Sometimes, right from the opening of a box, I know that I am going to love a collection–and that was the case with the Frank Weise collection of Helen Weiss material. This small collection packed a quick punch–as I peered in the box, I saw letters (always a favorite of mine), some music by Weiss and music-y ephemera, and some mysterious memorial material. It was the memorial material that piqued my interest almost immediately–I kept thinking that I was reading things wrong because Helen died in 1948 when she was only 28 … adding to puzzle was the very vague description of the cause of her death (“an accident of the slightest kind, occasioned the initiation of the evil (disease) that caused us to lose her”) in an obituary written by Carlos Raygada (box 1, folder 11).
Despite her youth, Helen, a musician, was extremely accomplished. By 1944, she had earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, her master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma, and (possibly) her PhD from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. She was a working woman in Philadelphia before she began her travels to South American where she performed, gave concert lectures, and served the Peruvian-North American Cultural Institute. This collection contains letters from her to her brother, Frank (a UPenn graduate and a celebrated architect), from 1943 when she was studying in Rochester, until just before her death.
What I love about letters, in general, is the discovery of the relationships and dynamics of the correspondents. In this case, I learned, quite quickly, that Helen and Frank were pals, Helen and her mom were very close, and that Helen despaired of her brother’s “treatment” of her mother. Despite being younger, Helen was clearly the peacemaker in the family and worked to smooth out the rough edges. In a letter dating from January 20, 1943, Helen quotes extensively from one of her mother’s letter (Frank apparently stayed out all night) and describes her mother’s letter as “a masterpiece of expression of a wounded heart.” She tells her brother that her mother is “the kind of person who has great deepnesses [sic] within her, even though she hides it by an inferiority complex and a terrible shyness.” She finishes her chiding with a statement that “the letter itself is as heart rending as anything I ever want my mother to write.”
Throughout the letters, her respect for her mother is evident–which makes the letters written after she has fallen ill even more meaningful. In her September 11, 1946, letter to Frank, she mentions that she had broken a bone in her foot and the doctor said they might have to operate–she says she is scared to death but that he should not say anything to their mother. In her next letter, written on September 20, she is in a hospital in New York receiving x-ray treatments and she writes, “I guess I really have something bad, even though they don’t tell me.” It was really bad–she had cancer and by October 4, she had had an amputation.
These letters are enormously moving–not only because of her courage, but also her empathy for her mother. She is significantly more worried about her mother than herself. On September 28, she writes: “I don’t know if Mother knows, but I think she must have her suspicions. Oh Frank, her love and loyalty cover me like a brave shield. I don’t know what I would do without her. Her capacity for motherly strength and encouragement is endless.” On October 4, following her amputation, she writes “Oh Frank, I feel such pain for Mother. She must surely realize by now what the trouble is, but she never whimpers … If only it were in my power to grant her the years of peace and serenity she deserves.”
About six months after her operation, Helen was excited about returning to South America for a year-long job with the State Department. She had received a prosthetic leg and by July, 1947, she was in Brazil. Sadly, less than half-way through her year, she had been forced to return to Philadelphia, but planned to return to South American “when I am well,” (letter, November 13, 1947, box 1, folder 5). Her last letter to Frank in the collection was written on November 28 (she died on February 20, 1948) and despite mentioning that her “spirits ha[d] been exceptionally low this week,” she does not dwell on her health and instead, the remainder of the letter discusses Latin American architecture–and an urging for Frank to save his money!
Even now, with all the advancements in medicine, the word “cancer” strikes fear into the bravest soul. At a time when cancer treatment was evolving with new drugs, but was certainly an overwhelming unknown, Helen Weiss lived with an unimaginable grace and managed to keep a positive outlook throughout much of her illness, due in part, she says to her family’s love and support. The solid foundation of unconditional love and her own courage allowed her to write, just around the time of her surgery:
“What I dread is the possibility of being crippled for the rest of my life. But all sorts of handicaps can be conquered by courage and the will to dominate. No matter what this may cost me, I am going to win. Life is not body, but mind and perseverance. Whatever condition I shall be left in, I shall adjust myself–I have to,” (letter, October 4, 1947, box 1, folder 4).