Oklahoma Love Letters

Grandma Klein took milk in her coffee. My parents drank theirs black. I remember fetching milk for her from our fridge and her saying, “I like a little coffee in my milk.” That was the afternoon that I asked her how she had met my grandpa.

I was in junior high school. My grandfather had been dead for so many years. I had very little memory of him. Only his work clothes, sitting on his lap, his habit of always wanting a little sweet at the end of any meal.


Grandma Klein, on the other hand, had been the great comfort of my childhood. I remember sitting in her lap as she rocked me on her Kansas porch, my parents having left us in her care while they attended a wedding. Grandma Klein was almost as wide as she was tall, so it was a very comfortable lap, like an old Lazy Boy with the stuffing coming out. If I did cry, she’d move her hand rapidly onto my mouth and then away from it, producing a sound like an Indian war cry. That always made me laugh. Grandma would even recite poetry, there on the porch. “Kaiser Bill went up the hill to take a peak at France. Kaiser Bill came down the hill with buckshot in his pants.” I had no idea who Kaiser Bill was, or why France had been so inhospitable.

Grandma certainly wasn’t. She let me play the same game relentlessly. I’d beg for her to hold up her arm, like Popeye, but the bulge that appeared would be below her arm, not above it. She let me wack it, and we’d watch it swing like a sack fully of jelly. Did that for hours! As I said, Grandma Klein was the great comfort of my childhood.

But it was in junior high that I asked her about Grandpa. I knew that he had come from Odessa, Russia, all by himself. He hadn’t wanted to serve in the Czar’s army, so he jumped ship in New York. He had some sort of relative in Oklahoma, whom we always called Uncle Eddie. To reach Eddie, he had sold his accordion in New York and bought a train ticket that took him to Cincinnati. From there, he walked to Oklahoma.

Back to my question. How had they met? Grandma Klein had grown up in Weatherford, Oklahoma. She played the organ in the Methodist Church. Grandpa Klein had been a harvest worker, following the Winter Red Wheat harvest from Texas up into the Dakotas. They met one summer as he passed through Weatherford. He wrote her letters after he moved on, and the next summer, come harvest, they got married.

I can’t imagine meeting someone, knowing that’s who you want, and then writing your way into marriage by means of letters, but then, I suspect that, my grandparents would have had just as much difficulty understanding uploading a list of desired characteristics and then shopping on the web, as so many do today. Either way, sensible folk don’t marry someone without a sense of intimacy, so those letters must have been something. How do you reveal, and offer, your heart with a pen?

That is, of course, what the gospels do. As a genre of writing, they’re closer to letters than history. The evangelists have no intention of answering every question that we might have about Jesus. Instead, they have a single, quite focused, goal. They want to offer intimacy with the Lord.

Of course, in that regard, they perfectly mirror their own Lord’s preaching. Jesus doesn’t come teaching a religious wisdom. He doesn’t offer rabbinical insight into Israel’s faith. Instead he comes preaching the kingdom, and he seems to have thought of himself as the very embodiment of that kingdom. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk 1:15).

It’s as if they said, “Prove it!”

And he said, “Well, I’m here, aren’t I?”

It’s only the utter seriousness and veracity of the claim that keeps it from the level of a pick-up line in a bar. “I am the kingdom of God; I am the fulfillment you seek.” And that’s why Jesus is unlike any other religious figure. He doesn’t offer what he perceives to be the wisdom of God or the universe. He offers himself.

He tells his disciples, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mk 1:17). Don’t let familiarity with the line blind you to its oddity. One expects a great religious leader to say, “Come after me, and I will teach you the dharma,” as the Buddha did, or, “Come after me, and I will explicate the deep meaning of Israel’s faith, as her own prophets did. He says, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” One could translate that into, “Find intimacy with me, and you will find it with others.”

How interesting that the great claim to apostolic authority in the early Church was not mastery of a message. It was intimacy with the Lord: those who had walked with him, who had slept out under the stars with him, who had shared his table. These were his intimates, and what they offered their listeners was not wisdom so much as intimacy. “You can love him as I have loved him.” The authority of an apostle is grounded in intimacy, not information. One sought out the apostle to learn of his love, to share the intimacy that he had found. Even the early creeds of the Church are focused upon who Jesus is rather than what he taught. Who he is makes all the difference in what he offers. Because he is God, because he fashioned the human heart, he alone can give it what it most desires: the intimate love of another, the unconditional love and acceptance of one who fully knows us. Something I found on Grandma Klein’s lap.

And this is where I should point out that my own story about the intimacy, which my grandparents found in their letters should, in fairness, be heard aside another version. My cousin Cindy lived next to Grandma Klein throughout her childhood. Hearing my tale, she told her own courtship story that she insists also came from Grandma Klein.

According to Cindy, Grandma Klein was a bit boy-crazy in her youth, even to the point of crawling out windows to be with them. My great-grandparents were said to have been so perplexed, they took her to the Methodist minister and asked, “What are we to do with this girl?”

He’s supposed to have said, “Get her married, and quick!”

If only Grandma Klein were here to reconcile the two tales, but then, her stories were, in their own way, more about sharing life and love than certifying information. And what is a young woman, jumping out of a window, looking for in boys, if not the intimacy of the human heart?

That Methodist minister’s advice seems quite irresponsible today, but he was on target in knowing that she needed the intimacy of marriage. Most sexually promiscuous people today don’t realize that’s what their hearts are after. Maybe that was God’s grace, that she jumped out windows, looking for a love and an intimacy that arrived by post, not heavy petting.

How accurately Saint Augustine, summed up his own love-longing youth with the phrase, “fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te.” “You made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions I,1) If that sums up the intimacy we seek, the words of Christ do the same for the intimacy that he offers, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Rev. Terrance W. Klein

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Eugene Palumbo
6 years 11 months ago
If you liked this post, you'd probably also like this one on NCR's blog:

Winifred Holloway
6 years 11 months ago
Thank you for this essay, Fr. Klein.  It is both simple and brilliant. The similarity of  intimacy with God made man and with the earhtly partner we have chosen, is the strong sense that we cannot imagine life without either.
david power
6 years 10 months ago
Man, you are a breath of fresh air!
Just read 3 of your postings every one a winner.Lots to think about.


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