To my mother,
All my life I have wanted to meet you, but not enough to violate your privacy. I’m not sure where I got that idea, but it seems that as long as I can remember, I’ve keenly felt what a painful thing it must have been to give up a child, and how that pain would only be revived were that “child” to reappear unexpectedly in your life. I imagined how the whole fabric of the life that you had constructed since then would be altered, disturbed beyond repair by the person it was structured to forget. But not until almost this very moment, as I write this — my first communication with you of any kind — has any other point of view seemed real or possible to me. For the first time, it dawns on me that you could have wondered all these years, “Is she well? Is she alive or dead? What does she look like? Could I ever see her? Does she ever think of us?”
I have thought of you — that much is certain. The strongest and most constant feeling I’ve had has been intense curiosity. That has always seemed perfectly natural to me, but now I wonder: can curiosity even be called an emotion? Have I really buried that much?
In the case of my father, the feeling I have allowed is stronger. From the little information I have about you both, I know that he was a musician, and because of my lifelong love of music, I have truly longed, ached, to hear him play. His instrument, I am told, was the violin. But was he a player in some symphony orchestra? A country fiddler? A gypsy violinist? A studio hack? I’ll never know. In my fantasies I have been everything from the illegitimate daughter of Stravinsky to the lost child of Billy “Wagon Wheels” Hill. In reality, I may have actually heard my father play without knowing it.
Mother, if you are still alive now, you must be an old lady. Chances are that you will never read this and we will never meet in this life. But if it is true that all messages from the heart are received somehow, then for the first time I am pushing through our walls of sorrow, guilt, anger, and fear to touch you. It is a profound experience.
Renais Jeanne Hill
Joshua Tree, California
There are so many questions I wish I could ask you. Most of them rise from a night in El Salvador, when I woke to a voice saying, “But who can love you if your mother can’t?”
I wish I could ask you why, even as a small child, I was a disappointment to you. Was it because I wasn’t pretty? I tried to please you by doing well in school. I graduated from high school at sixteen, but still it wasn’t enough. Was it because I wanted to go to college when you wanted to send me to Miss Porter’s Finishing School in Connecticut? Since I couldn’t go to college, I found a job in New York with a radical magazine in Greenwich Village. You thought that was worse than college.
You did approve of the man I married. I remember that as I was leaving home to travel to El Salvador, where my diplomat husband was assigned, you whispered as you kissed me goodbye, “If there is ever any trouble between Fred and you, it will be your fault!”
I wish I could ask you why you felt so frustrated, so bitter, all your life — disappointed not only in me, but in my brother and sister, too. You lived thirty years after my father died, hating every minute of it, resentful that you were no longer the queen bee, no longer running your own house. You couldn’t endure living in one of our households, or even in the Episcopal home.
Now in my eighties, I often think about you, remembering your pitiful old age, wishing you could have enjoyed your children as I have enjoyed mine, wishing you could have had the interesting and happy life that I have had.
I wonder, if I had put my arms around you after my father died, had coaxed you to tell me what had troubled you all your life, would that have changed anything?
But I was too young. I still saw you as my angry mother. Today I see you as an unhappy, lonely woman.
I have learned to say too late in five languages, and it is painful in all of them.
I was going to write a letter to my sister on a day when the light shone golden on the lawn. But I didn’t, because she is sick with schizophrenia. I was afraid that if I described the beauty of the light, she would see wild dogs snapping at her ankles. I didn’t want to be responsible for that mix-up of terror and the sublime.
Nobody writes my sister letters or touches her hands. There are fewer wild dogs, but a lot more emptiness.
I suffer from guilt. My husband tells me his way of dealing with it. He recommends that I write letters to those involved at their last known addresses. Even if the letters never reached them, they would have “gone out into the universe,” and the action would be amended.
The people I have offended are three childhood girlfriends and one old boyfriend. I stole from each of them and never admitted having done so. Years later, my ego still prevents me from writing those letters. What if my friends actually received them? Even if they suspected me back then, a deep and devastating fear prevents me from confessing to them now. Thus, I choose the punishment of guilt over the liberation that a few letters might bring.
