A couple years ago I bought four plastic totes and labeled one for each son. As I unpacked boxes from the past, I dropped whatever belonged to a boy in his own box. They overflowed pretty fast. Realizing it was silly to keep elementary school papers for a guy in his mid-40s, I pared down even more. I made scrapbooks for each son using the best of the best.
So I wouldn’t forget where I put them, I put their letters and cards in the boxes. There are letters from Fort Benning, Fort Carson and Fort Bragg. Letters from Lackland, Elmendorf and Malmstrom Air Force bases. Letters from Korea, Japan, Haiti and Belgium. Letters from the Naval Construction Battalion at Gulfport, Mississippi and letters from Ranger School. Letters from Afghanistan, Qatar and Iraq. So many letters from Iraq. I will read them again. Someday.
For all my sorting, there are still four, very full plastic totes. At the moment my plan is to just let them be. If I expire any time soon, it will be my sons’ problem. Sorry – Ian, David, Andrew and Daniel.
When I helped my folks move out of their last home, there were photos and letters Mom was too overwhelmed to deal with. I took them home with me. Her hat box was full of letters Dad had written while he was in the Army. Dad’s ancient, black case was full of letters she sent to him. Mom asked me not to read them until they are both dead just in case there is anything, you know, embarrassing. I’m not sure what could be embarrassing… they were together for 71 years! I know them pretty well. Still, I promised not to read. I did, however, look inside.
And just like when I was a kid and got into Dad’s stuff, I couldn’t put it back the same way it came out. I still don’t know Dad’s packing secrets. But that’s ok. There are a few letters that will now have their own special home.
There were 110 letters in Dad’s case my Grandma Vera had written him, her youngest son. Dad turned 19 in September of 1944, at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, just before they shipped him overseas. I read every one. They broke my heart.
I saw the words she didn’t put on paper. I felt that hard, aching mass she carried within. It’s a mysterious thing. You know this thing has no physical presence, but it feels stuck in the center of your chest. It’s heavy. You can’t get rid of it. And sometimes you think you can’t breathe. You carry it with you all day long and to bed at night. It comes to life during the evening news and when it whispers ugly things about your child, especially when the phone rings at 2 a.m., you tell it to go to hell. Or it will eat you alive.
The actual letters Vera wrote were unwavering in their cheerfulness and mundane in description of trips to the meat market, waiting in lines, snagging the last pair of stockings, her weekly trip to the movies where she watched the war news reel, and did he get the candy, the cookies, the warm sweater. Only once did a crack appear in her “chin up” approach to letter writing.
On December 6, 1944, she wrote about upcoming Christmas day plans and told him, “we will all be thinking of you and only wish you were here. It seems we are lost without you Bobby and hope this will all be over and you will be home”. She went on to ask if he had a nice Thanksgiving meal and what would he be doing for Christmas. She didn’t know then that he spent Thanksgiving deep in the Ardennes forest. And for Christmas he would simply pray for warmth, maybe some sleep, and to make it back home.
Quite awhile ago, the son still in the military (who can’t go full beard like his brothers), told me he was shaving with a straight razor. He found an antique shave mug online he wanted to buy. I told him he could have my grandfather’s old shave mug for free. Unfortunately, it took me until last weekend to find it.
So Andrew will have his great-grandfather’s shave mug next time I see him. I will keep the memory of watching Papa shave, a highlight from my peculiar childhood. And, I will forever wonder how I came to have his shave gear.
I’m not sure how I came to be the keeper of so much.
British author Samuel Johnson said, “The two offices of memory are collection and distribution”.
Apparently, in our family, I am the boss of both. I’m leaning heavily into the distribution side now.