I didn't know my father until I read his love letters to my mother

If I had to count, I’d say my father spoke 20 paragraphs to me in his lifetime.

Communication was not his strong suit. When I was 22, he died at the age of 59, which once seemed old. But now that I’m 54, I realise he died young, with so much left unsaid.

When he had a few drinks in him, he talked a little more and could be funny. But most of the time, Daddy kept his “trap shut” – one of his few expressions, usually aimed at my mother.

Gregarious and fun, she is the one who always filled in the blanks that Daddy left. Now 88, she loved to dance and write when she was a teenager – qualities I was sure attracted my taciturn dad.

We knew Daddy loved us, but not by his words: He worked in a frozen food warehouse in New Jersey, at a job he probably hated (though he never talked about it), to feed his family with his working man’s pay cheque – and with the lobster and steaks that would “fall off the back” of the delivery trucks.

Because we never had an adult conversation, I wondered, as I grew older, what made him tick.

Then I discovered the valentines.

One recent afternoon, my mother casually mentioned letters he had written her when he was in the Marine Corps before they were married.

Love letters? She pulled a pillow case from her hope chest; inside was a tattered red cardboard box filled with 15 letters, three valentines and a crushed Whitman’s Sampler whose chocolates she’d polished off more than 70 years ago.

They were the first valentines she had ever received.

I took the yellowed letters and cards home and read through them carefully, as if attempting to crack the code to a long-ago encrypted military transmission. I was shocked by the verbose and expressive teenager I found.

Right in front of me was my parents’ courtship in black, white, red and pink.

The first letter, dated Feb 8, 1947, is a one-page note typed on onionskin. Daddy complains about the bitter below-zero days outside his barracks in Scotia, New York.

“I haven’t got anything to say except that I love you,” he writes.

A few weeks later, he brags about getting a new stripe and becoming a corporal, but swears my mother to secrecy, since he wants to surprise his friends back home. Then, near the end, he asks, “Do you love me?”

I’m not sure what my mother was saying in response, since he didn’t save her letters. But when I asked, she said she loved him, but loved her freedom more. She was only 16 and wasn’t ready to commit. He was a bit older, but a baby himself at 19.

I know from old photos that my handsome dad took her to the prom in his dress uniform, but it seems that she was still holding back her affections.

Weeks later, he says: “I’m pretty sure I know what those three words are that you have in your mind, suppose you tell me what they are.”

Some sort of fight followed, because by February, he is asking for her forgiveness.

“Whatever I said to make you feel bad, please forgive me. I still love you. In fact I love you more now than I did before.” He signs off by asking desperately, “Do you love me? Why?”

It’s the “why?” that really killed me. My father, so strong and silent all the time, was this sensitive, insecure soul inside his Marine blues and, later, that warehouse uniform.

Now that I knew him better, I missed and grieved for him even more. I wanted him here to draw him out and laugh with. And cry with. I dried my eyes and read on.

In April, he’s counting the days – 135 – until he comes home for good.

In May, he tells her about a car accident. The near-death experience rattled him.

“You’re in my mind so much I can’t think of anything else. … I want you to believe me because I love you and you probably know that by now. … But I’m not sure whether you love me. The reason I say that is because of the last letter.”

God knows what my mother had written.

“What can I say?” she told me. “I surrendered.”

One final letter talks about how he is coming home and how she needs to “get the tube ready”.

I hesitated to ask what that meant, but it was all very innocent. He meant the lipstick tube because they’re going to kiss so much.

The letter is intricately folded into a tight rectangle and I can just picture my young father taking the time to fold it and fold it again and again, placing it in a small envelope and sending it off to the love of his life.

Written on the front are the words “I still love you” in all caps.

I still love you, too, I want to write back.

NYTIMES

• The writer is a journalist and the author of three memoirs.

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