I know you never expected to hear from me; I’m surprised myself to be writing you. I was going to write during one of the school prayer scares, but my apartment was being painted and there wasn’t time.
I must say I consider you a consummate politician of a certain type — not necessarily the type I prefer. I wouldn’t call you a demagogue, but I might use the word “sneak.”
Your strength is delegating authority. You don’t always delegate it to the right people, but you delegate the hell out of it.
I wanted to tell you about my girlfriend, and how much I like her. She works in computers and loves contra dancing. We have our troubles — particularly in the bathtub — but we work them out.
Here’s a joke we read last night. Someone asks Virginia Graham if there’s as much sex after sixty-five, and she says, “Yeah — because it takes twice as long.”
I hope you’re not offended.
Isn’t sex strange? It’s a little like waiting in line at the bank and the person in front of you exploding. Maybe I’m not doing it right.
Hey, what’s going on in the Persian Gulf? Are you trying to start a war or just up to your usual clowning? I wish you’d let us know. I get nervous when you shoot down a plane and it isn’t even the first day of the trial of one of your underlings.
I’m impressed by your loyalty to Meese, incidentally. Too many times criminals are cut off by their family and friends. I hope you visit him in jail. too.
Do you think a new era is coming? My girlfriend says so. I find it hard to believe, but then I never thought the Mets would win the World Series.
When I was seventeen, I spent five months in a reputable home for unwed mothers. My stay culminated in the birth of my daughter. Since it was considered cruel to keep and raise a “nameless child,” I was convinced that I was doing the right thing for her in “signing away” my rights.
This “home” had a policy that you could write your child a letter, which the agency would give to the adoptive parents. They would share it with the child if and when they saw fit.
On the morning I was to leave, I sat watching the sunrise from the window of the cramped bathroom in my dorm room. Tears streaming down my face, I silently said goodbye to my daughter and thought about the letter I might write. What could I say to her? Could I tell her I stopped by the nursery on my way out of the hospital and looked at her? Could I admit I didn’t hold her because I was terrified I wouldn’t let go (and because I was “strongly advised” not to)?
I thought about telling her who I was, but I didn’t even know. I was just a high school kid with middle-class alcoholic parents, who told me that they would keep the child and raise it themselves “if it was a boy.” (Of course I would never have considered letting the parents who raised me raise my child.) Maybe I would tell her that I was an honor student, and that I would someday “be somebody” and maybe try to find her (which I was forbidden ever to do by the adoption papers I had signed). Maybe I would just tell her I loved her and want her to have a secure and happy life — all the things I certainly couldn’t give her as a teenage mother, regardless of how smart I might be.
In the end, I dried my eyes and decided not to write a letter. After all, the new parents might just throw it away. My daughter might consider anything I said to be irrelevant in the face of what she might perceive as abandonment. And, as everyone kept saying, it was “over now.”
I didn’t know how wrong they were. It was only the beginning of a life without my daughter: years of wondering; years of hoping she was happy; nights of tears and guilt; days of dreaming of meeting her. If I could write the letter today, I wouldn’t know what to say any more than when I was seventeen. If I thought a letter could find her, though, I would write it — just to say, “I love you, still.”
I’ve been looking for you, Laurie. I don’t know where you are, but I think if I write this, I’ll find you.
We were so good then. You were the girl boys wanted, and I was your friend walking with you to school or hiding out with you in Freeman’s alley before the first bell rang.
I never told you I was too scared to whistle outside your window when we were sneaking out. I thought your father would catch us and chase me home. So I just waited for you and together we slinked down streets where every house was an eye, and even the light on the grain elevator winked at us. I have never felt so daring as then, our pockets full of the whiskey and schnapps we drank in our Cokes.
Remember sitting on the dumpster behind the Quick Stop? I coughed down drinks while you swore you’d never get walled in with kids and soaps like your mother. You’d had enough of this town and its roads that went nowhere. With an open train or a hang glider, you could escape.
Sometimes you stayed out till the horizon streamed pink. Everyone knew what that made you. They said the later you stayed out, the more the boys took. I never believed them, Laurie. I thought the teeth marks on your neck were ripening your skin.
