Back in the olden days, when lovers were apart—a few miles or thousands—they explored love on paper. There were few telephone calls filled with words that would fall into the void after they were spoken and heard once; no email that generations to follow will never see. Of course, only the savers will pass on old letters. For better or worse, I come from a family of savers.
My paternal grandfather, Albert, died the year before I was born. I have photo copies of two letters he wrote to my grandmother before they were married in September 1905. Yes, that first one is six sentences of creative spelling in beautiful penmanship.
…your true and loving boy, Albert
I have hundreds of letters written by my father to my mother during WWII, in which he poured out his longing for her. The first one here was written while he was in officer training a year before they were married in November 1943; the second is from Europe a few months before the end of the war. Most of their developing relationship, from the time they met until he came home in April 1946 and they finally began their life together, was poured out in letters.
I miss you, and for the first time I know what it is to miss someone I love.
I thought I would write you a few lines to let you know that I am still liveing, it is rather late to write a letter as it is eleven P.M. so dont look for a long one this time. I thought I must write to night in order to get an ans. this week I have been looking for a letter from you every day this week but havent recieved one yet if you remember you said you would write no doubt it is my place to write first but you didnt give me your adress so I am going to guess at it so perhaps you will not get this but I will chance it this time as I am anxious to hear from you, you dont know how lonesome I have been since you have been gone, last Sun. in pertucelar I didnt know what to do with my self I was not home all day of course that helped some it was seven P.M. when I got back, I didn’t know of any things else to do so I went to bed at nine oclock now isnt that pretty good for Sun. evening?
Well Ella how are you enjoying your self any way supose you are haveing such a good time that you don’t even think of me leting alone finding time to write, I am going to Detroit next Sat. and if you are going to be there and care to have me call on you Sun. you will have to let me know where you live now I trust you will do this as it seems a month since I saw you last.
I dont know of any news in pertucelar to write as every thing is about the same as useal it has been very cold this week and rained all the forenoon. If it hadent looked so much like rain this evening I should have went out to call on Lou seeing you dont write to me you surely have writen to her perhaps I could have found out how you are geting along ha: ha; no doubt you have got another fellow by this time.
Well Ella it is bed time so I will draw this to a close hopeing you will excuse this poor writing as I am in a hurry so I will say good night with a sweet kiss I remain as ever your loving friend
(write at once)
November 26, 1942—Thanksgiving
New York, N.Y. to Knoxville, Tenn.
Dearest Stellajoe –
I’ve been in a quandary the past few days whether to write you & pour out my black mood, whether to try & cover it up or maybe not write at all. I wrote a letter Sunday night that I didn’t mail. I had the satisfaction of telling you how badly I felt but didn’t get any comfort from what you might have said. I guess it was better that way since it didn’t bother you. Anyway, I thought I’d snap out of it in a day or two.
But I didn’t. I can’t remember when I’ve been any unhappier…
Why the blues? Mainly I suppose because I’m too dumb to adapt myself to a new situation. But I miss you so much. After 6 years of college & working around here & there I land in exactly the spot & situation I’d always wanted. That includes a job I liked in a country I liked but mainly it means the girl I love. It’s tough to head off from that all of a sudden, at least for me…
What a Thanksgiving! Never had so much to be thankful for & never felt so little like being thankful. I thought it would be better not to mail this letter either, but found I couldn’t write anything else and I know you’ll be expecting something. Anyway if I could see you it would help me so much to tell it to you. It would be one of the times when I’d call you up at 8:00 o’clock to find out if I couldn’t come see you.
We went down town with the intention of eating at the “Cafe Francais” in Rockefeller Center, the place I told you about beside the skating rink. We decided that the $2.75 was a bit steep for a couple of $75 per month soldiers so we went to a “Child’s” restaurant. For $1.35 we got an imitation turkey dinner. Then we went to see “For Me & My Gal” with Judy Garland. And that’s not exactly a picture that a guy in my mood should see.
New York’s dimout seems to have worked fine on the city but not at all on the moon which is big & round tonight and makes me miss you even more.
