Thursday, November 20, 2014

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 ass.  I helped her up and she said “I’m just leaving a little note for your sister to find when she gets to school. It’s what parents do.”

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 did this, whenever she was stressed or sad. She 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 and went to her bed.  We always 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. She lived on farms and in a house without indoor plumbing that was owned by my great-grandfather until she was twelve. Despite these circumstances, she did well at school, was very popular, and with some help, was able to go to off to Ball State Teacher’s College (as it was called in those days), which is where she first met my father and thought he was an idiot, who she would have nothing to do with but came around to.

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 in Elkhart, Indiana. Dad persisted, wrote a lot of love letters from the Black Forest of Germany, and after he came back, they were married.  He did well and eventually she became a good corporate wife. She was an excellent mother and neighbor 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 so 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 was that it would always have owls in it.  I don’t know why she liked owls so much, but she did. It figured into a lot of the presents we gave her.

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 really came from though is that when I was a kid. I used to carry around everywhere a book, The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot. My mother bought it for me and subsequently gave me that nickname. I still keep the nickname and that book by my side always.

A year after Melissa, I went down to Illinois. We played out the same routine we had before with her 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, when Melissa and I were having our weekly lunch at the diner, I said something about it to her 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 small 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 then thought to myself, “They don’t take attendance in this lecture.  I can read the book. I’m going back to bed.” Retrospectively, it wasn’t a good choice. 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 and 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. My mom and dad were wise enough to let me learn these lessons on my 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 at the time, Karen, drove down her parents’ station wagon and helped move me out of my apartment.  At the time we had just recently found out, while we are spring break in Florida, that my mother had cancer. Mom did not make my graduation. 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, chickadee, 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 that shrunk in the wash.. 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 know why.  I did, however, like watching her dancing around to the music and singing along.

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 hard and punched me in the arm. I always 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? Get a job, Tom."

Six months after I came home, I got engaged, a job at a publishing company, and signed the lease on a small apartment near Wrigley Field in Chicago that would be our first home together. Karen, my fiancé now, and all of my friends came to help me move in. When we were done packing up the vans and cars, I went to look for my mom.  She was out back trimming the lilacs. I said “We’re going now.”  She got up off of her knees but wouldn’t look at me. She said, “Wow. You’re really going away for good now, aren’t you, T.S.?”  She started to cry. I pulled her around and hugged her. I 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, "Yes, the gift you brought home to me." I nodded, and said, "You have another daughter now, Chickadee." She kissed me on the cheek and then I went away for good.

A big part of my mother’s day was always writing lists, and notes, and letters to her family in Indiana; to old friends. She was left-handed, used a fountain pen, but never had a drop of ink on her arm.  She did pattern-less crossword puzzles with a fountain pen. When you got correspondence from Patra, you knew it was from her because she had such distinctive handwriting.  It almost looked like casual calligraphy. Even though I only lived 40 minutes away, she still always wrote me letters so I would have something nice in the mailbox at the end of the day.

When Mom died, I was reading As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. It was probably a poor reading choice at the time. I still can't re-read it now or see the movie version of it. My mother’s 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 like nothing else had before. I still 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, but I loved it. 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 coffee table in my 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 when I got home from work one Friday he 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.  Despite my wife’s protests, I always used my garage as 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.”  He handed it to me. It was a small sealed envelope that still smelled of lavender. When I saw the handwriting on the outside that said, "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 curious 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 for him to find in his bag when he unpacked.  Matt bolted in such a strange way that I had to send his in a book he left behind too, A Room of One’s Own.  In around six months I have one more to write for my youngest, Meredith
In later days I’m sure there will be more to come, for children yet unnamed, from their grandfather.