Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Letter


When my older sister, Melissa, left home for the first time, went off to college at Illinois, our whole family packed up in our van and drove her to Champaign.  Before we left I encountered my mother in my sister’s bedroom.  I saw her squatting down and slipping an envelope into one of  Melissa's bags. I asked her “What are you doing, Chickadee?”  She didn’t know I was there so it startled her and she fell back on her butt.  I helped her up and she said “I’m just leaving a little note for your sister to find when she gets to school.” 

After we dropped Melissa off, spent some time on campus, and said our good-byes, my Dad said to me, “Maybe you should drive home.”  He sat in the passenger seat next to me and my Mom sat between my younger brother and sister in the back.  About halfway through the ride she fell asleep.  My mother, whenever she was stressed or sad, had a tendency to sleep.  One time after a big rain she floated our Buick into a big puddle in the road and instead of calling anyone, walked home to her bed.  We had a saying in our house regarding my mother:, “When the going gets tough, the tough take a nap.”

My mother grew up in a good family but not always with a lot of resources. Nevertheless, with help, her parents were able to send her to college where she first met my father.  She studied art and teaching.  When she first got out of school, while my dad was in the army for a couple of years, she taught kindergarten.  After he came back, and they were married, she became a corporate wife and an excellent mother, but she never let go of her art.  She always had a space, usually in the laundry room, where she would go to make things and watch old black and white Godzilla and monster movies.  She was very talented.  I would work hard to do a sketch and she would slide a copy of People magazine over and do a drawing that looked like it was a carbon copy of the cover in about ten minutes.  Most of her stuff was mixed media and you never knew what she would come up with but what you did know is it would have owls in it.  I don’t know why she liked owls so much, but she did.

A lot of people don't know how I got my nickname, T.S. They assume it is because of my initials,which is in small part what it is about.Where it came from really is from when I was a kid. I used to carry around everywhere a book, The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot. My mother gave me that nickname. I still keep it and that book by my side always.

When I went down to Illinois, the fall after Melissa did, we did the same routine we had before only with a lot more stuff because I wanted to bring all of my books.  After again spending some time on campus and having lunch, I hugged my parents good-bye and went into my dorm to unpack. One of the first things I did was look through my things to see where a letter from my mother might be. There was none.  Later on I said something about it to Melissa and she said, “I wouldn’t take it personally.  I was the first one out and I’m a girl. Maybe she just felt like needed to give me some motherly advice.” That made sense to me so I let it go.

When you go to college I think the three things that hit you are these.  First, for every great thing you did in high school there are just as many kids who did the same thing.  You might have been a big fish in a pond at one point, but now you’re in an ocean with a lot of big fish.  Second, you start to understand freedom and choices.  I still remember the day it was storming like crazy and I had to walk to class across campus. I went outside with my umbrella and  thought to myself, “They don’t take attendance in this lecture.  I can read the book. I’m going back to bed.” Then you learn how to pay for all the choices you make like that. The third thing is the realization that you are on your own.  If something needs to get done, you’re going to have to do it yourself. Your mom an dad aren't there to take care of things. I think self-reliance is the best lesson we learn when we go out on our own.

I was in school for a time that was a bit longer than most kids.  I was working at the university and still studying as my friends all graduated. When I was done learning, I came home.  My girlfriend, Karen, drove down her parents’ station wagon and helped move me out of my apartment.  At the time we had just recently found out that my mother had cancer, a disease that would take her from us two years later.  When we got to my parents’ house and started moving things back into my old room my mother came down to where my brother, my girlfriend and I were carrying boxes in from the car.  She said, “What are you doing?”  I said “I’m moving my stuff into my room.”  She said “Oh.” I asked, “Is that a problem?”  She said “No, T.S. it’s not a problem. I just thought you would want to get your own place.”  I said, “That is ultimately the plan but until I get a job, I was kind of hoping I could hang out here for awhile.” She smiled and said “That is perfectly fine…as long as it is not permanent.”  I kissed her on the cheek.  “Rest assured I have no intention of living in my parents’ basement for the rest of my life.”

