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15 Sep

The Unbearable Lightness Of Letters

A friend called me, last week, after I’d written about struggling through the process of sorting through some of my father’s papers.

“After my aunt died,” she said, “after we went through all of her things, I immediately went home and dug up all the old love letters from old boyfriends and notes and letters and things that even mention my old love life and tore them to shreds. I just don’t want my husband and kids to ever see them. I don’t want to die and have them find them. I just don’t.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know what you mean.” I do know what she meant. But also, I don’t. I understand the impulse to protect – if that’s what one is doing – one’s loved ones from the full force of one’s history, as this is recorded in letters and notes and photographs. What I don’t know is, whether that impulse is the right one.

Finding, in my father’s effects, love letters from a woman with whom he had an affair was, for me, a stinging and startling experience, even though I’d known about the affair. It was much worse for my mother, who wrote, after reading my post, that finding and reading the letters was like being being slashed to pieces with a razor blade. She was upset that I could even contemplate keeping the letters. She was angry – briefly – that they were, to me, sacred artifacts – relics providing insight into those parts of my father that I didn’t know well – rather than articles of destruction, evidence of pain. “Children,” she wrote, “must realize that their memories (of their parents) are only a small bit of reality.”

But this is precisely the point, and the problem: my understanding of my father – who I was as close to as I can imagine a daughter to be – was necessarily only partial. I only knew him as my father. I could observe him as a husband, as a friend, as a community leader, as a professional, as a man, but these observed identities were always obscured by what was to me his primary identity as Dad. He was first and always and overwhelmingly Dad. So, yes, my memories of him – my experience of him – represent only a small part of the reality that was Steven Connors. Which is why I have seized and hoarded every clue, every testament, every little thing – every letter, every inscribed book, every journal entry, every photograph, every note, every thing he treasured or valued or just felt compelled to keep – as a source of insight into the man who was my father. In part because I love him too much to let him go, and am clinging to him. In part because I believe that it is an act of love, to seek to know someone as fully as one can. In part because I believe that he was extraordinary, and so that he should be known, and that I will be enriched by knowing him better. In part because I believe that in understanding him, I will come to a better understanding of myself. Because as well as I knew him, I only knew him partially, incompletely. I want to know him better.

So I cling to and study the journals and the letters and the photographs and the suicide notes and the drafts of plans for the robot and for the computerized wheelchair for Tanner and for the house in the woods that he always wanted to build and the scribbled poems and aphorisms and affirmations and the scrawled regrets and the sketches and the artwork and the old bus passes and dead butterflies and dried three-leaf clovers that he kept for some unfathomable reason (my mother, wrily: “maybe the THREE-leaf clover explain his bad luck”) and all the little bits and pieces of paper and random ephemera that will tell me more about who he was. I don’t know if he would have wanted this. I know that part of him would have recoiled from the hurt that some of these things would cause me – what father wants his daughter to know how often he contemplated suicide? – but I also know that he would have understood the impulse to nosce te ipsum and understood that knowing thyself requires, to some degree, knowing thy parents. My father and I shared a love of journal-keeping  and of storytelling and of genealogy, broadly understood. We shared a love of seeking through narrative. And so I think that he would have wanted this. I think that he would have – freed from the awkwardness of sitting across the dinner table and providing his own live narration – wanted me know him, to understand him, to draw out fully, his story, and to learn from it.

Someday, I will want my own children to know me better, to know the stories, to know the woman, to know that I was far, far more than just mom and wife, to know that the partiality of their experience and memory concealed details that they possibly couldn’t have imagined. And (or?), perhaps, to discover (as I have also done, in some important part), that they did know me, that they did understand me, and that all the partially hidden details, once brought to light, just reveal nuance and insight. Understanding.

Which is why I will never destroy my own narrative record. Which is why I will treasure my dad’s. Which is why I will keep recording these – telling these – stories. Even when it stings, even when it hurts.

(Will you do the same with yours? Or is there a shredder in your future?)