Their voices sit silent for years - sometimes decades - until I open the envelopes and they begin to speak to me again. With each pen stroke they confide in me, they encourage, they amuse, they comfort, they cheer, they inspire and, at very rare times, they sadden, hurt or disappoint me. But they all have a commonality...hopeful anticipation at their arrival and a jump in the heart. A letter! They begin, “Dear Lin,” Dear Grads,” “Dear Lindy,” “Sweetheart,” or just plain, “Hi, Grad!”
A written letter requires something of oneself. "I will tell you who I am," it whispers, "if you will but listen and read between the lines." The writer's thoughts pour from the brain, through the heart, down to the hand, through the ink and onto the page. He or she reveals the vulnerability that lies within all of us. A written letter says, "I was thinking of you and only you at this place in time." A written letter is kept, never deleted.
Every once in a while, but not very often, I will go to the trunk where my letters are kept and begin to read them. It is almost always a bittersweet experience - as much pain as pleasure perhaps. And still, something makes me want to revisit them now and again.
They recounted broken hearts:
“Hi, Grad...my love life is really a mess! It’s my own fault though. I did exactly what I told myself not to do. I fell and I fell hard. I guess I knew all along that Denny was too good to be true. I saw the punches coming but I was too stupid to duck. So, the hurt and the pain take over from here...is there anything in this whole stinking world worth caring about?...Some things you have to find out for yourself. ALL MEN ARE BASTARDS! A.M.A.B So much for my sob story. I’m on my second river so I guess I’ll close now.
Love, Walsh.” (Name changed ever so slightly to protect the unrepentant.)
A coming of age:
“Dear Lin, I address you from an entirely new and decidedly sophisticated 20 year old vantage point. I not only have passed out of the difficult years - but have actually finished one whole day of honest to God real work...I ache to be able to write - poetry, i.e. This is my one and only fitful & dull effort of this season:
“A wagoner’s red roses
and a Plantation Jerusalem
wait in the furrows...” Best love, J.”
The poem she continued to pen was quite lovely. I disagreed with her self-criticism...but then I always have. I doubt I ever made that clear.
And warnings of lurking dangers tucked into the joys of living a large life:
“Dear Lin, I know you are most likely trying to read this letter and walk to class at the same time which means you are most probably not looking where you are going and are likely to take a great fall (like Humpty Dumpty). If you insist upon such a dangerous undertaking, please watch out for cars, motorcycles, potholes, kids on tricycles and other pitfalls along the way...I sat with the band for the last show. When Cleo came on, Greg ran up on the stage and kissed her. At the finale Jerry came rolling and they carried him off stage, as usual. Greg did about a 15 minute trumpet solo and the audience went wild. I didn’t think they would ever let him stop playing. We finally got out of there and went to Mass and then to Forees for breakfast. I got home at 6:00 a.m....Father L. presented my mother with a dozen red roses and named her “Queen of the 1967 All Hallows”. Now there’s no living with her. I asked her to pick me up from the “L” tonight and she said she didn’t see why a queen had to run errands...As Always, P.”
My mother’s letters were always newsy and, in retrospect, reflected her deep concern over financial matters and her desire to “do more” for me - and her worry that I might be lonely:
“Dear Linda, how’s my darling college daughter? Did you meet the girl from LaGrange who lives down the hall? Did the other sophomores get there? Have you made any friends?...I hope the $5 helps. I wish it could be more. I can send you $10 when I get paid....I am saving for the next semester so don’t worry about anything. I just want you to concentrate on your studies, Love, Mom.”
Although I worked every summer to help pay for my tuition, my parents still had to do most of the heavy lifting to provide for my education. My sister rolled up her sleeves and added her shoulder to the wheel in what was to become a family effort to insure that I graduated on time (is there a platitude I've left out?):
“Dear Lindy, I simply can’t borrow any more money from the credit union. Judi is going to pitch in, but the way I see it you will still need to borrow $400. I am enclosing a letter from Ms. W. at the school who says she will be able to help you with a National Education Loan. I am enclosing her letter because I think it was very sweet of her, and she speaks so highly of you. I felt very proud. (Mom would never have been convinced that the last sentence of the letter which read, “We have great anticipation that Linda will be an alumna in whom we will take great pride” was a boilerplate paragraph and appeared in every such letter written to a parent. My Mom believed it and that is really what mattered in the long run. I never tried to burst her balloon). P.S. Judi is sending you $10. Love, Mom.
In reality, Ms. W didn’t know me from Adam’s house cat. She was apparently able to help me secure a loan, however. That much of her letter to my mother was sincere.
Some of the letters tell me that so-and-so “can’t wait” to meet me, and “I told them about all your funny stories.” In fact, my funny stories appear to be a rather constant thread that runs through the letters over the years. Sometimes I cringe at the thought of “Grad the clown” or Grad The Class Cut-Up. Cringe because that wasn’t me at all. Cringe because I was really very quiet and inwardly shy. The funny stuff seems to trickle out as a theme as the years stretch toward the end of the letter-writing era. I suspect life gets in the way to some extent and human interaction takes on a more sedate and reserved tone. Although in retrospect, "funny" might have been a loftier goal than "sophisticated." I was never able to pull off the latter successfully anyway.
I have no letters from my father. I do have some snippets of his handwriting, however. For instance, I nagged him mercilessly until he wrote something in my Eighth Grade Graduation Keepsake Book. Dad had a unique mode of written communication. He posted “Notices” by the telephone in the kitchen.
“NOTICE: Mama - take my shaver to the repair shop.”
“NOTICE: Lindy - stir the stove-top.” (He loved to make soup or spaghetti sauce, so that is most likely what he meant.”
“NOTICE: Who left the bathroom light on? You know who you are.”
But my all time favorite, the creme de la creme of NOTICES, the Daddy-est dad-ism, the transcendent and unsurpassable DAD NOTICE:
“NOTICE: I told youse that cat would get that bird. But youse wouldn’t listen. I came home and found fedders all over da place, but no bird - I hope youse are happy.”
I can see him sitting at the gray Formica kitchen table penning this Notice Of Doom. I watch him pause after making that long “dash," grasping for the perfect coup-de-grace - the final denouement. “I hope youse are happy.” It drips with his frustration and disgust at our apparent cavalier attitude concerning the health and safety of the parakeet. Truth be told, he was bluff and bluster on the outside, but was arguably the most sloppily-sentimental one in the family.
Yes, Dad. Just remembering that NOTICE makes me happy. It was so tragically funny it overshadowed the grief and loss I’m sure I felt over the lost parakeet. From darkness, light. Even now, when I need a quick dose of “happy” just recalling that NOTICE acts as pure glucose for my weary soul.
So there they are. Tied with ribbons and lovingly stored in a steamer trunk. My letters; memories of my family and of my friends. Friends who have remained constant, friends lost to time, friends lost to death, friends lost to simple stupid neglect. They live in envelopes of various colors and sizes, bearing stamps from all over this Big Blue Marble of a world we inhabit. They tell the stories of lives lived - their lives and mine. They tell them over time and over distance. They tell them one word at a time.