Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Box of Letters -- Life, Ephemeral

We don't often get a real window into our childhood past, but today I did.  Wasn't a wide open window, but cracked enough for a little glimpse through time.

My brother, who lives in Thailand, asked me recently to retrieve some boxes he's had in storage with an old friend in Dallas.  I'm going to inventory them so he can decide what to do with them.  The first box I opened, and the only one so far, was filled with stacks and stacks of old letters, many of them from my mother who was writing to her son in the early 1960's.  Denny had just joined the Army, and Susan and I were between 5 and 8 years old.  

The letters are filled with news-- 
  • she's going to make the cookies soon 
  • she misses him and wishes he'd write more 
  • how Charles (my dad, Denny's stepdad) thought that Beaumont, where they had just moved, was a fisherman's paradise
  • usually something about the weather
  • it hasn't rained since "Carla," the famous hurricane (I have a vague memory of us all going to my father's trucking terminal to wait out the storm--Susan and I would play out among all that freight with the big carts and dollies, and how fun it was to run the length of that HUGE terminal)
  • how much she loves him, and misses him
  • she's found some ladies who need a sub to play bridge with
  • Katy (me) was chosen for a big school "sing-song"
  • they moved from rent-house to rent-house, most of them not that great
  • she wrote about her loneliness, bordering, she said once, on depression
  • "the girls" miss you -- and there are a couple of little letters to Denny from me and Susan
  • she finally found a pattern that fit so she's sewing herself a new dress
  • she's painting the furniture in his room, so it'll be nice when he comes to visit
  • "bugs! bugs! bugs!" are everywhere and "the girls" are terrified of them
  • mosquitoes cover "the girls'" legs when they go out to play
  • "the girls" had a little friend over to play, but Susan doesn't get along with her very well--probably because she's jealous of anyone playing with Katy (that made me cry)
  • she chastises him for not calling on Sunday--she waited all day for him to call and he never did
  • then another letter apologizing for that
  • her excitement at finally buying a house -- the only one I remember from this time period: 316 S. 2nd St. in Nederland -- it was there that she made several friends
A small window into a period of life about which I have very few memories.  She paints a picture of domestic life, a good life for the most part.  Of course, I know my father always drank too much, but she never mentions that.  

I got the visceral sense of how much she GAVE to me and my sister.  We were her world -- she sewed our clothes, packed our lunches, took us to school and picked us up, led our Bluebird group, baked cookies for us, all of it.

And I feel so badly that I disappointed her.  As a teen I rebelled--from about 11 until I left home right after high school, I remember it as one long fight.  Over the years my therapist has helped me see why I did that and how it was necessary for me to do it, so I understand it and in a certain way it's OK.  But reading these letters leaves me with a profound sadness.  She was proud of me, she loved me.  She was my mother, and from the time my childhood was over we rarely connected.  

A few letters were written after she moved to South Carolina to live with Susan and her family.  No mention of me at all except one cryptic line about "Katy and I did pretty well on the drive."  She seethed with anger toward me during that whole drive from Texas to SC while, in the midst of the excitement of "finding myself" in therapy and a big career etc., I was full of self-righteousness, sanctimonious certainty that I was doing the right thing for myself, and further certain that putting myself first was the absolute right thing to do.  

In some narrow way perhaps there's a bit of truth there, but I've regretted for years that I didn't handle that whole period of time with much more grace toward my mother than I did.

Here's the thing . . . Today, reading those letters, I feel awash in how ephemeral life is.  I was a child, and now I'm not.  My mother was on the earth for 75 years, and now she's not.  The ropes of steel that connected us when I was 5 and 6 became slender threads barely able to support anything, to the point that I believe her last words to me, as she lay dying in that hospital bed, were intended to wound me.  

And God knows they did.  

And yet the threads never broke, did they?  Here, now, all these years later (Sept. 25, 2014 will be the 20th anniversary of her death) there remains a connection.  Memories connect and sustain a relationship, for good or for ill. 
Is her consciousness alive somewhere?  somehow?  Does she have memories?  Does she see now what's real and true and good and beautiful, and does she forgive me?  Does she ask my forgiveness?  
It's like that box full of letters.  It's a big box and it's FULL of letters, not only from my mother, but from my brother's lifetime of friends.  His connections extend all over the world -- former students, friends from Zen, Army, his boyhood, writers and editors and photographers.  My brother is amazingly connected to SO many people.  

All those letters, artifacts from days that no longer exist, and yet remain. 

David's father died on July 10.  On one of our drives back from Georgia (we thought his dad was getting better, so we came home, but then had to return to Georgia shortly thereafter), David said something about having memories of his grandfather who was born in the 1880's, I think he said.  And Morgan and Eddie, our grandchildren, who will carry memories of us, may live into the 2080's.  
So our lives extend 200 years, through the connections of our memories--those gossamer rememberings that undulate through time.

I'm reading the science fiction series The Expanse, the context of which has humanity moving out for the first time beyond our own solar system.  Time and space.  Immeasurable.  So mysterious that their remoteness chills me and yet I live and move and have my being within them.  

The weather here has been so strange lately...mid-July and it only reached 86 degrees today.  Polar Vortex Redux?  :-)  As I type, the sun is behind our neighbor's house across the street and the light has a pinkish cast to it.  I can hear the television going in the living room--David's replaying Band of Brothers.  "Just because," he said, although I sense that it's an homage to his father. Tomorrow I'll get up early for church in Dallas where I, along with three other pastors, will lead our congregation in the worship of God.  And I'll be moved, with both profound humility and brilliant joy, as I always am.