I tried to convince myself how foolish I was to feel this way. I could be so much worse off but I’m always thinking how better off I was before I came here. When I learn to look at it the first way I’ll see how lucky I am & feel better.
The rumor is “no Christmas furlough.” When I think of being here 10 months without seeing you I actually shake right in my shoes.
Gee, Stellajoe I miss you, and for the first time I know what it is to miss someone I love. And I read & reread your letters just to satisfy that longing – and then look at your picture, then close my eyes & recall all the good times we had together. I’d hate to have the term “lovesick” applied to me because I don’t like the word. There must be a more descriptive name for the way I miss you. Do you know what I mean?
I guess I’d better shut this stuff off. Next time I write I’ll try and answer that nice long letter you wrote. And when you write remember I love you & when I read you letters I like nothing better than to find something that makes me think you know that & maybe (?) feel the same way.
September 12, 1905
My dear Ella
I will now full fill my promise and write you a few lines, it will be short but sweet so I will start with a kiss or two to let you know that love you more then ever. I hope that you arrived at Sister Minnie’s all safe and found them all O.K no doubt you enjoyed your trip as there was probely lots of nice boys on the car ha: ha:
I was glad that I came home when I did Sun. evening as it rained quite hard before I got here, but it has worried me quite a bit sinse to think that you was so down hearted because I came away so early but my dear girl it isnet very plesent to walk two miles in the rain, but never mind my dear it wont be long before I will be with you always just think how happy we will be.
Now if you will excuse me for a few min. I will eat one of thoughes nice apples you gave me.
Well Ella I dont know of any news so I will close with many good wishes and kisses to you from your true and loving boy
thoughes are all yours from your old Goose ha: ha:
June 13, 1945
France to Florida
Dearest Stellajoe —
Gee honey, I’ve been putting this letter off and off. I just haven’t felt like writing. And I’m forcing myself to tonight. Capt French, the 21st weather pilot, brought us mail day before yesterday. I got eight letters, three from my darling wife, so I have letters to answer. That is no excuse. There is no excuse. There are just times when I can’t do anything. Except search my mind for something that can give peace, put me at ease, cure my restlessness, my longings, my desires. When I can’t find it, I can’t write letters. There is very little I can do.
How I wish I could be with you on this June evening! My mind just runs from one thing to another. Little details of things we’d do. Sometimes it’s a pattern – a day dream of how we’d spend a whole day. But more often it’s just a vision of holding you in my arms. Then perhaps strolling thru the woods, or climbing a mountain. Or sitting before the fire in our own home. Or around the dinner table at home with everyone there. Driving thru the country with you. Of undressing you.
It ain’t good, honey. They’re pleasant thoughts, but they’re overshadowed, absorbed in an atmosphere of frustration generated from a knowledge that it just can’t be, and I don’t know how long it will be before it can.
I’m going to leave this till morning, sweetheart. If I still don’t feel like adding to it, I’ll mail it anyway. So even if it ain’t much, you’ll have a letter anyhow.
All my love
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I could have titled this post “dostadning,” but not many would know what it meant. It’s a hybrid of the Swedish words for “death” and “cleaning.” A close relative of the thus far better known KonMari method of “tidying up,” dostadning advocates the proactive and mindful clearing out of possessions before death, thus saving the children the onerous task of making decisions about what to keep and what to throw or give away. You can read all about it in the book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” by Margareta Magnusson, which I haven’t read yet.
It’s what my parents didn’t do. They weren’t classic hoarders, but disciples of the Post Great Depression Method of Keeping Everything. Ev-er-y-thing. I did the KonMari clean-out with my own belongings before I moved across the country in 2012—way before the Netflix show—and I’ve done it a couple of times since then, including this week in my own closet. Yet now I’m stuck with my parents’ accumulation. It’s a classic Baby Boomer nightmare.
One thing leads to another in this old house, sometimes in reverse order. The first week in March, hardwood floors are replacing a patchwork mosaic of dirty beige carpet, green carpet, water-spotted tired oak, and red shag.
