Saturday, May 27, 2006

Letters

My grandparents were married in 1943*. She was raised by her grandparents, helping to mind the grocery store they owned. In her late teens, she worked at an ice cream shop. A charming young Irishman with red hair and a goofy smile pursued her, but was rebuffed for being 2 years her junior. He was persistent and charming, and eventually wore her down. I actually don't think it took all that long. They hadn’t known each other long before they wed.

Shortly thereafter, he headed off to war. Grandma had my aunt while he was away. We're nothing if not capable - the women in my family. There’s some element of calmly accepting the circumstances and finding a way to make it work. They were happy – Grandma and Aunt – though Grandma told me she missed Grandpa terribly.

I remember holding on to the railing with one hand when I was quite young, my other fingers curled around hers as we descended the stairs. She removed a box from storage and pulled out a stack of letters. Opening an envelope beginning to yellow with age, she took out a single sheet of paper. Cradling it gently in my hand – I was always careful with other people’s possessions – we proceeded to the globe.

“See this?” She asked, pointing with a perfectly rounded nail that, try as I might, I still can’t replicate on my fingers. “That’s Italy. And that island?”

We squinted together - Sicily is small on globes. Especially compared to the gigantic landmass that is North America.

While keeping her index finger on Sicily, she helped me put mine on Peoria. And we looked at each other – my wide-eyed stare meeting her smiling one.

“That’s really far.” I breathed, turning the globe gently again so I could see her finger.

“It is.” She agreed, pulling me on her lap.

“So since he was far away, and Aunt and I were here, we wrote letters. He’d tell me about how life was there, and I’d talk about what was happening here. And in a way, we were together when we’d write and read and wait for the next letter to come.”

I looked down at the paper in my hand. Carefully unfolding it, I remember examining the blue ink on the fragile yellow paper – translucent from design or age, I’m not sure – and finding it beautiful.

But I couldn’t read longhand script, and I can’t isolate exactly how old I might have been when this happened. It’s all hazy – the dim basement representative of that section in my memory. It’s not light enough to see everything clearly – sometimes it's only glimpses of shapes, feelings, and impressions.

I handed the page to Grandma. “Read it.” I requested. “Please.”

Smoothing my hair back as I snuggled into her, she did. I curse that childhood version of myself for not paying closer attention. Because I can’t bring the words into focus – it’s been too long, or I was too young. I wish I remembered though – it was important and I didn’t realize it.

I do remember ducking my head into a giggle when she got to the part about how he missed her, how pretty he remembered her being, how he was eager to return home so they could be together.

“He liked you.” I said, smiling up into eyes that are identical to those I see in the mirror when I deal with contacts in the morning.

She laughed, and that I remember with perfect clarity. How her shoulders would shake a little, and I’d see her teeth emerge in a full smile.

“Yes, he certainly did. I liked him too.” She finished in a whisper.

We put the letter carefully back in its envelope, and I continued to marvel that it had come from so very far away. It was replaced in the box, because you always put things back when you were finished with them.

Grandpa walked in the door at the top of the stairs, so we decided to make the climb from the basement to meet him. Grandma would have held my hand, helped me navigate the steps covered in bright orange carpet. Grandpa jogged down and swept me up, making me giggle in delight and bury my face in his neck as we bounded up the stairs to the sunny kitchen.

I’d forgotten that until one morning a few months ago. On my commute, I was thinking about something, and I suddenly recalled those letters. Mom wasn’t at her desk when I called, so I sent email before beginning my morning. She replied that she wasn’t sure where the letters were – she didn’t remember them. Perhaps Aunt has them – we’d ask when they returned from vacation.

My parents, in kind of a cool little aside, met before Dad went to Vietnam. He had just been drafted, and she was quickly smitten by the man who selected her in favor of her “horse-faced” friend (charming man, my father) in the Steak 'n Shake parking lot.

