What Family Means According to Sweetheart

Sweetheart had two different ideas about family, which contrasted strongly with each other yet in practice never seemed to clash.

What Family Means According to Sweetheart

She was passionately devoted to her immediate family: her husband first of all, then her four children, and in course of time their children — she had nine grandchildren — and theirs. The letters in this book were all written to a very small number of people: first her husband while he lived (until 1935), then her son (died 1945) and her three daughters, with the understanding that the letters would be shared with spouses and the older grandchildren. But that is already enough “audience” to give the letters almost a sense of public reports. You rarely get a sense that something is written intimately to one person alone. Yet clearly the letters are not for the general public, but for a close family circle; and that is why they are so lively.


But as this circle gradually widens, we come to her second idea of family, almost a universal one. Interviewed on the radio in 1949, when she was 84, she observed that all the foreign people she met on her travels, even if she shared no common language with them, “all seem like my own family.” That was because “after you’ve been a foreigner you find there aren’t any.” But of course it was only because she had such a warm and strong relationship with her own family that she was able to extend that to others.

Late in life she wrote some accounts of her early childhood and her experiences of God, that she hoped would somehow be passed on to “the family.” Just whom did she have in mind? Children, grandchildren, spouses, friends, even strangers and “foreigners” who might be drawn in? The concept seems quite fluid. How widely could the sense of “family” be extended before it became too thin to have any life or meaning? I don’t think this question bothered her, because it was a matter of one person at a time reading the letters and forming a one-to-one friendship with Sweetheart and her family members — not some vast fellowship. Of course this wider “family” cannot bring us into the tight little original one. But it may provoke us to imagine even the possibility of a community somehow both personal and universal, held together not by ideas but by love. The Christian church at its best spreads the experience of a wandering preacher and his little band of fishermen hiking the hills of Galilee. Now we have Facebook and Twitter, electronic doors to instant multiplied friendships that, artificial as they may sometimes seem, still may convey something of what Sweetheart knew about the meaning of “family.”


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