Letters – Part II

One of my biggest concerns in writing my memoir is what family and friends will think about some of the deeply personal things I am writing. Though we presented ourselves as a “perfect” family (thank goodness there was no Facebook back then!) we were far from it–as are most families.

We had problems, some that trickled down through the generations, but I love both my mother and father and have always believed they did the best they could with what they had. Though I think our story might hold some value to others, if only to my future generations, I feel protective of my parents and my siblings, which makes it hard to push forward with our story.

Perhaps you’ll understand why with this condensed excerpt from my memoir-in-progress:

Misfires

I pressed my pillow against the car window and leaned my head into its feathery softness. Sleepy, but in a half-awake state, I wondered once again. What would prompt my mother to drive to a lake in the pre-dawn hours, her station wagon packed with five kids who’d rather be tucked in our beds at home?

Not our station wagon, but it looked just like this.

Cigarette smoke drifted from the front seat of the car as Mom pushed in one of her favorite 8-track tapes. This time, it was Tom Jones singing his sorrowful song, “Without You.” I’d heard it so many times I’d memorized every single word and began to sing along in my head.

Without you, there can be no tomorrow.

No more rainbows to follow

If you should go.

My siblings and I often found relief from surreptitious stresses with humor, so, as if watching a drive-in movie, I giggled to myself at the absurdity of the scene and its accompanying musical score. Throughout our childhoods and even into our adulthood, my siblings and I laughed plenty about some of the crazy things our mother did, a release directly proportional to stress, uncertainty or helplessness.

But at twelve, I was on the cusp of teenagerhood and all the passions and longings that arrive with it—the crushes, the desire for acceptance. As the humor faded, I began to have an awareness that beneath the silliness of these drives to the lake, somewhere in Tom Jones’s mournful melodies, lurked something sad and dark.

I felt helpless to do anything about it and certainly could never have asked my mother about it.

But I did plenty of wondering.

Was it because she missed my father when he was away on his trips? Or did she resent being left behind—the taskmaster to five children, while my dad was the knight in shining armor upon his returns home?

There were plenty of times she’d complained about his leaving–yelling or crying about his going off to some exotic land again while she was left behind with five kids.

“Looks like you’ll be working pretty hard with that tennis racket you’re packing,” she’d protest, pointing to the suitcase on their bed.

Usually, Dad was stoic, like a slow-moving assembly line, moving his clothes from the bed to the suitcase, bed to the suitcase. Occasionally, he’d reply with a simple, “Honey, you know I have no choice. This is my job.”

I, too, made my unhappiness known, once. Just once.

Life was always better when my father was home. Maybe because my mother was happier. Or maybe because when he was home, he’d share the responsibilities of five children. Whatever the reason, she didn’t spend so much time in bed. We ate meals together. The laundry was done. We felt “normal.”

And we didn’t take midnight drives to the lake.

When my dad was home, the house “hummed” like a well-tuned engine.

So, I always felt sad in the days preceding his departure, knowing our “well-tuned engine” would begin to misfire and stall when he walked out the door.

One day, my sadness spilled out as snark. “You’re just leaving because you don’t want to be around us,” I sassed.

A whack. A sting. A burn on my cheek. Like a hungry mouse, I’d wandered too close to the trap. It snapped. Hard. I stared at my father in disbelief. He’d never slapped me before, and to my recollection, he never slapped me again.

Grabbing his hand, he turned away. “Don’t you ever say that to me again.”

Still, I never completely got the thought out of my head. It must have felt good to get away from the chaos of our home. After all, I often wished for it myself.

But I never verbalized it again.

When I first wrote that passage, I hesitated to “let the world know” about those “silly” midnight drives to the lake. I hesitated to expose my dad for slapping me across the face. All the little dysfunctions of my family.

But, as I’ve begun to read and sort the letters in the box my mother gave me decades ago, it’s as if both my mother and father are continuing to speak to me, explain to me, teach me–even though they are both gone now.

They were not just our parents. They were human beings. A young couple with struggles, longings, pain, desires, and problems that often interfered with, if not overwhelmed their parenting.

Following are just a couple of excerpts out of the dozens of letters from 1957-1974:

These excerpts give a glimpse into but one of the challenges they faced as a married couple–the frequent separations due to my father being in the Air Force.