There is no easy way to say this, but I wanted your frizzy hair and skinny waist. I wanted those heavy class rings you wore on your hands. I wanted to be you, to lie down like you in the gravel pits, to make boys roll down the sand dunes and kiss the stars out of the sky.
Where are you, Laurie? I can still see you sitting on the dumpster waiting for night to click on. I heard you moved away and married when you were already thick with a baby. You once called getting pregnant “catching a cold between the legs.”
If you find this letter write to me. I’ve learned to fly planes, and we could still escape.
St. Paul, Minnesota
I know you didn’t want to take the risk of putting a return address on your semi-annual postcards these past ten years, but there’s so much I’d like to have written you. I’ve saved a drawerful of newspaper clippings in your grandfather’s dropleaf desk, the one you always thought was special. The clippings tell about your classmates: the marriages, the divorces, honors attained at college, grand openings of their business ventures.
Your pilot ground-school instructor has stopped teaching in high school and now is a full-time aviation instructor. Your math and science teacher has just been re-elected mayor of Meridian. Dan’s parents have built themselves an underground survivalist house down the street and given up their dream of having an orchard in cherry country. (See what paranoia can do?)
I think you’d like to know that your brother bought a cabin off Grimes Creek, and I spend almost every weekend there. In the winter, I risk fractures in my aging bones to sled down the hill behind the cabin. In other seasons I prowl the mountain trails and am rewarded with encounters with mule deer, which look much like giant jack rabbits. I have even found a waterfall that many of the locals don’t know exists.
Your dad came away with only bruises from totaling the brown van in a dispute over the right-of-way with a semi loaded with apples. Every now and then he brings fish from his surplus catch, and there’s venison and elk in the freezer.
We continue to hope that one day you will show up on the doorstep. After all, being AWOL in peacetime should not wreck the long, productive life that could lie ahead of you.
Betty R. Matzek
In one “Peanuts” cartoon strip, Charlie Brown is depressed. He talks of suicide, but adds that if only one person said he or she loved him, it would make life worth living.
“You mean if I just said I love you,” Lucy says, “it would save your life and make you happy?”
“That’s right,” Charlie Brown tells her.
In the final frame, Lucy, her face strained, admits, “I just can’t do it!”
When I was fifteen and sixteen, my father frequently beat me for quarreling with my brother and sister, who weren’t even scolded for their part in the quarrels. A psychiatrist once told me it isn’t unusual for one child to be the family scapegoat.
My father has always been selfish, spiteful, sarcastic, and verbally abusive. I think I could overlook most of that if it weren’t for the violence, and the injustice of it.
My father has done several nice things for me over the years, and because he’s eighty-two and in poor health, I’ve thought I should write to thank him, just to ensure that I won’t regret not having done so when it’s too late.
But, like Lucy, I just can’t do it. I’d feel almost like a survivor of the German concentration camps expressing appreciation to the Nazis for furnishing her with food and shelter.
I almost shouted it out when you left. But the rain, the neighbor carrying those black sacks of trash to his curb, my daughter standing on the stairs, saying, “Mom, is dinner ready yet?” — all those things brought the silence you wished for. Later in the evening, the yells melted into tears, and I sat at the uncleared kitchen table to write. But the telephone rang. It was my ex-husband wanting to know if I had seen his hunting jacket.
And then that mood of incredible loneliness, of living in the midst of people but totally alone, encompassed me. I crumpled the paper, wrote a grocery list with the pen, and tried to forget you.
“When’s Jed getting here?” my daughter asked me, the next Friday. She had teased me about having a boyfriend, but she really loved you. I really loved you. Your leaving made this hole, a child’s missing tooth, an uprooted tree, within us.
“You knew what he was like,” my friend Sheila reminded me. She was right: I knew the things that brought you to me — the restlessness, the searching, the need to be loved — would also take you away.
Every day my letter is a different one, all as yet unwritten. If I were to write you today, I would simply say, “Love for even a moment is better than no love at all.” And put down my pen, clutch my knees to my chest, and wonder when comes the end of such loneliness.