He returned to Illinois for his grandmother’s funeral, and in those weeks he stayed, they fell in love. She gave him her class ring – a dark green stone with a tiny gold knight nestled atop. He wore it on his pinky throughout the rest of his time away from her. Tells a grand story about how it caught on the door of the helicopter when he was falling out from his position, providing him a moment of balance that certainly saved his life. (Daddy's also a bit dramatic.)

They wrote letters too, though they’ve never offered to let me see them, and I haven't asked. Perhaps I’m too close to savor the idea of their romance. But I knew those messages existed. Recognized the idea of finding someone, being in love, then having distance forced between you. Resorting to communication – thoughtful, edited, careful – that had to be slowly written instead of quickly uttered. And there’s a record – some set of smudged stationery that proves they felt something, thought of each other, remembered stories so they could put them on paper and send them away.

If I remember the story correctly, he finished his service in September, 1969. They were married in November, and were together 10 years before they had me. I know where the photo albums are – have gone over countless pictures with him when I still lived at home – and held his hand when he said he wanted to make sure there were pictures of him if he didn’t get to come home from his time far away.

Grandma’s engagement ring circles the middle finger of my right hand. It’s been there for 10 years now, and I still ache with missing her. Mom’s class ring is nestled in a jewelry box in my bedroom. I know exactly where it is, and wore it throughout high school and into college along with an opal ringed by rubies. Eventually I started hoping for a ring of my own, and removed all but Grandma’s.

I long ago thought that someday I’d have letters of my own as well, wondering from where they might come on the globe and why I might be separated from someone who liked me. I'd forgotten though - perhaps only subconsciously waited for that part of my story to fall into place.

After all, waiting to hear something new, the thoughts of distance fading to nothing when some event or feeling far away seems so incredibly close to what you’re currently experiencing, pondering how to answer questions, making mental notes of funny lines so you can share them with someone you think will appreciate them as much as you did, going through your day amazingly content with small realizations that someone somewhere cares a little bit - once remembered, it seems incredibly important.

When I pout over being alone – which happens a lot, I know – it’s good to remind myself that this time is not without rewards. I can remember and learn what I think is vital. I can hope that someday other wishes – some held dear and others mostly forgotten – will come true as well. So I wrote this some time ago when I was all aflutter over some emails I received. I smile – not sure if I’m remembering said time with great fondness or chiding myself for foolish certainty that I had found him – but I find myself reading this particular document quite often. Remembering Grandma and Grandpa and sniffling a bit. Picturing my parents in the beginning – young, in love, and just biding time until I would arrive and they could dote on me. (They haven’t said as much, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. Yes, I'm kidding.) Hoping softly that one day, I’ll have a story of my own to weave into those that came before me.

*I don’t know what year my grandparents married. Let’s see. I was born in January of 1979, which means Mom was born in 49. Aunt is 5 years older, which puts her birthyear at 44. I think Grandma got pregnant right away, so I think Aunt’s birthday is in September, which makes things easy. So let’s call it 1943 as a wedding year.

Checking my work. Pearl Harbor was near the end of 1941 (December 7 – I looked it up.) The invasion and subsequent capture of Sicily occurred in July, 1943. Grandpa was stationed there, so I think I’m close, if not completely right. V-E Day was celebrated on May 8, 1945, which puts Grandpa back home shortly thereafter if not slightly before. In just enough time to star in the stories where Aunt wouldn’t let him hold her because she didn’t know him.

That’s an awfully awkward way to begin what should have been a more elegant post, but I’m proud of myself for my reasoning skills. Which is why I couldn’t resist adding a lengthy footnote to celebrate said reasoning and online research skills.

1 comment:

JustMe said...

this is a great story, and i identify with it quite a bit...i often pout for
being alone, wondering when it will be that i finally find him, becasue i'm tired of waiting. my heart is tired even though my head knows that all will happen in the right time. but that rational realization does not make it *any* easier. especially in those times we foolishly think we have encounterd someone right and realize our "foolishness" only in hindsight.

thank you so much for your kind words on my situation.

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