I spent most of my free time this week going through old family photos, letters and assorted mementos. A few years ago I became the custodian of these materials, distributed among several large and decrepit cardboard boxes. Finding that a bottle of some kind of cleaning chemical leaked in my shed, burned through a shelf (yeah, I KNOW) and ran to the base of one of the boxes (fortunately, while the cardboard sucked up the liquid, it didn’t get on the contents) sparked a sense of urgency about, at the very least, getting the items into plastic bins with lids.
For anyone who has ever opened a long ignored box of family mementos, you can probably guess what happened next. After the requisite trip to Target for storage bins, and after preliminarily getting the materials safely stowed in lidded plastic, I started to get curious about the contents. So I decided to do a rough sort, weeding out materials that could be thrown out or recycled (hello 1995 mutual fund prospectuses) and assigning general categories to the remainder.
Yeah, so much for the rough sort. By the time I was done with this marathon organizing session I had each family member’s things in its own box, plus additional, subdivided, boxes for the paternal and maternal sides of the extended family.
And what fascinating things I found! It turns out that both of my grandmothers were prolific letter-writers. I didn’t have time to read everything, but I will. Not only did I not know they were regular correspondents of my mother, but I had no idea that my mother had kept the letters. I thought I had known my home pretty well when I was growing up, but those letters were squirreled away somewhere I didn’t know about.
One thing that struck me was how normal these letters, taken on their own, would have made my parents’ lives seem, even though they were far from normal, or happy. It made me realize that while Facebook makes it more convenient and immediate to project an image that might not match the reality, people have been doing it forever. Cavepeople probably exaggerated their achievements and glossed over their difficulties when they drew on their cave walls.
I found some diary-style notes written by my mother, probably when she was in her mid-fifties, where she revealed that she regretted not giving more time to her art and writing, and that she was conflicted about being a wife and mother. My parents’ marriage was tumultuous, by most accounts pretty much from the beginning, so some of the conflict didn’t surprise me, but some did – I guess in some ways children are always surprised by their parents’ inner lives.
I found a letter I had written to Bruce Springsteen, when I was 14 years old, which was returned. I couldn’t’ stand to read it, actually, because I remember being so miserable and feeling so isolated at that time in my life – I didn’t want to relive it.
Something I noticed, reading the letters from high school friends, my first boyfriend (who lived a few towns over, so wrote to me during the week) and my maternal grandmother is that, even though we probably attribute the current laxity in grammar and spelling to the carelessness of youth, all of those letters were quite well written – they were grammatically and syntactically correct and everything I looked at was spelled accurately. And these were letters from people who had not yet finished high school (friends and boyfriend) and my maternal grandmother who might have finished high school, but to my knowledge didn’t go further.
And yes, I did say that my first boyfriend wrote me letters, on paper, during the school week. Do kids these days even know how to use a stamp? I think we lose something with electronic communication … I don’t think people will be going back 50 years from now and reviewing my emails to learn about how I lived in the early part of the century.
I found these pictures of my parents. Is it weird to say that I think my father was stunningly handsome? I don’t remember him that way, partly because he was in his 40s by the time I was born and partly because who notices what their parents look like when they’re growing up?
I think that good looks can be a curse, both for the person possessing them, and for those around them, who can be so blinded by attraction that they forget to notice other important things about the person. In my father’s case, he was very bright, socially awkward, and obsessive and had a strong need for control. I think he must have had a hard time reconciling how people treated him with how he saw himself. For my mother, I think she attributed a lot of characteristics to my father that he didn’t actually possess, and ignored some signs that it would have behooved her to have noticed, all because she was so impressed by his handsomeness.
I remember having a photo of my mother from the same era, but I didn’t find it in the stuff I have now – the ones here are the earliest I have. The story I’m told of their meeting was of love at first sight, on both sides, and an abruptly broken engagement on my mother’s part. Some poor guy named Bob didn’t know what hit him. And of course I wonder, what would her life have been like if she had chosen Bob and not my father?