Sunday, September 11, 2005

A Birthday Revelation

In less than a month, my mother will celebrate her 80th birthday.

It's also been more than 30 years since my father died.

I was nine at the time, and since then my "memories" of my parents' relationship have been built on the few true memories I had - added to a mix of stories from my brothers, a few urban myths, and my own projections. None of these were overly positive reflections.

For example, I can't ever recall my parents showing any display of affection - public or private. No holding hands, no kissing, no romantic looks, no giggles. In many cases only frustration and arguments. In the years since my father's death, I have built the belief that these things were chalked up to my mother's growing up in the Depression and her old-world German heritage - her nature had always been (I was certain) stoic, stubborn and stiff.

My father was the fun-loving, energetic, full-of-life personality. He danced, he sang, he wrote, he taught. Everyone loved him. How he had wound up with a woman who so obviously couldn't return his affections was a question I could never answer. Didn't he understand that marrying someone who couldn't show emotion would be daunting and draining? Maybe after being on the front lines in France and Germany in WWII he thought he was up for the challenge.

My brothers' memories seemed to corroborate this belief and it was always disappointing to me that it appeared the German in her wouldn't allow the expression of any emotion other than anger. It's no wonder that dad became a workaholic and their marriage didn't seem affectionate. The lack of romance and emotion would break even the strongest of men.

Then, as if by fate, while sneaking through a box of old photos at my mother's house, so I could create an album for her birthday celebration, I came across a hidden stash of old notecards - dated 1949. It was evident these were the saved communiques from a soon-to-be bride to her betrothed.

Hesitant to intrude on private memories, I was nonetheless convinced there wouldn't be much enlightening in them either. These would simply be formal communications, in a formal tongue - no doubt distant and proper.

But something caught my eye in the handwriting, so I opened it carefully and read on...
Monday Evening

Hi Honey,

I'm so lonesome for you right now I could die. I'm sitting up on my bed propped up with pillows, in a pair of shorts, a shirt, and specs. Spent my first afternoon of the season barefooted. Anyway my heart's been aching ever since you left last night. I felt so darned miserable I almost cried when eleven o'clock, then eleven thirty rolled around and you hadn't called, even though I honestly didn't expect the telephone to ring. And even now big tears are rolling out of the corners of my eyes as I write to you. On the Firestone program they just played "My Love Loves Me" and "The Wedding March." Now I think there are more raindrops inside this house than outside. I have never felt more in love with you than I do at this moment. Wish I had you here right now so I could sit on your lap and squeeze you tight and look in your eyes. Oh, am I in a dreamy mood.

Let's get married. I can't stand this much longer. My heart is pounding harder than usual, my eyes are now red and swollen, and there's a lump in my throat. If only I could reach out and grab you, I'd never let you go. Gee, you're a wonderful boy. Will you forgive me for all the times I've been selfish and hurt your feelings? Guess I've really been difficult at times and could kick myself for hurting someone as nice as you. There's no one else in the world like you. What did I ever do to deserve to be the girl you picked to marry? You are a darling if there ever was one. I feel about the same way you do I guess.

Without you life would have no meaning for me. Please be careful so nothing happens to you. I worry about you so much. Good night, Sweetheart, I'll be dreaming about you.

I love you very much
As a child, it is difficult to accept that what you believe in may be wrong.

As an adult, it's even harder. And to realize that something in one of your strongest held beliefs of the past 35 years is most definitely askew is nothing less than earth-shattering.

The words I had read were my mother's. It's hard to express how far removed this letter is from the stoic, stubborn and stiff image in my head. It's not the mother I thought I knew, nor the mother I thought I had always had. In fact it opens up an entirely new traumatic question for me - what really did happen in my parents' relationship that 20 years after this note was written, my parents acted in the way my mind remembers them?

I may never know. But one thing is clear. My mother may have been (and still is) stubborn, but she was far from emotionless, and she was most definitely in love with my father.

So if anyone deserves a Happy Birthday, it's mom.



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