Thanks.

  • Henry Baron says:

    For me too, having inhaled your story, that “pious cliche” will bless me now.
    Thanks, Jim!

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    Her advice is one hymn line, but she embodies another:

    “Where reason fails with all her powers,
    there faith prevails and love adores.”

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    A beautiful testimony that “count your blessings” is a powerful word of faith and defiance, wrapped in joy.

  • Judy Gruver says:

    A lovely writing.

  • Jan VanKooten says:

    Not only is this a touching and moving post, the punch line is right, true and spot-on. Thanks, Jim!

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