I am one of those people who has saved almost every letter anyone has ever written to me.
During this age of texts, emails, and social media, we are able to write instantly to people we care for. I cherish words from any medium when they come from the heart. Sometimes a simple text can stop me in my tracks with an intake of stunned breath. Words in any form can be an intimate sharing of the heart, a singularly focused extension of love.
But nothing is quite like a handwritten letter. They are ghosts telling of places and events and feelings that once were. The ink sings, the paper smells of history filled with joy and turmoil and everyday living, the words paint a picture that can lead to an understanding of how the present has been wrapped and unwrapped.
The last few days I have been sorting through a giant tub filled with letters. Letters from my children, ex-boyfriends, friends, husband, grandmother. History.
But most of the letters in this particular green plastic tub are from my mother. She was a letter writer.
And my grandmother was a keeper like me.
I don’t like to think of myself as a hoarder. Like on the show about hoarders where there is not a single space on which to eat or sleep. My house doesn’t have cockroaches or mice and its relatively orderly. I simply feel its important to keep tangible pieces of history.
Thanks to my grandmother, I inherited all the letters she kept. It’s very interesting to read letters a younger you wrote. My mother also wrote to my grandmother diligently. Here is one from 1955. My mom was living with HER grandmother (we called her Tiny Grandma) in Pasco for the summer. She was ten at the time:
I only have a couple letters from my grandmother to my mother. Grandma was also a letter writer but my mother was a purger. When things got difficult she would throw or give EVERYTHING away, sometimes even her furniture and clothes, thinking she could start fresh without any reminders of the past. One letter my grandmother wrote to my mother is dated December 14, 1994. The only reason I have this one is because my mother sent it back unopened, marked “return to sender”. Those two fought a lot, sometimes going years without speaking to each other: women who dug their heels in painfully deep.
My own heels have been dug in the last few months. It seems that year six of my mother not being here, bugging me in first person, has brought some anger. It’s “mad at my dead mom” year: the year I finally stop reaching for the phone to call her and tell her stuff. Mainly because I’m not speaking to her.
This is why I got the letters out. To see if I could drum up some feelings other than anger. Well, also because I have been working on a book about her, though it’s turning out to be a fictional work of nonfiction. Which I think is okay. My mother would appreciate her biography being filled with creative and elaborate exaggeration. Any lunatic would.
For two days, all I did was stick my face in her old purse inhaling her smoky smell, peeking every now and then at the menacing piles of letters that I had not had the courage to read since she left.
Her life was filled with a lot of drama, especially her last few years. Some of the details are told in the thirty one letters she sent me from the Newport, Washington jail during the second half of her 60 day stint. She wasn’t speaking to me during the “time” she did in January 2007, after which she was released on good behavior. But when she had to go back to finish her 60 for “bad” behavior in August 2007 she wrote me every day, vivid letters full of nattering details about what it’s like to be “on the inside”.
You all are probably thinking: yikes! Why are you telling about this? This is not a very good tribute to your mom! And here it is Mother’s Day. Rude daughter!
But here’s the thing about my mother: she loved everyone she met.
She tells in her letters from jail about the people she met, the guards and the prisoners, what they did, why they did it, what kind of people they were and how she felt compelled to help them. She would use the money from her ‘incarceration account” to buy these women candy and new underwear. She would talk to them. Tell them they were beautiful and important. In some of the letters to my grandma, she tells of keeping in contact with some of the women after she was released.
The reality is, when my mother put her love on you, you were changed. And she managed to do this for other people even during the lowest periods of her life.
In a silver mirrored box I discovered fifteen letters that my mother wrote to my dad’s mom from 1967 to 1970. I am unsure how I ended up with them, but they (at least in my mind) smell like my grandma Joycelynn, a faint perfume captured and contained by the box. She died when I was five from breast cancer but I have vivid memories of a gorgeous woman who called me Goldilocks. My mom was a new stay at home mom. She was wicked smart and struggling with boredom. She says so a few times in the letters. There are details: “thanks for sending me back my pants”; I love the Reader’s Digest you sent me! Golly, maybe I should be a doctor now I am so smart from all this reading”; “Got a perm, my hair is really curly and only an inch long. Your son is asleep so that proves how exciting I look”.
But here is something that stands out:
She told of her stepfather coming over for dinner and how I cried when he left. She did not dig him. Not at all. “I cried when he came into the room, not when he left. But Heather is so outgoing…she figures everyone loves her. Nice way to be.”
I was two then. I have almost no recollection of her stepfather.
But up until I was a teenager, I really did assume that everyone loved me. My mother put her love on me like no other person ever has and made me believe everyone loved me too. Who could not? Me who was loved so truly, so genuinely by the most beautiful woman I ever knew?
My letter writing mom gave me a whole lot to be angry at her for. What mom doesn’t? Lord knows my kids have probably kept a pretty big mental list of all my really crappy moments thus far. But my mom also gave me a great gift of understanding what it means to love unconditionally, which I have discovered from her letters doesn’t just mean loving others no matter how imperfect THEY are but also continuing to imperfectly love others in your OWN darkest and most imperfect moments. And as I unfold these letters from the past in this present moment, I am able to see what perfect love this is.
I love you too! Thank you for showing me how to give and receive love even when it’s dark. I will call you later!
I remember that summer so well when your mom was 10 and I was 8. We spent summer days together and played that the root cellar at tiny grama’s was our apartment. We went to the library 3 blocks down the street to get our weekly reading supply and down to the Lucky Dollar to get a bananacycle for 5cents. I thought your mom was the coolest ever!