Lessons for children from their parents' past
My sisters and I struggled through piles of clothes, boxes and boxes of books, old dishes, pots and pans, a basement full of the detritus from two lives joined for more than 60 years in marriage. Cleaning out the house where we’d lived since 1963 was hard. It hurt.
We packed. We sorted. We threw away old magazines, discolored paperwork, and faded photographs. We hauled carloads of stuff to Goodwill. We gave items to each grandchild and great-grandchild and took what mementos were important to us.
But opening Mother’s special box and reading her love letters was altogether different. It was dusty, tied with an old white satin ribbon, and stashed on the top shelf of her closet. It probably hadn’t been opened since 1952. Why did I feel compelled to open Mother’s box now and read the letters she had kept so long?
Because they were both gone and I missed them. Because I wanted to know about our family history. Because I was curious as to how two such different people could have fallen in love six decades ago. The only way I would get those answers now was to read those letters.
Would you read your parents’ love letters?
Did I really want to see intimate passages that cast our parents as young lovers?
Ugh. What child — of any age — wants to think about their parents being passionate? Would reading love letters be nasty? Surely Daddy wouldn’t write to Mother about sex? Would I find out things I didn’t want to know about my parents when they were young, in their early 20s, and in love?
I remembered all too clearly when my ex-husband and I had been young and “in love.” We wrote letters while he was at college taking summer school and I was home working as I dreamed of our upcoming wedding, a future, a family. Would I want anyone else to read the letters we had written in that love-struck stage of life? No way.
Were Daddy’s letters to Mother a treasure trove or a Pandora’s box?
What happened when I read my dad’s love letters to my mom?
My curiosity got the best of me. My hands may have trembled as I opened the crimson box that Mother had kept for as long as I could remember, but nerves didn’t stop me. The earth didn’t move. Secrets didn’t spill out. Intimate details weren’t mentioned and no steamy passages besmirched my memory of my parents.
Every day for four months, Daddy wrote to Mother when they were just Mel and Molly, not yet our parents. They were two young people in love and planning for a future together. Daddy was working in Southern Indiana, building a little house for them while Mother was finishing up at IU.
I decided to transcribe those letters for my sisters and me. In the process, I got a deeper understanding of Daddy as a young, unmarried man. Down-to-earth. Honest. Sweet. Yes, they’re “love letters’ of a sort, but they’re also family history, filled with humor, hope, and love.
Lessons from a consummate letter-writer
An unknown baby cousin must have died and not been mentioned again, but as a baby, he was mentioned in a letter. I learned that Daddy’s family lived on the same lane and that he was very close to his siblings.
Signs of the times
“Well, Molly, guess I’ll stay home tonight and read my new “Life.” See why Al Capp let poor ole ‘lil Abner get caught by Daisy Mae.”
Al Capp wrote the comic strip “Lil’ Abner.” Life was a popular magazine known for its great photos and general interest stories.
“I feel kind of lost tonight. No Molly. It would have seemed like the most natural thing in the world tonight to keep going down the lane to our “blue Heaven.”
For the rest of his life, Daddy would occasionally hum a stanza from the song “Blue Heaven,” a popular song that eventually was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“You find a cozy place, fireplace, cozy room A little nest that nests where the roses bloom Just Molly and me, and the baby makes three We’re happy in my blue heaven.”
“Pardon the envelope. It’s all I could find. There’s nothing like polka dots for a casual effect. Absolutely nothing.”
Daddy’s sense of humor never faltered.
“Dad and I went back to our house and cut the grass, mowed the high weeds, and cleaned out the fence row. It’s beginning to look real neat. Honey, I’ll be so glad when we get settled in that little white house. How could anyone help but be happy?”
Children can never appreciate their parents for who their parents are as individuals. My sisters and I had seen them through most stages of their lives, building careers, making a home, raising us, scraping together the funds to send us to college, working every day at demanding jobs, vacationing, retiring. We never pictured them as a love-struck young couple. Through these letters, I realized how intensely Daddy had loved my mother, calling her “my dearest darling.”
“I keep telling myself, ‘Are you sure this is happening to you? Are you sure you didn’t just dream it?” No man can be so much in love with one woman, but, oh, Molly, it’s happened, and I love you so very much and miss you so terribly. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
One more thing came through in reading those letters
Daddy was a writer. He may not have claimed to be, but his authenticity vibrates in every word. Daddy’s words were preserved in pen and pencil strokes from 1952, and you can “hear” him as clearly as if he were standing right next to you talking about swimming, tennis, the weather, gardening, yard work, but most of all, of the hope he has for their future.
It was a powerful lesson: when you write like yourself, you sound like yourself, and your voice is preserved — like a dinosaur DNA in amber — for ages to come.
Reading those letters just emphasized that people don’t change. Daddy’s personality was the same at the age of 25 as it was at 85. The nature of true love doesn’t change either.
What I had feared would be “icky” reading, turned out to be uplifting and enlightening, an intimate glimpse into the start of a love that lasted 62 years.
My dad was a lovable guy. Read more about him in "My Father's Life-Long Secret to a Good Attitude."
For other stories about the beauty of human nature, check out "Heartfelt Stories."