“Your letter arrived just in time,” my father wrote after his retirement in 1977, “I needed something to do. You must hate it when I write back so soon. Well, anyway, here goes.”
He would then record family news, describe his day, or share anecdotes from his life: “So there I was, fresh off a freight train in Amarillo, Texas, sixteen, and broke. One day I saw an Uncle Sam poster that said, ‘I want you.’ Being very hungry, I thought the old boy could have me. That’s how I ended up in the army.”
His letters ended abruptly, sometimes in mid-sentence as though he’d run out of words. He signed off as Father, never bothering with sincerely or love. Once he wrote, “Your Father,” then added, “I must have been thinking you don’t know whose father I am.”
I had the foresight to save his letters; and last winter, missing him, I reread them and discovered bits and pieces that told a story.
He frequently reflected on the “stellar qualities that made your dear mother a heck of a woman.” He mentioned her intelligence, “the smartest woman I ever knew,” and her skills, “She could make anything she put her mind to.” Once he delighted me with this: “Your mother left this morning with some friends to go to Salt Lake. She whipped up a fabulous pantsuit to wear. I swear she looked like whistle-bait.”
The following appeared in a letter for my birthday: “Your mother never had a single one of her nine babies when I had to miss work to be there. She always had remarkable self control.”
He respected Mom’s opinions, ideas, and most of her suggestions. “I’m getting my pension checks now, and I’m starting to feel like a bloated plutocrat. So I shined my alligator shoes, put on my $20.00 Hagar slacks with my brown sports shirt, and strolled Main Street with my stomach hanging over my belt ever so slightly. When I came home, your mother told me I had to do something about my belly. She’s my only boss now. I like it when she tells me what to do because she’s usually right.”
He enjoyed Mom’s company: “Your mother and I get along well. I seem to be laughing a lot. She’s either really funny or I’m turning daft.”
After Mom died, he continued to mention her regularly: “I’ve thought about moving, but I don’t think selling this house would be right. I can look anywhere in it and see something your dear mother made, and when I go to church, all the woodwork by the podium was stained and finished by her. How could I leave all that?”
He’d been alone for seven years when he commented, “I have good kids and grandkids. Even the ones with nutty haircuts would do anything for me. I’m living the life of Riley. Your mother being gone is the only fly in my ointment.”
Dad believed with all his heart that he and Mom would be reunited when he died — if he behaved: “I got Christmas cards from two old widows in town. They are both sturdy women, but I feel no need to call in the reserves. I’m fine by myself, except for trying to figure out how to quit swearing, which would increase my odds of getting back with your dear mother. Any suggestions would be appreciated.”
And finally: “I’d like to visit Barbara in Alaska again and go to Norway where my ancestors came from if I live long enough. And if I don’t, I’ll be with your mother. So it looks good for me either way.”
I wanted to spend time with my dad by re-reading his letters, and, in doing so, I discovered a love story written in his words.