With apologies for the extraordinary length of this post.
You know that transported feeling you get when you hear some particular song from some long-gone time in your life? Listening to Pandora while I cooked dinner the other night, Simon & Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” came on. S & G doesn’t always do it for me, I hear some of the songs so frequently. But “For Emily” doesn’t come up often on oldies stations, and it sent me right to my dorm room and the desktop Sony combination turntable and radio I got as a graduation gift from my parents (along with a Smith Corona portable electric typewriter).
After Mama went to bed, I got the Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme album out of the metal box of records I kept following my move-across-the-country purge and put it on the old stereo console in the living room, the one with the 8-track player in it that sits there looking like an ordinary piece of 1960s modern furniture but smells of days long gone when I open it. Childhood is closed up under that lid like a time capsule, holding my youth in and keeping out the odors I associate now with parents and their belongings growing old, windows opened only in August and September. And I’m stunned for a moment that those days are gone. I listened to the whole thing: Feelin’ Groovy, Sounds of Silence, the seven o’clock news headlines layered over Silent Night.
I’m reading the letters my father wrote to my mother between 1942 and 1946, while the world was in a turmoil beyond my comprehension. I’m also reading them to Mama. Much to my regret, I don’t have her letters to him, and when I ask her for back story she usually says, “I have no idea.” I wish I had read them while my father was still alive, and they were both of sound mind. Mama has always said he wouldn’t have talked about it anyway. Still, I wish I had tried. But then, I didn’t know the letters existed. So, what I am lucky to have is hundreds of letters written in real time by a young man, layered with the sketchy memory of an ancient woman. Two people who eked out a love story in unimaginable circumstances.
I am transcribing the letters for my family; someday perhaps I will make them available to a larger audience. They are, I believe, that good. My father, I am discovering, was an excellent writer, beyond being the grammarphobe and technical writer I knew him to be.
Here is an excerpt. My father, a Michigan farm boy who fell in love with the Appalachian mountains and my mother (a love he wasn’t sure was returned), is in the Bronx for officer training and a meteorology course. The cadets are about to get their first leave and he will see his love for the first time in four long months (over which he wrote 60 letters to her):
March 14, 1943
What kind of thoughts do you think go through a fellow’s head when he’s all alone in New York and when he doesn’t like the place? They are many and varied, I assure you. In Abercrombie Fitch’s this afternoon – – Break–the song on the radio is “Johnny Doughboy Found a Rose in Ireland.” Why do they have to play that tonight? The memories are so strong and I’m thinking of you so hard tonight. Unbreak – – I was looking at etchings of ducks, of fishermen, of canoes somewhere in the wilds. That’s just what I want in the “study” (hmm) of my summer cabin someday. [I looked at] camping equipment, [and then saw] a US recruiting service station wagon parked on the street. When this mess is over, I’m going to buy one of those. I’m going to fill it with that camping equipment. I’m going to marry Stellajoe. I’m going to take six months to do those things I’ve always dreamed of. We’re going out west. We’re going to see every bit of the country from Mexico to Canada. With SJE I’m going to sit on some peak and fill my eyes with thousands of acres of land and trees and mountains and sky. And I’m going to fill my arms with the girl I love and I’m going to forget the (?) years in the army fighting a war that nobody wanted.
Then a uniform approaches with bars on it. I have to salute. I’m not in a steep walled valley. It’s only the canyon that is Fifth Avenue. I know anyone who looked closely would have seen me muttering; and if he could have heard, it wouldn’t have been nice.
Week after next some small part of those dreams will be fulfilled. Why can’t I learn to appreciate [it for what it is] – the maximum possible instead of the minimum.
I’m going to see you, sweetheart —
March 31, 1943
I hated to see you leave on that train. It was a sad cadet that finally found himself strolling down through Penn Station to the subway with his hands thrust deep in his pockets and a most dejected look on his face. It was like waking up from a dream, except most dreams aren’t that pleasant.
I wonder now, as I read these letters to my mother and juxtapose her life then to her life now—without him again—did she think she would always be young? Did she consider the risk that she might lose the love she truly believed she would never have by refusing to write I love you in her letters to him because “I hardly knew him and I needed to be sure.” After those few days together, she moved across the country, alone, farther away from him, to a city, a state, a job, sight unseen; leaving her home and beloved mountains because “I wanted to do my part to get this war over.” It was the first of several independent moves, crisscrossing the country, before he came home and they began their life together.
Now she doesn’t dare to go out the front door alone. The occupational therapist recommends she not go down the interior stairs alone, either, because of a risk of falling. But she does not heed his “advice.” She chose not to go outside, but no one is going to tell her what to do. And I wonder: is the loss of that independence—one of the last precious bits—worse than the risk? Did she ever consider in 1943 that her life would come to this?
Another song, a favorite from back in the day, that also doesn’t make the Pandora loop: “Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end. We’d sing and dance forever and a day.” It was a sad song to me, then and now, one in which the songwriter looks back at his life, realizing—perhaps with surprise—that those days of idealism are gone. (Listen here.)
[I’m sitting in the cafe, overhearing a man in his late 60s talking to a friend, his minister, I think. He says, “X is a lost soul. He owes $x for law school. He wants to be a writer!” He says it derisively, as he throws his arm in the air and circles it, pie in the sky idealism. “He wants to save the world,” he snorts. What would youth be, without that, I suddenly think? Where would the world be without it?]
When I was a child, I knew in some unreachable depths of my soul the halcyon days at the house by the bay would never end and nothing bad would ever happen. The days did end, when I was eight and we moved 30 miles down I-5, a line that separated childhood from the rest of my life. Bad things did happen. A president was assassinated, my school bus slid down an embankment, my sister left home, my best friend moved away, boys ignored me, headlines screamed death tolls in Viet Nam, I grew up.
Did I think my sweet children would never grow up, that I wouldn’t always be the young mother they loved more than anything or anyone? I certainly hoped someday I would be able to afford both milk and bread in the same shopping trip; but wouldn’t I always be sitting on the sidelines cheering for my children’s soccer teams? I would never divorce; never leave my lovely house where my dear friends gathered in the hearth room to share the meal we lovingly prepared for one another. And now, do I think I will always be able to haul 50 lb bags of paver sand for the path through the garden I created?
But I live with my 99-year-old mother. I see her aging as fast as my grandchild has each Monday when I return to him after five days away. Do I think about these days being over? Yes, of course I do. The days of idealism and head in the sand are long gone; but now I am forced to acknowledge that someday I won’t be able to go out the front door without help. My sweet Elliot will grow into a teenager and will, at least sometimes, be unbearable, as adolescents have to be.
My uncle will be 105 in August. My eldest cousin asked him about having a party. He said, “We just had one five years ago! Maybe we should wait until 110.” At that age I suppose you do think you’ll be around forever. When the man in the cafe booth left, he said to his also not-young companion, “Stay young! You hear?” And we never stop hoping nothing will change.
But it does change, it will change. These are the days, my friends. These are the days. Tomorrow there will be something else to celebrate.