Letters from Yesterday

Posted by on Jun 7, 2010 in Reckless youth | 0 comments

The black bag my sister hands me is embossed with an “e”, our mutual first initial. Inside are newspapers, clippings, and letters I wrote; mingled stories of death and of a life that happened to a person I once was long ago. The letters come from a time in my existence when I believed I could just turn my face away, and walk in the direction I was pointed without consequences.  I page through them, one-sided conversations from the past, a time capsule of people and things forgotten. I am soon overwhelmed, so I push them aside and pick up the plastic bag that is stuffed with newspaper.

Some of the obituaries are cut out neatly along the columns, but others are entire pages where I struggle to find the one she intended me to read. None of the names seem familiar and yet they have a commonality, like characters in a book by a favorite author. They are solid mid-western names mostly Scottish, Irish, English, and German, the sons and daughters of pioneers. Interspersed between the deaths are bits of life, fifty-year wedding anniversaries, new marriages, and a few babies. Confusingly the babies are grandchildren or great grandchildren of the people I once knew, the marriages between strangers whose parents I only vaguely remember. The funerals have all taken place months or years ago, leaving me weighted down with an emotion of untimely remorse, like the white rabbit, running and checking his pocket watch.

I pick up the other envelope again, the one that my mother used to store my letters and mementoes. It is from the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington. It once contained my application for VISTA, a program similar to the Peace Corp but intended to alleviate domestic poverty. Everything from that letter is gone except for a note asking me to explain why I was treated for mental illness. I don’t know if I wrote them back or not. I am still not sure how I could have told them that my parents had insisted on me seeing a psychiatrist when I introduced them to my fiancée. That was only after they found out that you couldn’t actually have a child over 18 committed to a mental institution for wanting to marry someone you don’t like. I wonder if parental insanity could have been used to exclude me from the program?

I open a letter from my erstwhile alma mater and find a picture of myself that I never expected to see again. It is from my tumultuous sophomore year, one punctuated by threats and paranoia, set against a world stage of fear and conspiracy theory. My face is a mask of unruffled serenity, a believable lie. The poor quality photo is from the proof sheet of the school annual. I could not afford to buy my pictures that year. I was cut off from my parent’s financial support due to my stubborn attachment to the boy my father called “the asshole”. The tiny blurred image is made worse by the glue they used to affix it to the letter. The letter was ironically sent to my parents asking them for money.  Even many years later when I was divorced, my parents refused to contribute a penny to the school. They blamed Georgetown for allowing the asshole to graduate with honors plus giving him a scholarship to UVA for graduate school.

I open another envelope and discover a terse note from said fiancée.  I have taken some liberties with the names.

Dear Mrs. Future MIL from Hell,

Enclosed is $33.00 in payment for the sport coat Elaine bought me. I deducted $3.00 in payment for a collect phone call made by Elaine.


“The asshole”

I remember the sport coat very well but knew nothing of the repayment. I bought it for him because he had nothing presentable to wear when we went out for dinner. I mentioned it casually to my Mom and she hit the roof. I must have said something to him about her reaction, and that no doubt engendered the letter. Let’s just say they didn’t have a warm friendly relationship and leave it at that.

I finally finish sorting the letters chronologically in an effort to gain control over the mass of emotions I feel. I read only bits of them, but moving on through time I find my entire courtship, marriage, and subsequent divorce detailed in monologue. Any response to my spin on events during that time is lost because, unlike my sentimental sister, I saved very little. Now I am faced with this embarrassing pile of words, most of which are almost too painful to read. It overwhelms me how much effort I put into trying to gain approval rather than validating myself.

I can bear no more and yet I cannot throw the letters away now like I could have long ago. I tell myself that my mother saved them for a reason, although I know she saved everything from notes to the housekeeper to dead flower arrangements. She had everything neatly organized and placed carefully in labeled boxes, tucked away in the gazillion tons of cubic space she built so she could save it all. My sister has become keeper of the flame of insanity that runs in out family and although I know she is trying to pass this particular torch over to me I have no inclination toward succumbing to the obsession.

I am ready to toss the lot into the recycle bin when one catches my eye.  It is not from me but from my former MIL.  It was written to my mother trying to plead the suit of her only son. I had just visited them so she tells my mother that I am a nice girl and a good cook. She says that until her boy met me he had never “gone steady” with a girl. Then there is this sentence guaranteed to put any parent’s fears to rest. “He bowled and swam with several boys friends and was unconcerned about girls.” I am shaking with laughter as I think of my parent’s probable reaction to this testimony. My MIL goes on to provide references in the form of a Baptist minister, once in DC and now living in Kentucky. My mother has written his address and phone number in her hand on the bottom of the letter. Later in the stack is a letter from the pastor to my mother attesting to the fact that John is a “good boy”.

I encase the letter with rubber bands and start to put them back in the black bag.

I take one final look at the newspaper clippings before tossing them. “One of only two crocheted Christmas Trees In the World” reads the teaser, and this one about Valentine’s Day at the local nursing home, and another that is simply a picture of a cubby nerd with the title “Fantasy Sports Guru”. I gather the papers and deposit them in the recycle bin, grimacing with the thought that some of those people are my relations.  Like usual I am spinning my wheels, two steps forward, one step back, but I have come far enough to know that I no longer have the temperament to live in that narrow world.

If I could write a letter in warning to that girl from long ago it would make no difference, because she wouldn’t listen. She is insecure and afraid of losing control, although few people ever guess. She longs to be told she is beautiful, but she does not trust or believe the men who find the nerve to tell her so. The rest think she already knows, but when she looks in the mirror she only sees her flaws. Such is her self-doubt that she ignores men who treat her well and marries the asshole, thinking he is what she deserves. Looking back I have to admit I don’t miss her much, just envy her youth and resilience, and wish she had been more like me. I said a word about this to a friend, as we both looked at the picture of my younger self.  Says I, “I had no idea I was beautiful.” Says my dear friend,

“You still are and you still don’t.” I do not blush and stammer. I accept the kindness and feel beautiful for the rest of the day.  I repeat the compliment to my husband and he smiles and says,

“He is a wise man.”

The young girl sits and stares at the mirror, her face a mask, her eyes unseeing.

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