Monday, February 7, 2011

A Trip to the Dentist in Honor of Walter

   I think it's safe to say that most people drag their feet when it comes to going to the dentist; it's just not on most people's top 10 list for fun things to do.  Last week I had my checkup and cleaning at a new dentist office and I really liked their staff and their approach; but I wasn't so excited about the fact that they found a cavity! I made an appointment for a week later and told myself, "You've done this before. It's no big deal."

   Today's appointment was looming in my mind last night though and I had to admit I was dreading it.  I didn't really mind the thought of whatever they needed to do to my tooth, but I have to admit that I have a healthy fear of needles.  You can laugh if you like, but this morning I thought it would be a good idea to have a soothing cup of "Nighty Night" tea, full of calming things like passionflower and chammomile.  Just for good measure I threw in a few drops of Rescue Remedy, a Bach flower essence that is also supposed to be good for anxiety.  While drinking the tea I read a review that said the flower remedies have never stood up to a controlled trial, but I decided that even a placebo effect would be just fine with me!

   As I was driving to my appointment I started to think of my great grandfather Walter J. Thomas.  I never knew him, nor did my dad or his siblings.  But I feel that I have gotten to know him quite a bit through the stack of letters that he wrote to my great grandmother.  The letters were sent during the Depression while Walter went from one occasional job as a "time study" man working for the Bedeaux Company to another, sometimes with very long stretches in between.
Walter with my grandfather Wendell
Walter and my great grandmother had separated, exactly when I'm not sure.  But the letters I have are dated from 1930-1940.  Walter wrote faithfully and sent money when the struggles of the time allowed it.  Throughout the letters he documents the challenges that must have faced many Americans in those days.  At first the letters are optimistic and hopeful even in the event of difficulties.  Walter always says, "Things will be okay" or "Things will come out right in the end." By August of 1938 even Walter's optimism seems to flag.

   In August of 1938 he sends a letter from Chillicothe, Illinois, where he says that he had to go and live with his sister.  He says he left Bedaux because there was no work.  He tells how he has had no work since February 15th and could not find anything anywhere.  He tells that he had to sell his car to live on and used all that money traveling "all over the map" to find work.  He was turned down by the W.P.A. because he had moved around so much, even though he tried to apply in both Detroit and Toledo.  He writes, "I was flat broke and had no where to go."  He wrote to his sister Veda who said that their business was down to nothing but he was "welcome to come and stay with them."  She told him there was no work in Chillicothe or Peoria either but to come on.   In Chillicothe Walter works for a time at the ice plant but even that doesn't last long because the weather is uncooperative and he only gets a day or two a week.  In this letter, Walter sounds like he has nearly given up with despair.  He signs it, "I am sorry as hell I can't do anything.  I really am." 

   I can't help but wonder if he ever got anyone to look at his teeth by then.  In 1936 he sent a letter from Detroit addressed to his son Wendell.  He has a rare time study job in Detroit but he says, "I hope you and everyone are okay. I am well but am having trouble with my teeth.  I had to let them go for so long because I was out of work."  Earlier in the letter he says he hasn't really worked since 1932.

    There is a lot I may never know about Walter Thomas, but I do know that he sent money to my great grandmother and their son for at least 10 years through one of the most difficult times in American history.  My grandfather would have been about 18 years old by date on the last letter in my posession.  When I think of him going around the country in those bleak days looking for work, sending money to Blanche and Wendell, but not seeing a dentist for several years because he just didn't have the money, I feel humbled.  Walter was an educated man, who had graduated from Bradley Institute (now University).  He had the credentials and training to work and be a professional person.  But he went through some very dark times; that line about his teeth really touched me.  I thought about how that must have not only hurt physically but also must have affected his sense of dignity and pride to be so down and out that he couldn't even take care of his basic needs. 

   I thought about my great grandfather as I was driving to the dentist appointment that I didn't want to keep.  I saw the sign for my turn onto Union Street and I fleetingly thought about just driving on.  (I really don't like needles!)  But I thought of Walter, and I thought of how fortunate I was to be able to get proper dental care.  I turned on to Union Street with a different feeling than I had before.  I felt glad to have the chance to do what Walter couldn't; and that it was my responsibility to take care of what I have been given.  I pulled into the parking lot and thought of my great grandfather and decided that I would get my tooth filled in remembrance of him. 
   I wasn't very nervous after that and by 9:30 I was on my way out the door, feeling grateful.

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