Raphael is on his way back to the ship, sober and alert. Raphael Mainz, is a seaman and has been a seaman so long, he is never comfortable on land. He enjoys the sea life and never thinks about doing anything different. A shellback for longer than he cares to remember and touched more countries than most land lubbers realize exist.
Maybe he was destined to be a seaman, with a name so close to Melville’s “Ishmael.” Maybe something, in the genes caused his parents to choose that name. He might have been named from the Archangel Raphael who is credited with many healings in as many religions. Raphael Mainz, stumbling along on solid ground, needs an earthquake to make him feel steady.
Raphael is on his way back to the ship, he not only calls home but would go to a watery grave for. Today he is happier than he remembers for a long time.
Where did it start? What was the event or moment, one could call the beginning?
He remembers Sharon Koning, a friend in high school, talking about a visit to a nursing home to see an elderly aunt and how at first, she was apprehensive but later was glad she had made the trip. He remembered his parents talking about the poor and neglected. He remembered them going to visit people in hospitals and nursing homes but that was them. He didn’t know anyone personally back then and why would he bother and if he did, what could he do or say.
Several years ago, he had been on leave from the ship, and was spending time with a girlfriend. They had, long since, visited all of the local tourist sights, spent too much time in the pubs and restaurants and agreed they needed something more.
His girlfriend, Melissa Dreyfuss, suggested they go and visit her grandmother, as otherwise, she would be going to see grandma, as soon as he left for the ship. This would be a chance to spend more time together, visit her aunt, and anyway she, Melissa, liked to talk with some of the other people as they may not have any other visitors, ever.
Raphe as she called him, was not the least bit interested. This was not only the last thing on his list, it had never made the list. He would rather be, as they say, “kissing the gunner’s daughter”.
A little of the past history started to creep in as he was trying to dream up a believable excuse and he was starting to feel a bit guilty.
Raphael cared a great deal about Melissa. How many women would wait for a guy who bounces around the world, coming home for such short times. Melissa was good looking, smart, and thoughtful. Beside caring, Raphe had a lot of respect for her.
He said he would be glad to go, trying his best to make it sound sincere. After a short lunch, they drove about two miles to a school looking building and went in. Inside were, the expected odors of medicine, disinfectants, bodies, and just old bodies. Wheel chairs were everywhere, people fiddling with, pieces of paper, cloths and nothingness. A tv was blaring off in a large room with so many of the residents more or less being in its presents as if they had been instructed by an invisible force to be there.
Off they went, down a long hall, Melissa obviously knowing where she was bound as well as knowing most of the staff. Some of the rooms they passed were empty and in some, it was easy to see people, generally much older and often just lying in a bed. Some were moaning while others were reading or doing something to pass the time.
Raphe was brought out of a kind of trance, when Melissa announced, “this is her room”. “I will check if she is awake,” which she did and called Raphael to come in. The room, like all the other rooms, was small by land lubber standards. A bed, a table, some storage, and a bathroom just off the from the bed.
He was introduced and mostly listened while Melissa talked with her grandmother Harriot Dreyfus, who seemed to be in pretty good shape for someone in a nursing home. He would find out that her husband had died and she lived alone for years visiting and getting visits from friends and family. One day she had a seizure and was advised to go into a home, where she could be watched and given the attention needed when the seizures happened. In the three years she had been in the home, she had had two seizers and knew she was in the right place. Family would come by often and take her out for a different meal or maybe just a drive.
They stayed about an hour, Raphael trying his best to look comfortable and talking about current news and some of the things Raphe was doing. When the time came to leave, Raphael, breathed a silent sigh of relief.
Saying their good-byes to Mrs. Dreyfuss, and leaving the room Melissa turned right instead of left toward the exit door. Off down the hall and stopping in for short visits, at several other rooms.
On entering one of what Raphael hoped would be the last, he was introduced to a lady who looked like someone who had just come from a very costly hair salon. Thin, well-groomed and perky. She talked slowly, obviously happy to see Melissa as well as him. His introduction just wouldn’t due without a hug from this short little lady. Bending over, the heavy cross, hanging on a chain around Raphael’s neck, came out of his shirt, gently bumping her on the chin.
