Updated: Apr 29
“I think these are love letters,” my daughter said as she sat cross-legged on the floor of a storage unit that held the last of my parents’ belongings. We were finally cleaning it out after three years of my grief-laden procrastination. Parting with the tangible memorabilia was an economic decision. Since Dad’s death, we had been paying a monthly bill to store things my parents had parked in their own attic, which no longer made sense after we tallied the yearly storage cost. On a warm November Saturday, we sifted through the travel knickknacks purchased during Dad’s business trips, Mom’s cookbooks with dog-eared pages and notes scribbled in the margins, framed photos of relatives I didn’t recognize, and musty Christmas decorations no one wanted. We had our three piles, keep, toss, donate, two of which were almost empty. The keep pile kept growing.
“Why would they have someone else’s love letters?” I asked, and my daughter shook her head as she read.
“They aren’t someone else’s. Grammy and Papa wrote these to each other,” she said, not looking up.
I dropped a stack of photos in a box at my feet and joined her on the floor. The box was filled with envelopes that had been slit open at the top holding a letter with handwriting I immediately recognized. My husband continued to sort items into the piles while my daughter and I remained planted on the concrete floor. It took only a few minutes to realize that the letters were not sporadic. During the year 1954, my parents, newly engaged, had written to one another every day. We couldn’t find a skip in the correspondence, and some had even been air-mailed to make sure they arrived on time.
The sun was moving behind the row of attached garage units across from us, signaling that it was time to finish the sorting so that we could get to the donation center before it closed.
“Take these to your house,” I told my daughter as I put the lid on the box, “and sort them again by date.” They were out of order now, and I was feeling that familiar dark grief that creeps in slowly to remind you that the people you have lost aren’t coming back. I’ve been hit by it many times when I least expect it, but the hardest blows come when I can, see, touch or smell something that belonged to my parents. These letters contained all of that, but something else kept me from carrying the box home. I could hear their voices, young and hopeful, ready to launch a life together. I needed some time before I listened to those voices.
My daughter sorted the letters the next week and brought them back to me on a Sunday morning. That afternoon, I set the box on the dining room table and took a deep breath. Those scribbled words on paper were weaving the story of a young couple from Arkansas, eager to move on and start a life together but unsure how to make it all happen. Dad was away at college, studying horticulture but thinking about dental school. Mom was back in Van Buren, working in an optometrist’s office until the wedding, and trying to assure him that it was going to work out. Back and forth it went, both of them pouring out their fears, hopes, dreams and goals. They had a picture of their future that went something like this: a dentist and his wife living somewhere far away from the small towns where they were raised, a house full of children, and a long, healthy life that took them into old age.
Their voices were young, and Mom was uncharacteristically mushy, peppering her letters with the repetitive sentence, I love you so much I can hardly stand it. There were letters that bordered on steamy, while others just shared the news from home or the toil of college life. These people were vaguely familiar, but not exactly the parents I knew. That afternoon, I felt like a time traveler, wishing to write my own letter that warned them not to get so attached to their dreams.
It didn’t work out like they had written about in those letters. My father never did become a dentist. Or a horticulturist. He enlisted in the army and they did live far away from their hometowns, but only for a while. When his military service ended, they moved to Oklahoma and Dad took a job with the electric utility company where he stayed for 32 years. He ended up being a company man, and he loved every minute of it. That house filled with children didn’t happen either. My mother was diagnosed with Type I diabetes the next year, and the baby boy she delivered four years later was stillborn. Her doctor told her to never try for another and to consider adoption, which is how I came to live with my parents as an only child, always with a room to myself. Mom died at the age of 71 after fifty years of living with diabetes, cared for at the end of her life by Dad who drove her to dialysis and watched her suffer the final blow of double leg amputations. He was stubborn though, still dreaming of their yearly Colorado vacation, and he purchased a handicapped van so they could continue their mountain visits. She never made it there, dying in his arms two months later. She went too early, but had survived longer than most diabetics, proudly displaying her fifty-year pin from the American Diabetes Association on the fireplace mantel for the last five years of her life.
My husband and I weren’t a couple who wrote love letters. Our written correspondence in college and law school consists of apology letters after a fight or the occasional ramblings from our lonely post-graduate apartments. We preferred to talk openly – usually with my parents – about our dreams for how we wanted our shared lives to look, which included working for Amnesty International, traveling to China as missionaries, and adopting children from all over the world. There were other plans and goals scattered within those early years, and my parents listened patiently, encouraged appropriately, and took us in when the dreams didn’t work out so well – or didn’t work out at all. At the time, I was sure they thought we were crazy, but the letters are proof that they understood better than we could imagine.
Despite the surprising box of daily love letters, my parents were never very romantic, and neither are we. My husband and I eschew the commercial hype of Valentine’s Day, and I’m too frugal for the anniversary cruise. We could stand to be more vocal with our sentiments, hold hands for no reason, and maybe write a mushy letter now and then, but I don’t worry about these things. Over the past 32 years, our shared road of detours and dead ends has taught me that the best marriages are not lived out by couples who dream big together, but by the couples that stay put when dreams go unfulfilled. The marriage I want is the one where you look the other person in the eye while the storm is endlessly raging and declare, “I’m not leaving.” And then, when the clouds lift and the sun breaks out again, you dream another dream, make a few more plans, and set another crazy goal.
I keep my parents’ love letters in a decorative box in the space where I write. It reminds me how beautiful love looks when it is decades old, rough and worn, strong and doggedly determined to keep dreaming together. Sometimes, I can almost see my parents riding into the Colorado mountains in a white van with a lift gate and wheelchair in the back, maybe laughing about dental school and wondering whatever happened to the box filled with all the old love letters.