Saturday, February 16, 2013

My Family at Work in the Fields of the Word

Last weekend Susan and I had a visitor, my cousin (to be precise, my first cousin once removed) Donna Waterman, whom I hadn’t seen in thirteen years, and before that I hadn’t seen her for about twenty years. Donna is a delightful and entertaining person, and as long-lost cousins usually do, we spent a lot of time trading gossip about our relatives.

At some point she asked me, “Did you know that my grandmother had five children, one of whom died in infancy?” Donna was referring to my aunt, Mary Waterman, my mother’s sister. Mary was born in 1893. She was the oldest of eight siblings, and she was considered the writer of the family.

We went on with our swap of family lore, and I took the opportunity to boast about my two sons, both of whom are highly talented writers. Morgan Daniel, the older son, is a songwriter whose lyrics are sometimes witty, sometimes impassioned, always wise and meaningful—and they match beautifully his sophisticated yet singable melodies.

Ben, my younger son, is a Presbyterian minister who writes for Huffington Post, and whose two published books are friendly and persuasive calls for tolerance: Neighbor: Christian Encounters with “Illegal” Immigration, and The Search for Truth About Islam: A Christian Pastor Separates Fact from Fiction. The latter just received a handsome review in Publishers Weekly:

While I’m at it, let me brag about my brothers, also both talented writers. My late brother Neil Daniel was an English professor, so most of his publications were scholarly papers, but he was also the author of a book about writing, called A Guide to Style and Mechanics, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

My other brother, Thomas Daniel, is a retired pulmonologist and professor of medicine, and he has written a number of published books on the history of medicine in general, and tuberculosis in particular. I’m pleased to say that, after having been published often by prestigious university presses, he has brought his new book to my publishing company. Called Times and Tides of Tuberculosis, it is a study of how TB has been dealt with in literature, from John Keats to Susan Sontag. The book will be published in October.

I want also to mention my cousin (and Donna’s uncle), the late Guy Waterman, who, with his wife Laura, published a number of important and respected books about mountain climbing and wilderness ethics.

This leads me back to my Aunt Mary, mentioned early in this essay. My mother’s sister, Guy Waterman’s mother, Donna Waterman’s grandmother. She was a writer who as far as I know never published, but whose stories, memoirs, and essays are passed around among her survivors and treasured by us all.

Yes, Donna told me. Mary gave birth to a fifth child, who died in infancy. She wrote a poem to her lost baby. Donna sent me the poem after she returned home. In my opinion, this poem makes Aunt Mary the literary star of our family. Here it is:

Can we lose that we never had
Or wish for what was never here?
Oh little, little, little one,
There's none more dear.

Oh little, wished-for darling child,
Tiny, tiny, and so sweet,
How could we know our hopes were wild,
Our victory, defeat?

The other children true and brave
Must each one go his gallant way.
But little, little, darling one,
You shall stay.


  1. John: What a great post. You do come from a long line of writers and your sons have continued that tradition. Your aunt's poem was incredibly touching. Thank you for sharing. Lots of talent there!
    W.S. Gager on Writing

    1. Thank you, Wendy. Yes, I feel honored to be in their company.

  2. Definitely a talented family, John. One might say, something in the genes. On the other hand it seems many writers/artists are the solitary, "strange ones" in their families and wonder where did the ability/interest come from.

    1. John, sometimes I do feel like the "strange one" in my family, but they seem to put up with me.

  3. John,
    So many writers in one family! I come from a long line of "creative" people too but, as far as I know, I'm the only writer. My mother is very artistic as are a couple of her sisters. Mom has paintings hanging on her walls to prove it. I certainly didn't get that gene!

    1. I admire painters, Pat. And in a sense I envy them, because they can hang their works of art on the wall, as your mother does. We writers have to strive harder to be noticed.

  4. How nice to be able to share the creative abilities in your family and to know that each has continued the legacy in his or her own individual ways, John. In my own lineage, I am now seeing the younger generations fulfill outwardly our family legacy. One surprise has been my second cousin who has decided after graduating from college to fulfill his dream of being a stand-up comic. A few of us might have done the same but didn't. A cheer for all who shine their artistic lights! Very nice post.

  5. Your Aunt Mary's poem touched my heart, don't think a writer can ask for more...


    1. Thank you, Madeline. Her poem touched me deeply, too.