People used to write letters. Letters saved in shoe boxes. Letters bound in ribbons or rubber bands, shared and re-read. Letters in the handwriting of someone loved.
I have a basket with a hinged top in which I have saved some letters. One of them was written by my mother, the young bride of an army bugler stationed in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, to her own mother, my grandmother.
The letters are written with a fountain pen in handwriting both strange and familiar. Strange because it was a younger version than the handwriting that signed my report cards, wrote notes on my birthday, penned the grocery lists. They are still in their envelopes. The postmarks are from December of 1948.
It wasn’t til recently that I realized one of them had been written after my mother lost her firstborn son, who was born with birth defects that caused his death shortly after birth. It is dated December 29 and starts with a thank-you for Christmas gifts, and an apology that funeral expenses precluded buying gifts in return.
“They have arrangements at Walter Reed with one of the funeral homes here to cremate the still-born babies and ones that only live a few days. They go ahead and dispose of the ashes, so that all the fuss and bother is gone. We thought under the circumstances that this was the best arrangement since all Jimmy had to do was sign his name. If we were going to stay on the East Coast, we could have arranged for a plot, but we want to go back to the west as soon as we can and we didn’t want to leave a grave here.”
My mother didn’t talk about grief, of which she had her fair share. Besides writing letters, parents used to try to spare children the world of grown-up pain. They didn’t discuss these things “in front of the children”. My brother Mike’s existence was known to me. “You had a brother. His name was Mike. He died when he was a baby.”
Many years later, my father visited me as a requirement of the twelve-steps of AA, asking for forgiveness for his absence and trying to explain the disintegration of their marriage. He spoke about that time, the pain my mother lived in; his own solace in alcohol; my mother’s loneliness.
Maybe as a child and teenager I was oblivious to my mother’s humanity. After all, she wasn’t a person, she was my mother. Now these letters give me glimpses of someone I knew viscerally but not personally. How close she held herself. How very little I really knew of her. Even now I know that if she were here, she wouldn’t talk about it to me. She would say “water under the bridge”.
These yellowed pages and their crumpled envelopes reveal my mother to me.
People used to write letters.