Raphe apologized, being embarrassed and started to tuck it back in his shirt.
“That’s quite all right,” Mrs. Jenson said, “Never apologize for wearing a cross. It represents everything we are alive for”. “May I see it?” she continued.
Raphe took the cross back out again, pulling the chain over his head and handing it to her.
It was heavy, compared to most neckless crosses and Mrs. Jenson asked him where it had come from. He told her it had come from the town of Dover in England, where he had visited. He had been to London and someone suggested he go to Dover to see the white cliffs as well as the Dover castle and St. Augustine’s Abby. When visiting St. Augustine’s Abby, a young man who was out front selling trinkets, said, “they were antiques from his grandfather’s brother”. The young man showed him the cross, saying “it will protect you.”
Raphael offered the cross to Mrs. Jenson, but she refused saying,
“It will serve better if you keep it and just think of me with a prayer, once in a while. It is difficult to keep that sort of thing here, some of our guests, forgetting what is theirs and not theirs.”
They left the room, once again saying their good-bye’s as if she were a close friend and well, Raphe thought, “I guess she is.”
A couple more visits down the hall, that somehow now, didn’t seem near as uncomfortable. He was starting to feel as though he was adding something to their lives that they so badly needed. He didn’t want to make himself out to be a hero, but couldn’t help but notice the change in them by the time they left. It was almost like they had provided a vitamin or given the elder person some magic health food.
Like all things good, his time with Melissa had run out and he was back at work many miles and a lot of water away. He thought of their visits to the nursing home and would discuss them often with Melissa over the phone or in letters.
One day when he called Melissa, she said she was just about to call him. She had received a letter and was anxious to get it to him. “I won’t tell you now, what it says because I don’t think it will have the same bang as it will when, “you” read it.” I will send it in the mail because that is the way it is meant to be received. It just has to be that way.
About a month went by, Raphe curious, about what this letter could say as well as who it was from, but work and study kept him busy enough to forget the rest of the world, at times.
Finally, one day the letter arrived, a soiled and rather bulky envelope loaded with stamps. Back at his birth, he opened the letter. In it were two envelopes. One had a return address he wasn’t able to recognize and the other was from Melissa, his girlfriend.
Opening Melissa’s first, he read,
“The letter I sent, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is from a woman we visited the day we went to the nursing home. Her name is Fran Jensen. She had wanted to give me this letter sooner than she did but because I hadn’t been to the nursing home, on the days she was in, she didn’t know how to get it to me. Finally asking about me in the office, someone remembered me and called. I went to see her, by the way she is doing well, and, as you will read, had quite a story for me. It is all so much to take in and seeing or maybe feeling your reactions when we left the nursing home that day, well, I believe it will mean as much to you as it does to me. Please let me know, what or how you feel about the letter, as soon as you can.”
“Love, Melissa Dreyfuss”
Of course, he had hardly finished the letter from Melissa when he heard the ship’s whistle, telling him that he needed to be at his post immediately. A fire had broken out and everyone on board was involved. As it turned out, the fire was contained in a short time, causing minimum damage but meaning he and several other people, would be working long and steady hours. For four days, it was work with only short amounts of sleep. Finally, the ship was pretty much, back to where it had been before the fire and other than some cleaning and putting things back in order it was business as usual. Sleep for everyone was not only needed but ordered, with only a few trading off, doing short watches.
Some time later, with a little more awake time available, he pulled out the letter from Mrs. Jensen.
Opening the envelope and pulling out the folded pages, written in beautiful hand writing, he read,
“Dear Mr. Raphael Mainz This is coming to you much later than I would have liked. Because of the significance of your visit, I felt it necessary to do some investigating in to your reasons and if someone had previously told you things about me you wouldn’t otherwise know.