The time I spent with my family after I left college went by very fast. It was fun though. I strung together a bunch of part time jobs as I tried to figure out where I was going to start my career and spent a lot of time with my mother. She was a different woman then from what she was when I was growing up. It used to be that she would not leave the house unless she was wearing a tailored suit, had done her hair, and put on lipstick.  Now she wore jeans and even sometimes an old Japanese baseball shirt I bought at a resale shop.  She worked in her gardens. When she was working in her laundry studio and there were no good episodes of “Chan-Holmes Theater” or "Godzilla" on, she would listen to rock music.  Some of her favorites were songs by the Rolling Stones, “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats, and Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”  I don’t why.  I did like watching her dancing around to them though.

I also liked being able to sit on the back porch with her, drinking wine spritzers, and talking like adults.  One night we got into a discussion about semantics. I finished it by saying, "Mom, the thing you need to know about me is that I am not an anti-semantic." She laughed and punched me in the arm. I liked drawing faces on eggs at night and making her laugh in the morning. My father just shook his head and said, "What am I going to do with you two?"

Six months after I came home, I got engaged, got a job at a publishing company, and signed the lease on a small apartment in Chicago that would be my wife’s and my first home. Karen, my fiancĂ© now, and all of my friends came to help me move in. When we were done packing up the vehicles I went to look for my mom.   She was trimming the lilacs. I said “We’re going now.”  She got up off of her knees and took my face in her hands.  “Wow. You’re really going away for good now, aren’t you, T.S.?”  She started to cry. I hugged her and said “I’ll be back for visits, Chickadee, and you and Dad will come visit me. Besides in another six months we’re gonna have a wedding.” She said, "The gift you brought home to me." I nodded, and said, "You have another daughter, Chickadee". She kissed me on the cheek and then I went away for good.

A big part of my mother’s day was writing lists, and notes, and letters to her family in Indiana; old friends. She was left-handed, used a fountain pen, but never had a drop of ink on her arm.  When you got correspondence from Patra, you knew it was from her because she had such distinctive handwriting.  It almost looked like casual calligraphy.

When Mom died, I was reading As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. Probably a poor reading choice at the time. I still can't re-read it now or see the movie version of it. The time came suddenly and swift.  My Dad told told us on Sunday to be prepared by Wednesday  I couldn't understand because she looked well, but that is exactly what happened.  She took to her bed and on Wednesday she left us. It broke my heart. I can't look at lilacs anymore like I used to.

When I worked in a bookstore in high school I bought on my employee discount a beautiful copy of the collected works of Shakespeare.  It was bound in green leather and all the pages had gold gilded edges.  The paper in the book was very thin, and the thing was quite unwieldy so it wasn’t a practical book to read or use for classes.  I mostly just trucked it around with me because it was part of what my grandmother used to refer to as someone’s “precious plunder.”  I still have it and it sits on the end table in our living room.

When my oldest son, Ben, was in the early years of high school he had to read “Hamlet.”  He forgot his book at school and asked if he could try to use the big book to keep reading over the weekend.  I said “Sure.” I went out into the garage to sit and do my usual thinking; to watch the rain.  I use my garage like a front porch.  A few minutes later Ben came out.  He said, “Dad, when I opened your book a letter fell out.  Mom said I should give it to you.” It was a small sealed envelope. When I saw the handwriting on the outside, "For T.S.,"  I knew exactly who it was from. Ben went back in the house.

I opened it and started reading.  “My dear T.S….it is hard to believe that you are going to college when it seems like just yesterday you were my little boy. I am so proud of you...”   I looked out at the clouds and I smiled.

As you can imagine, when Ben went off to college there was a secretly placed letter from me for him to find in his bag when he unpacked.  I have two more to write.