Their letters have shown me their human experience of loneliness, insecurities, money problems, desires, challenges brought by my siblings and me, anger, hurt, but most of all, love and longing, written in page upon page over decades when often, all I saw was the yelling and screaming between the two of them as their marriage deteriorated, and the migraine headaches that kept my mom in bed for years.

As a teenager, I must admit that all I cared about was how all of that impacted me. When I first started writing my memoir, the “voice” in the story was that of the teenage girl who wished her parents were more “normal,” more “perfect.”

These letters are a gift–a treasure, really. The words shared in them over the decades have brought tears to my eyes, especially as I go back and listen to all those songs we used to laugh about on our drives to the lake. Now, as an adult who has loved and lost, I understand these two people beyond their role as my parents.

I still worry about over- and openly sharing such deeply personal stories and letters. I’ve been told by mentors to just write the story without concern for what others may think of it–easier said than done. But my mother gave me these letters for a reason. And before my father died, I asked him how he would feel if I told our story honestly. He told me to do it. He had nothing to hide.

I hope, with all of the flaws and sins of my past, I can one day say the same to my children.

In Part III, I’ll write about a 48-year old secret — a huge surprise I found among the letters.

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11 Responses to Letters – Part II

  1. Meg Dendler says:

    I love that you are working on this!

    Meg

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kathi Holden says:

    Your story intrigues me because my family was far from perfect as well. Keep writing! It’s good for the soul ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Kathi. Isn’t it true that none of our families were perfect? As difficult as it is to share these imperfections, I do believe it’s in the sharing such “secrets” that we learn how similar we all really are. See you soon!

      Like

  3. What a blessing that these letters showed you another side of the difficulties your parents faced and how hard they worked at overcoming them. I understand your reluctance to write about such personal things. I’ve often though of that when I read old journals which sometimes make me cringe at my own feelings and thoughts. Would I want our daughters to read them? That’s a tough one. My parents both passed away withing the last seven months and we’ve found some letters that are also interesting as well as finding my baby book, which I didn’t even know existed. If you think of it, look at how writers in the Bible bared their souls and how that helps us today. 🙂

    janet

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jan Morrill says:

      I’m so sorry to hear about both of your parents passing. I know how tough this last year must have been on your, but I’m glad you were able to spend their last couple of years with them. I agree, it’s really tough to consider being open with our children about our own cringe-worthy pasts. It took a lot of courage for my mom to give these letters to me, but I’m grateful I did. I hope I can be so brave and humble one day, but we’ll see. Take care. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I just finished reading a couple of my Grandfather’s letters to his widowed mother. At age 19, left for Calfornia and worked two years on a farm near Visalia. His letters speak of his homesickness.
    March 14, 1913
    “I have been here 2 years today and it doesn’t seem like 2 weeks hardly, and sometimes it seems like 10 years.” and “I don’t feel very good. Will write more next time. I don’t think I’ll be out here this next year this time. When a fellow gets a little bit sick he thinks of home then. I’m still a baby I guess. The boys call me that once in a while, but I still weigh 161 yet.” – Huston

    I chuckled when I read his comment about the weight. He came home about two months after this letter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jan Morrill says:

      What a special glimpse into the history of your past! California was have felt like a world away back then. When I think of how different our past generations lives were, without email, FaceTime, Zoom, etc., when they had to wait weeks between letters, it make me wonder how different everything would have turned out, if they’d had what we have now, and take so for granted. Still, I do think much was lost when we quit handwriting letters. Few emails I’ve ever received have such expression of feeling, of sharing the day-to-day goings ons. I’m glad you also have such treasures!

      Like

  5. Marshall says:

    This is very interesting as I know or remember little about these years of my youth. I was the only boy and the girls (sisters three only) were very frustrating as friends in these years my parents were always in step with their own lives and us kids were always in the way. It was just frustrating to keep step when dad was not able to connect or lead and mom was somehow overwhelmed by it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jan Morrill says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Marshall. In reading these letters, I’ve found I’d either forgotten a lot, or remembered things differently. I am the oldest of five–four girls, and my youngest brother. Though we’re much closer now, I’m sure my brother would also say we were “frustrating as friends.” I’m always amazed how how similar many of our lives were, even if we all seemed “perfect’ to the outside world.

      Like

  6. Anonymous says:

    Liked by 1 person

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