Before that happens, there are three rooms and six closets to paint. And before the closets could be painted, they had to be cleaned out. (I painted the last closet this week. If a snow apocalypse happens this weekend as predicted, and I can’t go to number three grandson’s fifth birthday party—which likely won’t happen anyway—I will be sad; and the last room will get painted.)
To be fair, my mother was aware of the burden being left to her daughters. She wanted to clean out, but at 96 when I arrived on the scene, it was far, far too late. “I thought,” she told me one day as I was standing in the open doorway going out someplace, “you would help me clean out the house. And then there was Emma and Wynne’s wedding and it didn’t happen.” The wedding was two weeks after I moved across the country.
According to a formula I found online—square footage of the house times average height of the “stuff” gives you cubic yards of treasure times .8 to 1.5 (wo)man hours per cubic yard to dispose of it—it was not going to happen in two weeks, even if I hadn’t been acclimating to a new home and roommate and preparing for a wedding. And one of those women was 96 years old and hadn’t been able to part with an overload of paperclips. We once spent a morning cleaning out two small dresser drawers and all that got thrown away was what I sneaked out unnoticed. Enough said.
Marie Kondo’s signature question is “Does it spark joy?” One of the important questions Magnusson poses in her book is: “Will anyone be happier if I save this?” And there lies the question. Will someone?
I loved a memoir titled, “They Left Us Everything,” by Plum Johnson. (It’s in transit between libraries so I can read it again.) As I recall, when all was said and done after completing the overwhelming task of cleaning out their parents home, Plum Johnson and her siblings were unexpectedly happy. They didn’t want to keep the stuff, but holding the bits and pieces of their parents’ lives and their own childhoods in their hands, did spark joy. (I guess that’s mixing the two theories.)
Does dostadning sanitize the real emotions following the death of a parent by erasing too quickly the evidence that they walked the planet? That the original family unit once existed? That the parents existed before the children? Even as I make space for my own life in this house—which I have to do or go mad—my sisters and I will log light years of time travel exploring the corner of the house where I’m stashing everything. It’s about to explode. If a bowel blockage killed our mother, I hope the constipation in the storage room doesn’t kill us.
When I cleaned out the last closet, I found another large box of slides to go with the other large boxes of slides. I wonder if there will be time before we die to look at them. Or will we leave them to our children to deal with?
I can’t begin to imagine what my parents set aside to put in the canister labeled “Time Capsule, Open in 2025.” The whole house and its two outbuildings is a time machine, covering almost a century. I’m trying to imagine them choosing what to include more than 20 years ago. Was it their thought that everything else would go before they did? But no, they left us everything.
Here is a tiny sampling of what I found in the closets.
I need to open a museum.
My little Gekko (of PJ Mask notoriety: Gekko, Cat Boy, and Owlette). Around his knee is a taped piece of cardboard that prevented his knee from bending properly. He proudly wore it for the 24 hours I was there, except when sleeping, calling out “Gekko knee! Gekko knee! Gekko knee! Gekko knee!” Imagination, make-believe, and creativity are this one’s names. Perhaps we will be writing stories together someday, that the bigger Little will illustrate.
"Becoming", book list, Carol Decker, childhood memories, Delia Owens, Educated, letters from World War 2, living in my childhood home, Marie Condo, Michelle Obama, moon and venus, Mt. St. Helens, picking apples, setting intentions, sunrises, Tara Westover, the greatest generation, Three of Earth Farm, Unshattered, Where the Crawdads Sing
The two old apple trees on my property are difficult to harvest—growing on the side of a lumpy hill. Six fall off the tree and bounce down into the underbrush for every one that lands in my apple picker basket. They need to be pruned, but the same lumpy hillside makes that task difficult too.
I don’t know when they were planted. I only know the family lore, that they weren’t planted years sooner because, my father said, “if I’d done it ten years ago there would be apples now.” But finally he planted them anyway and they provided applesauce to my mother for decades.
When I started keeping a list of books I have read or listened to, I almost took a page from the apple tree playbook. I had read so many books in my life—going back to the Boxcar Children and Island of the Blue Dolphins, and the other many pages of words that filled my childhood—and didn’t keep a list, what was the point in starting so late in the game? It will never be complete, I reasoned. But choosing not to get sucked into the apple tree vortex, start I did. Nineteen years later, there are 905 books on my list; evidence that I am a reader. It’s never too late to start a thing.
