I returned the telegram to its protective sleeve and wistfully closed the three-inch binder, putting it in the bookcase with the other five binders of original letters.
For the past 16 months I’ve spent the early morning hours with my father, transcribing the letters he wrote to my mother during WWII. Over 600 letters, including the 100 from my mother to him that were saved. It is a history of a family—my family—and of the world at war a decade before I was born.
“Even though the days drag and seem awfully long, I’m actually on my way and it won’t be too long till I see you again. That’s the most wonderful feeling I could ever imagine – next to actually holding you in my arms and looking into your eyes.” (April 7, 1945, the last letter.)
He arrived in New York on April 25, 1946—two and half years after he and my mother were married. They spent the next 49 years together. But back then they had the rest of their life ahead of them. Happiness was all they could see, their dreams stretched out in front of them.
My father was an optimist. Even at his lowest, the war over and feeling stuck waiting his turn to come home, he saw the rainbow.
“The days are so long, even if there isn’t much to do, that it wears me out. I relive all the things we’ve ever done together. I dream of all the things we will do. Dreams, dreams – I get so sick of just living on dreams. And then I stop to thank God that I have such wonderful dreams to live on. Well, the time will come and then all these months will seem only like hours.” (October 1945)
His spirit lives in this home he loved: in his workshop, the barn, the trees. But in the letters he was alive again. As my mother slept upstairs and the darkness out my window turned to light each morning, with my cat watching from the arm of my chair, I immersed myself in his words, his familiar handwriting, his humor, his intelligence. Now the letters are finished and I am grieving him all over again.
Reading the letters, looking at the photos I gathered for my mother’s birthday celebration—several of which are sitting around the house—I also have seen a side of my mother I never knew, or don’t remember. I try to imagine her as a young woman, I can’t. I try to remember her as my young mother, I can’t. I wish I’d known her then. I wonder if that adventurous person with a zest for life and love still resides buried somewhere in her. Certainly her determination is still alive and kicking.
I remember my father as that cheerful and optimistic person I see in the letters. I wonder, now, if my mother’s depression, worry, pessimism, complaints—the personality I have known over the past few decades that block any previous memory—were tempered by his good humor, his refusal to be drawn in. And now that he is gone, the atmosphere has changed, for her and for me.
Very often the first words she says to me in the morning are reminders of her health and physical status—of which I am very much aware—and it makes me irritable. And I don’t want to be that person. I try to be in good spirits, but I let her pull me down with her in my failed attempts to pull her up. I don’t know how to make it better for her, but maybe I can make it better for me.
As I sat thinking about my mother’s go-to conversation starters, in one of those serendipitous alignments of inner thought and external affirmation, a post from Marginalia, a blog by NC author Nancy Peacock, jumped into my in-box. In her post, Wounded, she wrote:
It is hard not to lead with our wounds. We all have them. Some are personal. Some are from childhood. Many are cultural. Every day we step out into the world and the wounds are bumped and beaten and reinforced. We open them ourselves because we become fond of them and we don’t want to be silent about them, so we show them off and use them to form our identities. It isn’t healthy to remain silent about the things that hurt us. But it also isn’t healthy to become these things. How do we avoid it? How do we lead with what is right about us? …I don’t know the answers. I only know the questions. And I know I must make a choice many times a day. Do I lead with my wounds or do I lead with what’s healed and sweet about me?
My mother is fond of her wounds and I can’t change that; it’s a lifelong habit. I have seen some of it in my father’s letters referring to her letters, most of which I don’t have. But I don’t have to lead with her wounds in my interactions with her. I can be a mirror of her strengths. And I think that’s how my father dealt with it, constantly building her up. I confess that I balk at the idea a bit, but she’s old. Maybe I can do that for her.
I look at Mt. St. Helens from my window, the gash in her side now so familiar. Someday no one will be alive who remembers her former beauty. But wildflowers are growing there again. She is healing, and no longer leads with her wounds, at least to those who didn’t know her before. She is beautiful as she is, a crone now rather than a maiden.
Just as my father-hurt has healed and the good memories of him are restored, I hope my memories of my sweet mother will be of wildflowers some day.