‘If I Could Paint or Draw, You Could See it All!’

Jennie Schumacher Gillespie at 100 years old.

Editor’s note: This is the preface of the book “My Dear Jen,” Editor’s note: This is the preface of the book “My Dear Jen,” written by Rosamond Gillespie Burns. This is the first of a continuing series, which takes readers back to the struggles of World War I.

“My Dear Jen” is primarily a tribute to my parents Donald and Jennie Gillespie. Writing this book was also an opportunity for me to get to know the father I never knew. Much of their story is told by letters my father wrote to his wife and my mother Jen. These letters were among her few possessions when she died at 100 years of age in 1992.

The World War I letters and the historical context in which they have been placed tell a compelling story from the trenches of war-torn France. During the war Donald Gillespie fought with the 165th Infantry Regiment of the 42nd Rainbow Division. This regiment was the famous “Fighting 69th” from New York that took its place in American history during the Civil War. He became an officer near the end of the war and was assigned to the 371st U. S. Infantry, an all black regiment that was assigned to the French. Included here is his letter written on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, and his description of the final shots of the war, and then the German surrender. The well written, and generally upbeat and positive tone in Don’s letters during times when he was experiencing a lot of horrifying events speak much about his character.

The letters from Don Gillespie to his wife Jen are important additions to the history of life in the 165th Regiment in during World War I. The Regimental Chaplain during this period was Father Francis Duffy. When the war was over he wrote a book in 1919 titled “Father Duffy’s Story.” This book was based upon many of Father Duffy’s personal observations as well as interviews with surviving members of the Regiment. Mr. Stephen L. Harris wrote a book titled “Duffy’s War” in 2006. Both are referenced many times, probably too many times, in the following pages, but they provide an interesting account of where Don was, and what he was going through. These are the few sources of readily available and accurate information concerning the activities of the 165th Regiment during the war. Both of these books need to be read to put this story in better context regarding the obstacles and sheer violence the men of the 165th went through in their fight with the Germans.

But this is not a war story. The last chapters deal with survival, and reflect what is still a too common occurrence today, a single parent bringing up children alone. It is a first-hand account of my experiences and how my mother, Jen, accomplished the impossible. Besides the letters, I have been told Don and Jen’s story in bits and pieces over the years. In 1986, when my mother was 95 years of age, I taped our conversation about her life over a dish of ice cream. It was a trip back in time for her and a heartfelt experience for me as I listened to her story. All I could do was to try and picture what she saw, and try to paint a canvas of words as close to her mind’s eye as I could between the pages of this book. As she said during that conversation in 1986;

“If only I was an artist that could paint or draw, you could see it all!”

My mother was a lady who had to overcome many obstacles raising three children alone through tough times. In so many instances in Don’s life during the war he escaped injury and death when most around him fell. It was as if the guiding hand of the Almighty protected him and her so that those he and Jen brought into the world would experience life. These children grew up to lead full lives and in doing so raised families of their own. They, in turn, brought more persons into the world.

The offspring of Don and Jennie Gillespie have achieved many things, and have made our country and the world a better place. It is likely that the ultimate contributions that these children make in God’s plan have yet to be carried out. And so, this story is also a mystery of life.

Writing this book has been very therapeutic. I realize through the years how strong my mother was, and how hard she worked to keep us together. Through the rough times and the good times, Mom was both mother and father to us, especially, to me as the youngest and most vulnerable. Her legacy of love has permeated my life and I will always have that love flow from my heart to those around me. In the time it took to complete this story through research and my father’s letters, an amazing outcome emerged that I will be forever grateful: I got to Know my Father, Forgive my father, and Love my father.

Not having a father through my formative childhood, teenage years and adult life, affected me greatly. No one knows for sure why he felt he had to leave. The events in this book provide many clues, and the reader can come to their own conclusions, but the simple fact is that no one knows for sure what happened between Don and Jen. Both are gone and the questions this book may raise will forever be unanswered. Enjoy this interesting story of love and history with all its joys and heartbreaks that will transport you into a time over 100 years ago.

Enjoy this journey of love, loss, and survival spanning 100 years

Rosamond G. Burns