During the second world war, I had been in Dover, going there to do volunteer work. I had gone there in the early part of the war, no one ever thinking it would escalate to what it became. I would go to St Paul’s church for services and one day they had a dance for the volunteers and soldiers. I met a man there, who was not a soldier but among other things, a fisherman and made and gave away the same crosses as the one you wear around your neck. It was easy to recognize it as it was just like all the other handmade ones. He knew a man who would cast toy soldiers and arranged for him to cast a small corpus of Jesus. My friend would make the crosses and attach the corpus. He and I became very good friends, talking and dreaming about spending a lot more time together when the war was over. Soon, we were as in love as any two people could be. Things were much different than and one did, what had to be done. We visited the priest and telling him of our situation, he married us in a very private service. Friends we had recently met, were witnesses and stood up for us. There was no big celebration and we were together, only a short time when he had to go.
In nineteen forty it became necessary to evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk. All available sea worthy vessels were enlisted. Many of the fisherman from Dover volunteered. He had been fishing in the area at the time and volunteered to do his part. Not having time to say goodbye, I received a letter, he had written just before he went off in his fishing boat to help in the rescue. I still have the letter. I later heard, from information collected that he had made several trips, carrying soldiers to the large ships from Dunkirk shores, as the large boats couldn’t get in close enough. He or his fishing boat were never found, but from the description, that was common.
As I said, those were different times and we did what had to be done. There wasn’t a lot of time for tears. Some years after the war I married a good man. I told him of the event but never mentioned it again. Seeing the cross made me remember so many good times in an otherwise horrible time. You may never understand but you have given me so much to be thankful for.
With all God’s Love,
Mrs. Fran Jensen.”
Boatswain Raphael Mainz, just sat there. What are the chances of a happening like that? He had read of the tragic yet heroic Dunkirk time and of the rescues but reading about it was just like watching a movie of star ships in the future or dinosaurs thousands of years ago. When you get this close, it becomes a lot more real.
During mess he would talk about the event, telling fellow workers about what had happened and his thoughts of returning to the nursing home when he was back with Melissa. The more he talked about it the more people were intrigued and somehow, wanted to be a part of it. Someone suggested a card with everyone’s name, sent to Mrs. Jensen. Someone else suggested sending several cards to the nursing home. In the beginning it was all just talk but eventually a small group got together and decided they would send to the nursing home, finding out who best to send to and try to more or less adopt a senior friend. They would send letters and a small gift when they could.
Raphe shortened up the job by asking Melissa to gather the addresses as well as some names which he was able to get over the internet.
Soon the mailing began. The sailors would talk about their experiences, places they visited, the work they did on the ship, where they were from and just any kind of short story they could think of. Sometimes, when they were in a foreign port, the sailors would pick up a trinket or special something. Maybe just a little sign, note from a hotel, or paper place mat from a restaurant to send. It became a kind of competition seeing how many letters you could send in a week.
The results after several months were phenomenal. The home was very happy to be able to deliver and, in some cases, read to the people, from the letters. More sailors had gotten involved and the idea spread like wildfire to other ships. Someone had called a local newspaper, a reporter came by the home and the kind of story, everyone likes to hear was in the news. Soon more and more letters were coming to the home and to other homes, from all directions as well as showing up on the ship, thanking the sailors for their great work and for giving their loved ones something from a different part of the world.
They would never know, just how far, how many nursing homes, poor people, and shelters had eventually gained from their exercise.
One day when they were in a port in another country, Raphael found a cross to replace the one he now wore. Back at the ship he arranged for one of his sea buddies to make a plaque from a special piece of zebrawood cut from a pallet, picked up in yet another port.
Taking the cross, he had worn after replacing it with the new member, he fastened it to the plaque well enough that he was sure it wouldn’t be taken.
Here we are, today and Raphael’s stumbling back to the ship. Mrs. Jensen had cried when she seen him. On her wall a bit high was the cross he had sent. Many of the other residents had thanked him warmly making it as hard to leave the home as it was leaving Melissa.
Communication was getting much better from the ship and because of all the publicity about the letters and gifts, mailing would be cheaper and easier.
Raphael is sad, having to leave but happy, knowing he has started something which will go on making a lot of people happy, if only for a moment.
As I was writing this, I heard there is a new movie out about Dunkirk. I had no idea!