I have already acknowledged that I am the fifth of six sons, We grew up sisterless until my oldest brother married in 1947, when I was eleven. We suddenly had a sister, and she suddenly had a husband and five new little brothers ranging in age from four to 19. By the time the youngest brother was married, we had as many sisters as we had brothers, and twenty-one children among us.
We cohered. Part of the cohesion, I think, is that we hoped our sisters-in-law would treat us like brothers, which they did, and we wanted to treat them like sisters because they were the only sisters we had. They graciously accepted that. Never once did they make me feel like Somebody they had to Put Up With. I was somebody to be treated like family, and so were they. We loved them and they had the grace to love us.
I am singling out one of them now, because she died on September 18 and is much on my mind. We all have our stories to tell, but she can no longer tell her own.
She was the second to join the family, fifty-eight years ago, but she was the oldest in the generation succeeding our parents: thirty-three when she married, ninety-one when she died. When she joined us she was a professional missionary, a skilled communicator, a school administrator. She knew God, and she knew who she was.
Sixty years ago she was a Canadian missionary working in Japan as head of a girls' school. Her name was Bessie Dodds. My brother Jim was an American naval officer, eight years younger than she. He had an evangelistic passion and gift, and was using his shore leave in part to look for other Christians who shared his passion.
To her initial dismay, he found her. Then the finding became mutual, and she said yes to his proposal. The life she got was not what she had expected from God, but what she accepted from him—which is more on the mark anyway.
They married in Japan. .In the summer they were able to come to the States, but not to travel together. She arrived first at the dock in San Francisco where my parents, younger brother, and I met her. Then we picked up Jim and bonded in an Oldsmobile 98 on the long ride Nebraska. I was barely sixteen, but Bessie treated me like a real person then and in all the years that followed. She corrected me sometimes (she was my older sister, after all) but she never put me down—and I always listened to her.
After Jim completed the service obligation of an Annapolis graduate, he and Bessie continued their partnership in mission, which was local in its exercise but international in its scope. This Canadian who had expected a lifelong commitment to Japan was called to make a shift of biblical proportions, to become an American citizen and the matriarch of four generations of an American family, and ancestor of about a third of all the descendants of my parents.