The Unbearable Lightness Of Letters

September 15, 2009

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?)

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    { 72 comments }

    Vanity's Fare September 16, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    You are so smart and wise. Truly, it’s the cultivated and manicured side of people we want to know, and so many times we try to capture people at their best so as to make ourselves look better. You are brave to stare down that facade and search for the real person. I’m taking a note.

    It’s about being real.

    Becca Smalldon September 17, 2009 at 5:27 am

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now, and my condolences go out to you and your mom.

    Throughout my life, I’ve always tended to dispose of things (and hoard them too!) I’ve gotten rid of a few cards and notes, and to a certain extent pictures, but I think I’d probably be happy with my family sorting through my things and in a sense getting to know a part of me that they didnt know before.

    Throughout the last few days reading this and everyone elses comments, I decided that I’ll write a few letters only to be opened in the event of my death for each person, husband, children etc to reassure them of my love and remind them of all the good times we had.

    there will always been unanswered questions when a loved one dies, it’s inevitable and it’s a hard and difficult time for all affected, but my thinking is that if I left personal letters for each person, it might make is less hard to deal with.
    .-= Becca Smalldon´s last blog ..4 days and counting =-.

    LAVENDULA September 17, 2009 at 11:54 am

    catherine i feel its important to have an accurate record of who we are.and its not always nice or tidy or kind etc.its makes us more interesting it makes us human.i’m sorry your mum is hurt and upset and uncomfortable by this….

    Cloud September 17, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Interestingly, I just cleaned out my “precious junk” box last week, trying to clear space for a new baby who is due soon. So I can tell you what I actually did.

    I read somewhere that you should keep the sorts of things you’d want from your own grandmother. I thought that was a useful guide. I decided that I wouldn’t find it enlightening to read love letters sent to my grandma by someone other than my grandpa, because, really- what do the love letters you receive really tell about YOU? I think they tell more about the sender. I would want letters written between my grandparents, though, since I’d know both parties.

    So, I tossed all the old love letters from anyone other than Hubby. I kept some letters I had from my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my Mom. I kept my journals from elementary school and junior high, because they were hilarious, and I would LOVE to read something similar from my grandma.
    .-= Cloud´s last blog ..A Test of My Methods =-.

    Bre September 17, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    I’ve been so, so fascinated by this subject matter (understanding your parents as whole human beings) for a while, so it’s a bit of kismet that I stumbled across your blog today. This post brought tears to my eyes. It’s so difficult to think about, whether your parents are still here on earth or they’ve passed on. I am reminded of an excellent documentary I saw a few years ago that addresses this very topic: 51 Birch Street. I was bawling by the end.

    It’s so brave of you to chronicle this very personal journey. Thank you.

    Nancy September 17, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    I am new to your blog but came in at your most sad time. I wish you much peace. I was going to weigh in the “toss” or “don’t toss” question but I knew that you had probably already made up your mind. I think you chose wisely. Get to know him better. We should all be left with this kind of special gift, warts and all.

    Jo September 18, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    I cannot verbalize why, because it’s quite a visceral feeling I get, but I feel strongly that keeping all these things is self-destructive.

    Her Bad Mother September 19, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Self-destructive to me, you mean? I’d be interested in why you think that is, if you figure out how to explain it.

    lia September 20, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    stumbled onto your site this evening after a long hiatus from blog reading (and writing) and loved this post.

    Love that you accept / respect a glimpse into your father the man.

    I have a chest filled with snippets of my past that I hope will make my daughter laugh and question and wonder about.
    .-= lia´s last blog ..- =-.

    Lurkaholic September 21, 2009 at 11:21 am

    I have some letters from a college relationship that was An Unholy Flaming Disaster. I regret a number of things about the relationship, and in general find the whole thing quite embarrassing. But those letters will stay in a shoebox under my bed forever. I never want to forget that someone loved me enough to write “you poured your breath into a purple crucible and formed the stars for me.”

    Miss Grace September 22, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    I have a rule, by which I try to abide, that I don’t write anything down that I wouldn’t want someone to read if I died.

    I don’t think that’s necessarily a good attitude, and maybe there are things that I wish I had written about, and maybe that’s a tragedy; that I don’t remember what I don’t write down and those feelings fade into the background.

    I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but I have a rule. And I don’t write things down unless I’m hypothetically okay with someone else someday reading them.
    .-= Miss Grace´s last blog ..Mira. =-.

    Mr Lady September 22, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    I know I’m late to this, but I just wanted to throw this out there for you….

    My father met and had two children with a woman shortly after my parents divorce. We’re all fairly sure the affair began before the marriage ended, but he’ll never admit to it. Years, YEARS, later, after they’d broken up and she disappeared with my two brothers and left him to marry the woman he is still married to today, I found all her old letters and pictures. He’d kept them all, also stashed away…cards, the boys drawings, naughty pictures, all of it.

    I still have them all.

    Sure, my perception of his life is partial, but that partial’s impact on my life is total. And so I keep them, because they are a part of my father and therefore my history.

    Cherish them, Cath.
    .-= Mr Lady´s last blog ..Cuarenta =-.

    Her Bad Mother September 24, 2009 at 11:53 am

    I’m going to. Thank you. :)

    Teresa September 27, 2009 at 1:52 am

    I know your mother’s anger. It’s part of her story, and so the letters have shown you a little more of her, too. As horrific as the affair was, it shaped all of their lives in some way.

    I’ve got boxes of papers – stories, songs, poems in one state of completion or another. I know that some of them are really lame. I know that some of them are really wonderful. And I know that some of them could be really hurtful if they were ever read by the people at whom they were directed. I’ve meant to go through them for years, now – to compile the useful and interesting into something worth reviewing, and to weed out the things that should be gotten rid of, but I haven’t yet and I don’t know if I ever will. That means that if I die in the near future, my toddler son may inherit a glut of information both relevant and not, and he’ll have to interpret it on his own to decide what it means to him and to his perception of me. Or someone may go through it before him and edit what he sees. Or it may all be thrown out. I haven’t left instructions, and I’m not sure that I ought to.

    But I know that I have always sought to understand my parents and ancestors as if they were my contemporaries. I want to know how they looked and acted when they were rebelling against their parents, when they started their careers, when they found the people they would eventually marry. I know I will inherit the house I was raised in, with its half-century of memorabilia from two generations before me, and I don’t want anyone else to decide what of it I get to know about them from it.

    Dharma September 28, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    I cringe when I think about the letters, the journals, the words I’ve burned and torn and shredded and ripped and abandoned to the wind.

    Never again.

    Almost 10 years ago, I performed a whole “cleansing ritual” that included burning love letters from the beginnings of a teenage romance. I felt that carrying them with me through adulthood was obstructing the open space in my life where new love and new experience might move in. Eight years after that ritual, I gave birth to a little girl — her father the very author of those same letters I’d burned so many years before, never believing they’d ever be significant to anyone ever again.

    I wish, wish, wish I had those letters today — even though my husband and I are divorcing. I wish I could wrap them back in their ribbon and save them for my little girl so that she might know, one day, how much her daddy and I loved each other.

    Words are sacred. Letters are landmarks and touchstones. I would no sooner destroy another letter than I would advocate the banning of a book. I am glad you chose to save your father’s letters, even knowing how painful it is for your mother. I believe we grow through pain, even if we don’t realize it for some time after the hurting stops.

    My sympathy and condolences for you and your family.

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