I just lost my mom. She took her final breath on Sept. 11 and joined my father, her husband of almost 51 years on this earth, in eternity. Mom had found happiness at last, I am sure, because she never wanted to live life without him. She didn’t know how and she didn’t want to learn.
The arduous task of sorting her things has begun and I must decide what is feasible or necessary to keep and what is not. Paintings. Dishes. Furniture. Books. Clothing. Photographs.
Things that have surrounded me all of my life.
Hidden at the bottom of her cedar chest in her bedroom I found this odd-looking, ecru-colored quilted bag. It is filled to the brim with letters — neatly bundled and tied with copper colored ribbon.
Just more paper. It’s easy enough to put the whole bag of them in the trash pile.
“You will want to look through those before you throw them away,” my friend Anthony says as he and his wife, Mary, help me sort through decades of clothing and newspapers and keepsakes. “You might find something important in there.”
I am sure I won’t need a bag full of old letters.
Don’t get me wrong. I miss letters.
Letter writing is a lost art. Now people almost exclusively text. Not even entire words or complete sentences. Before texting it was email. Before email it was the phone. And before the phone, there were letters. For hundreds of years it was the only means to communicate long distance.
People sat down and thought about their words and shared their feelings and hopes and dreams and fears and love through deliberate, handwritten notes. They neatly folded the paper and tucked it into an envelope. And somehow, some way, these letters managed to get to their intended recipients. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t instantaneous — because the writer had carefully considered the words and taken the time and effort to put them on paper. Having the good fortune to receive a handwritten letter in the mail felt like getting a present on Christmas morning. It still does.
Before the night ends, I decide to take my friend’s advice. I look at one of the yellowing envelopes. It was addressed to my mother while she was away at college. The handwriting seems kind of familiar and I realize it is my father’s.
Don Williamson, my dad, and Rita Mitchell, my mom, met at Meridian High School in Meridian, Mississippi, in the 1950s. After graduation, daddy went to Millsaps College in Jackson. Mom’s father sent her 150 miles away to an all-girls college. Mom was miserable. She stayed there two long years before my grandfather finally let her join dad at Millsaps.
I’d always heard stories how my parents were the most handsome couple. They met in the 10th grade. In college they went steady. The black and white photographs I have of them at fraternity functions or at their wedding show them smiling lovingly and expectantly at one another. Those feelings for each other are frozen in time in those pictures hanging on my wall.
By the time I came along in this world, there wasn’t a lot of lovey-doveyness on display between my parents. The years had taken a bit of a toll on mom and dad as a couple.
Daddy wasn’t particularly romantic. Neither was mom. But they had a system. And their system worked for them. For over half a century they stuck it out through thick and thin and they made a life together until daddy died unexpectedly in 2010. Out of curiosity, I sit down on the floor of mom’s apartment in West Rome and start to read one of dad’s letters to her. There envelope is postmarked May 14, 1957, but the letter itself has no date on it. It’s just marked “Monday Night” at the top of the first page.
“It’s been a gloomy day outside most of the day, but with the thoughts of you staying with me all the time, everything seems bright,” reads one line of the letter.
“As soon as I left you yesterday, I started missing you and it has steadily grown worse,” reads another line.
The next letter is postmarked May 15, 1957. The top of the letter says “Tuesday night.” It’s like they’re having a daily conversation back and forth.
“I don’t get to see you much but you’re always near me in thought and that’s enough,” daddy writes. “No, I take that back. It won’t be enough till I can be with you all the time. That is the only way that anything will be complete.”
The next letter is postmarked May 16 — “Wednesday night.” And so it goes.
In some letters, daddy laments they are having problems in their relationship. In other letters he says that it’s best that they have broken up. She’ll forget him. The guy who ends up with her will be very lucky. They’ll stay friends.
And then they are back together. Just like that.
Daddy tells mom about his day. He recounts basketball games he and his teammates have played. Letters are postmarked from other states when his college basketball team was on the road or he was traveling for his fraternity. The correspondences go on and on. There are well over 100 letters in the bag. I know that mom wrote him back because he would often refer to her letters, but I couldn’t find any of them.
I never knew this soft side of my father. And I never knew this softer side of my mother. They were obviously very deeply in love, as much as two crazy kids in their late teens could be in the 1950s. Life was full of endless possibilities. They would be together forever. And life would be perfect because they had each other. It wasn’t perfect. It never is. But mom and dad had a commitment to one another.
Through pain and laughter and missteps and hurt feelings and good times and ugliness and beauty and reconciliation they made it last.
“Dearest Rita — I hope that you’ve noticed the beautiful night out tonight. I walked outside a few minutes ago and as I looked in the cloudless sky you were my first thought. It would be the perfect night to be together — if we only could.”
While looking up at our own cloudless sky tonight, I take comfort in knowing that they are indeed back together at last.