By now, the zip of packing tape unnerved my spine. Cardboard dust skimmed my skin. We had one last room of my parents’ house to go.
“Let’s get this over with.” I handed my sister a box.
The oversized room used for Christmas decorations and the edgy books, not fit for the family bookcase, was packed. My energy drained. “We’ll donate this to the church?” I toed a red sleigh to clear a path to the back.
My sister prodded the woven rope that decorated their banister every December. “The Girls’ Club, maybe?”
I stepped over boxes to get the hammered metal angel I’d given Mom during her first cancer. Plopping amid garland strands, my sister lifted the lid to a shoebox.
“Put it down, sissy.” I had a three-hour drive back to North Carolina. No way would I tackle Mom’s 20th-century receipts now.
Enmeshed in the contents, Robin ignored me.
Silence isn’t my sister’s way, nor mine. We should be twins. We have our secret language. We finish each other’s sentences. But, silence? Not in our vocabulary since before we were born. Even then, we’d probably talked non-stop inside our mother’s belly. Complete sentences too.
“Robin, I’m working here.”
“Letters,” she replied.
A mechanized caroler dressed in a burgundy gown, trimmed in white fluff, stared at me. They creeped me out even more plugged in. “Go through the box at home.”
My sister waved a stack of yellowed envelopes, the small kind used for correspondences. “From Dad to Mom.”
It’s interesting how we remember our pasts. Some of us have seen our parents flirt later in life and remain interested in what the other says. Some lean on friendship they’ve grown each and every day. Others move into agenda, appearance, and dare I say, performance. Many of us have divorced parents who rarely speak. Our parents, like many, worked so long on building a business and serving causes they’d merged into working partners.
“They’re love letters.”
I snatched the letter out of her hand. My parents wrote love letters?
The return address read, “Frankie.” Only two people in my life called my dad that name. One was his sister, JoAnne, a fierce beauty with spunk and Jesus. The other was my Great Aunt Betty, with Marilyn Monroe hair and big blue eyes. The word sugar for most of us names a product. For Aunt Betty, it was her pet name. She tasted the word as she spoke it. “Frankie. Su…garrrrr.”
Yet Dad had referred to himself as Frankie to my mother? This was the same man who signed college notes to me with his initials, FLL ?
I unfolded thin-tissue paper, headlined with the Navy ship he was on, the U.S.S. Minos (ARL-14). My dad wrote to my mom:
“You have a crazy way of ending your letters, the ending makes me warm up like mad. Then I get to thinking about how nice it would be to be with you.”
For those reading now begging me to stop, sorry. Yes, it’s disturbing to ruminate on parents as romantic, physical creatures. Yet, I counted this as joy to know my parents, my father in particular, desired to be with my mother. Fifty-five years of marriage did a lot to them. How could it not to any of us?
For the last 40 years of my parents’ life, I’d seen the agenda, the team work, the physical travails directing their marriage. It lightened me to see their beginning. My father missed my mother. For as long as I could remember, Dad was self-sufficient and self-confident. This man? Oft-kiltered, he needed to impress my mom.
“Just what kind of dancing did you want me to teach you? Jitterbug, mambo, tango, waltz, sambo, foxtrot….did I ever tell you about being a dance instructor? I’d doubt you’d be interested.”
During his school years, Dad took girls to visit his grandmother, who owned the only radio in Lime Hill. Great Grannie Sug would teach them to dance. Only my petite great-grandmother could scare the obedience into my father. Then, Dad met Mom. She loved to dance. They loved to dance together. I hadn’t considered this, but for this letter.
“Sure would like to see those eyes again. You know, they glow in the dark.”
“Put me on the list for all Christmas dates.”
“…after the first hours of one of our dates…we should have been married according to calculations 2 hours before the date started.”
Early in his twenties, Dad was photographed, shimming up a ship’s mast. All lean and Navy lanky. His cap made his ears appear larger than they were. I hung this black and white in my teenage bedroom, alongside the one of his ship. In his letters to Mom, Dad counted the days until his “term” was over: “Nine more months and twenty seven days,” in February, 1955, and “88 days and 4½ hours” in September.
It was a longing for our mother and home my sister and I had never heard from our father. By the time we were able to remember, that voice had hushed, squelched by hard work and four kids in five years.
Our version of The Notebook had come to life. Robin and I took turns reading tidbits of the letters. As the sun turned the corner over my parents’ house, we folded the precious papers back into their envelopes. Something sweet meets loss when years of struggle are layered with the first breaths of love.
“Got to go, Robin.” I’d have to stop in Wytheville for a half-café to make it home. My husband had entered an ‘off’ time in his Parkinson’s. My young adults didn’t need to deal with that.
“Just one more.”
She sleeved the letter, then lidded the box. “I’ll put them in a book.”
“One for each of us.” I’d snuggle up on my grandmother’s couch and read the story of my parents who’d met in the aftermath of the Korean War. “They’d been thrown out, if you hadn’t looked.” I hugged her. “Thanks for slowing me down.” Thanks for reminding me love exists in the midst of agenda, I should have said. Thanks for reminding me how Mom cried for two years after Dad past. Then she left this world, tears her love letters to Dad.
Love is far more than what I’ve idolized. Candlelight, perfect conversation, and sex, even love letters, are jolly good fun and part of the story. But might not love be found in a couple’s willingness to stay together through thick and thin? Storming through the hardships that are inevitable?
Love is patient, an ancient text says. Love endures all things. Love sticks through the worst. It’s doing the dishes in the sink at midnight, the screaming teenager flinging her car keys, the husband glancing at a younger woman. Love waits for the better when it might not come. Love prays for a spouse, when it would be easier to divorce. Love stays in the disease that washes brackish waters over a spouse’s mind. Love tamps down the inner Springsteen that takes a wrong turn and keeps going.
If I could write letters to my younger self, that’s what I’d tell her about true love. Love clutches the heart and requires everything. Love sticks because it’s bigger than a Hollywood romance or a no-fault divorce. It’s iron sharpening iron. Swords fly. Concerned voices whisper in the still hours before dawn. My parents’ marriage ebbed and flowed like the Mendota River, as many marriages do, when we’re honest. Highs and lows, hot and cold. Love letters and cold war.
“Sorry I didn’t make it home the other weekend—reason the ship went to sea—I had to go along.”
“Goodnight, get plenty of sleep. Be sweet as usual.”
In the end, Mom and Dad were together. As only two people nearing the end of life can, they danced.
“I’ve got to close for now. Answer real soon sweetheart.”
I love you. Frankie.”