I found the boxes of yellowed correspondence quite by accident four years after my mother died, when my brothers and I finally sold her house. We had rented it out since her death, and had long ago emptied out most of her possessions. But somehow we never quite finished with the attic. With the new owners eager to move in, I went on a clean-up blitz.
This visit was different from the ones before. Instead of feeling as though I was walking into the middle of an unfinished conversation - there was still so much I wanted to tell my parents - I felt businesslike. I was here to get the job done.
I headed for the attic and sorted like crazy, showing little mercy as I threw out 33 years worth of old bank statements, magazines, road maps, recipes, and newspaper clippings. I was almost finished when the bottom collapsed on one of the cartons. Out poured a torrent of letters, notes, and postcards dating from the 1940s to the 1980s, written by my parents, my brothers, and me. I felt as though I had discovered buried treasure.
I was 14 when my father died in 1962. At a time when I felt ugly, stupid, and unpopular, he was my stalwart fan. As I traced his handwriting with my finger, I could hear the sound of his voice and feel the scratchiness of his tweed jacket against my cheek. As I stared at the "Much love and many xxxoooxxxxoooo from Daddy," at the end of a letter he wrote to me at camp the summer before he died, I realized that I had never really forgiven him for deserting me when I needed him so much.
Impatient with myself for tumbling into the quicksand of reminiscence, I quickly loaded the carton into the U-Haul with all the other stuff and moved it 300 miles from my mother's attic to mine.
Alone in my house several weeks later, I began sifting through the papers. I felt as though I held my childhood in my hands. As I stared at the dozens of postcards and envelopes with foreign postmarks, I was consumed again by the desperate loneliness that always engulfed me when my parents were away on one of their frequent business trips. In a note I'd written to my mother in 1953 when I was 6, I had penciled in huge letters, "When will you come home? Please come home."
Yet as I continued to read, I found myself smiling as my mother's reports on the details of daily life enlivened my memories of my parents and of what it was like growing up in my family.
"On Saturday we went to a lovely church fair," my mother wrote to my brother John, who is 15 years my senior, in the summer of 1949. "We threw darts at balloons and won the most elegant things. Also, I bought about 50 pounds of books." Concluding with an update on my brother Andy and me, ages 5 and 2 respectively, she noted, "The kids are quite busy and happy. They don't battle more than three times a day and then generally over a discarded piece of rubbish."
When we got older, Andy and I got along better. As a college student, he spent the summer of 1964 playing in a rock-and-roll band in New Hampshire. The words in a letter he wrote to me that summer sound so dated now, but I remember how proud I felt to be taken into his confidence when he explained why he had broken up with his girlfriend. "Her main problem," he wrote, "is that she has been brought up with the idea that man is the master, woman is servant, and I was getting tired of being treated like a slave owner instead of an equal."
Many of the letters my father sent to me reveal the joy he and my mother took in each other's company. Commenting on my mother's golf talents, he proudly wrote, "Mommy hit some sensational shots today. Some sensationally good and some sensationally bad."
Reading the silly poems my parents were fond of writing to each other on special occasions, I wanted to be swept back into the warmth of the holidays I knew growing up. The Christmas of 1954 was the last we spent in a Manhattan apartment before moving to our own house in the suburbs. My mother gave my father, who was not very good at fixing things, a home-repair manual and a set of tools accompanied by a note that read (spelling as is):
"In case the book's know-how does not suffice us
In the earlier stages of any mechanical crisus -
Here with warm hopes for increasing manual dexterity
Are the tools for many hours of hilerity!"
My parents were the type who often held hands and always ate dinner by candlelight. And yet, a note my father scribbled to my mother on the back of a bookmark reminded me that they, too, must have had their difficult times.
"Forgive me for being sad and cranky sometimes," he wrote. "I will try to do better. I love you dearly."
My mother and father loved music, and they wanted us to love it, too. "We are bringing you a clarinet, and I can't wait to hear you play it," my father wrote to my brother Andy from Paris in 1955. "I am sure you will become a very good clarinet player, and the better you get, the more you will enjoy it. Particularly playing in an orchestra, which is a lot of fun."
Andy was 11 then, and the clarinet soon gave way to an electric guitar. Today his own son plays the oboe in an all-state orchestra. How thrilled our father would have been to hear his grandson make such music.
"I did so poorly on my midterm," my mother wrote to me at camp the summer after my father died, "that for the next two weeks I can barely do anything but study."
Reading those words, it finally dawned on me how lonely and frightened she must have felt. After having been a housewife for 30 years, she set out to get certified as a French teacher so that she could support us.
For two weeks I read the letters nearly every day, over and over until I knew many by heart. When I was finished I felt as though I was cloaked in a sturdy, warm cloth woven from threads of many different colors and textures.
My own children lost their father seven years ago, when they were 10, 17, and 22. I hope the postcards and letters I keep for them will rekindle the good memories, the funny ones, and the sad and angry ones, too, enabling them to come to peace with what has passed, just as my mother's treasures did for me.