Four of the last few books on my list are color-coded “favorites.” It’s been a bumper couple of months. For the record, the four are Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover of growing up with hard-scrabble fundamentalist parents who didn’t want her to become anything, but she did in spite of them; Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir of growing up poor with parents who taught her to reach for the stars, and she did because of them; Where the Crawdads Sing, a novel by Delia Owens about a girl abandoned by her parents who raises and educates herself; and an inspiring memoir, Unshattered: Overcoming Tragedy and Choosing a Beautiful Life by Carol Decker, who left the hospital months after giving birth to her second child, blind and with three amputated limbs due to sepsis, and learns to appreciate what she has rather than grieve what she lost.
It was sheer coincidence that the last books of 2018 and the first ones of 2019 have been about resilience and strength to do a new thing. Now I’m left to figure out what I’m to take from that.
I’ve been reading my aunt’s letters home from her years as a nurse in the European theater during WWII. As I was when I read those my parents wrote to each other, I’m anguished that I never knew to engage in conversation with her about her life before I knew her. I am knowing her now, through the letters, and I’m grateful they exist. Like my mother during those years when she was making a life on her own, my aunt’s independence and sense of adventure back then doesn’t match the person I knew and loved. It’s like reading about someone else. Who were these fierce women?
I want all of them back. I have questions. I want the stories I wasn’t told. I want to know the mother—known only to me as an old woman—who inspired my aunt and father and lived so deeply in their hearts, the love and admiration and concern and gratitude flowing from their pens onto paper that took weeks to reach her. I want to know my mother’s mother, whom my mother came to appreciate only in hindsight. Two daughters raised so differently, yet—like Tara and Michelle—with much the same outcome.
I want back the years when they were here. But we don’t get years back.
I made a list on the last day of the old year of my accomplishments in 2018. In the face of all that begs to be done in a year’s time, of intentions set and not realized, it feels important to dwell on what did happen. I keep it in my desk drawer and pull it out when I feel overwhelmed by the present to remind myself that much is accomplished, even when much stays on the to-do list.
On my current list, before the winter cold and wet turns to sun and warmth, is preparing the upper floor of the house my parents built for new floors. It’s more than just moving furniture out and finding a place to put it for a week (I’ve not yet figured out how I’m going to manage those tasks), but painting rooms and closets and cleaning out the last vestiges of my parents’ 55-year occupation.
I will hold things in my hands and, if I don’t love them, thank them for their service, acknowledge the beloveds who left them languishing in the top shelves of closets, and send them to a new home. (In most cases, the new home is the bloated, constipated storage room downstairs. Cleaning out that room is another task, when my sisters want to give up some of their lives to help me. Right now I just keep the door firmly closed.)
Yesterday I filled two boxes with items from the shelves of the kitchen broom closet so I could put clean color to the marred formerly white walls and shelves. I think I will not add the three yard sticks to the box of yard sticks in the storage room, printed with the names of hardware stores and flooring businesses; they feel like kindling to me. I will hold each of the other items in my hands and carefully choose what goes back in. I will return to the broom closet the tiny cabinet I loved in my childhood that was relegated to the basement at some point—still full of odd tiny things.
When I feel snowed under by the tasks—clearing trails, finding someone to prune the apple trees, cleaning out a closet, reading wartime letters, revising my memoir, starting a new writing project, planning for my upcoming writing circle, moving toward the next phase of my business venture, a new website, picking up my ukulele, going on an adventure, or sitting still and reading a book—I will remember not to look too far ahead. The sunrise over the valley reminds me that every dawn is the beginning of a new day, the one day I have. Whatever I do in it is enough.
When I get to longing for the missing generation of my family, I look at these letters; hold the stuff in this house in my hands; feel my parents’ love for me, my sisters, and each other; offer gratitude; and write about all of it. They are here with me and in me. Their time is past—a long time in the case of the four women and two of my other aunts, with a median age of 97 years—but mine is right here, right now.