Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writing from the Heart

My mother moved to a retirement community a couple of years ago, vacating the home in which she had lived for 60 years. In the process of that move, I inherited from her a few pieces of furniture, including the cedar chest that had sat at the foot of her bed for my entire life. I recently peeked into that chest and found a treasure trove. Nothing of particular value to anyone else, but something of inestimable worth to me: a bundle of love letters from my father to my mother, written faithfully, daily, during the summer of 1947. They have been bundled up with a piece of string and look pretty much undisturbed, so I have to assume that they have not been touched more than once or twice in the past 66 years, if at all.

I never much knew my father, as he died of a brain tumor in 1967. He was 44; I was 6. I am already 9 years older than he ever got to be. As was the custom in 1967, nobody spoke much about a parent's death to the kids; my memory is that he died and we pretty much just acted like he had never existed in the first place.  So you can see, perhaps, why finding this stash of letters has been a balm to me. It's finally an opportunity to get to know a little bit about the big question-mark-where-the-parent-goes.

My father was a wonderful writer, and evidently quite besotted with my mother in 1947; I learned from this evening's round of letters that they had gotten "pinned" a mere four months earlier. My mother was on a 6 week vacation to the Pacific Northwest, where her parents were from, and my father wrote her faithfully of his roommates, his tennis exploits, his classes at SMU law school, and the 104+-degree temperatures. (I will try to remember during these approaching dog days that while Dallas has always been hot in August, people have not always had the luxury of air conditioners.) Every letter ends with how much he misses her - although of course he wants her to continue having a wonderful time. My father, Henry, wrote eloquently, with a delightful facility with the English language and a lovely vocabulary, and in probably 30 letters (I've made it through about half of them so far), there has been only one incidence of his striking out a word to replace it with another. I marvel at his process, knowing how many times I backspace to get a word or phrase even close to "right."

And the woman he was writing to is also someone I never knew. I suppose none of us can quite imagine the people our parents were before life and their children turned them into people they didn't intend to become. But the 19-year-old young lady Henry so longed for bears little resemblance to the woman I have known as my mother and is all but unrecognizable to me. Perhaps that young woman died in 1967, too, in a sense. Pondering this courtship 60-some years after the fact leaves me wondering what my own young adult children would make of similar correspondence, if I had any to show them. More and more, I am awed by this treasure I have discovered, and by the small oasis of family history it represents in an otherwise pretty emotionally arid relational landscape.

Reading my father's letters reminds me again of my six-year-old self and how I was robbed of the opportunity to get to know this man. I wonder how I made it through second grade; I don't remember that year at all. School is starting up again in just a few weeks, and you'll have kids in your class who have been robbed of things, too. Students will come to you from wonderfully functioning homes and from homes where someone is facing serious mental or physical illness or where someone is being actively abused. They will come from homes of monetary plenty and from homes of deep financial insecurity. And they will come to you with varying degrees of learned or innate resilience, or anger, or anxiety, or optimism, or some weird combination of all of the above, and then some. Many will not be equipped to talk to you about trauma they have experienced; many will tell you far more than you really want to know.

My father wrote from his heart, just as I have done here this evening. The things that come from our hearts mean something to us. My hope for anyone reading "these feeble words of ink and page" (as my pastor says each week) is that you will find a way to help your students connect to something deep within their hearts, and that their passions and joys and fears will somehow find a voice in this sometimes scary but nevertheless wonderful world we live in.

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