(originally published 8/1/13)
When my grandfather died rather suddenly several years ago, I have to admit that I was heartbroken. He never took me fishing or held my hand while telling me stories. He hadn’t showered me in gifts or doted on me as some grandfathers do. He was a man who smelled of motor oil and pipe tobacco, hid M&M’s in his work shirt pocket as much for himself as for me to discover, and loved to rub his whiskery cheeks against my soft skin to agitate me. He made me fall in love with hard work and despise laziness. Showed me how to pick strawberries and empty pods of their pea treasure. And in his final decade showed us all the meaning of love.
During my college years, my grandmother began having what turned into a series of strokes. By the time I married my husband at the tender age of 23, my grandmother was wheelchair bound, mostly unaware, and completely dependent on my grandfather.
My grandmother had cared for this man her entire life, balancing books for his only sometimes tolerably successful businesses, quietly paying overdue bills, cooking favorite meals, keeping house, raising children, and working in a garment factory at a horribly thankless job. In a series of moments, she went from a force of nature to a dependent without a moment of reflection or a day of enjoyed retirement after a lifetime of work.
And in those same moments this proud, quiet, often sulky, sometimes cantankerous old man transformed into a doting nursemaid. For the near-decade before his body finally collapsed under a lifetime of health problems and simple old age, he stayed by her side, kept her clean, fed, loved. He whispered into her ear, believing that his words reached her, wherever she was. He held her hand and told her who was in the room with her. He held her and shared the news that her little sister had died after her long battle with cancer. He introduced her to my babies. He shaved her chin hairs and changed her diapers and told her she was beautiful. He put warm socks on what was left of her diabetes ravaged feet and wrapped her in fuzzy blankets on cold nights. And until the day he died, my grandmother was able to stay in her home.
Those years were a gift to my grandmother…and to the rest of us because they showed us a man my grandmother knew since she was a teenager. And once he was gone, and my mother and I went through their old papers and pictures, we got to know this man even more. What a treasure to find the letters he wrote to his love, his future bride, this man who didn’t speak English until he began school at the age of seven and had abandoned the classroom for the farm fields by the end of his 8th grade year. We saw his humor – off color, like mine – his flirtation – bold, like mine – and his love, the love he had for all of us and struggled to express.
Report cards, pictures, birth certificates, wedding programs, vacation postcards…nothing compared to finding the words they shared.
Today I was startled from my work as I heard a UPS truck rattle up in front of my house and then drop a package onto my porch with an alarmingly loud thud. I went downstairs to find a 33 pound box. Dragging it across the threshold, I wondered what was worth spending so much money to get it to my house. I opened it to find a stack of papers surrounded by boxes filled with baseball cards. My in-laws recently moved and this box contained the last of my husband’s things that had not yet made their way either to a trash can or our home in Maryland. The papers appeared to be mostly essays, poetry, awards, a thesis…and then I saw the stationery I used in college.
I’ve always loved writing. I cycled through a series of pen pals beginning in early elementary school and kept a correspondence through college with a boy named Dave that I met at band camp in 8th grade. When I went home for the summer after freshman year of college, I wrote to my friends from the dorm, including a boy named Jason. He wrote back.
I also love saving. Everything. The notes from my first boyfriend, Ralph, are in a small Hope chest in my childhood bedroom, still folded in the complicated origami of my teen years. The notes and drawings from Mike are in a purple folder in the same bedroom cupboard. Somewhere in a shoebox are the little slips of paper Jamal slid under my dorm room door. In a huge plastic bin are the letters from dozens of friends made over late night talks everywhere from writing workshops to church camps. And lost somewhere in my current home is the notebook where I wrote my own poetry, essays, and a list of boys I had kissed.
But this letter had somehow slipped my grasp, sent to my far less sentimental husband nearly a decade and a half ago, left behind when hard decisions were made about what to pack in a small car preparing for a long drive, moving his entire life from Austin to D.C.
I stared at the paper, saw the date, remembered what I had done. I wrote a letter to the man I loved in the days after a major milestone in our relationship. I poured very naive, but very sincere and loving words onto childish angel stationery. A mature topic, bold promises, a girl who thought she was an adult but who now seems so, so young.
And the letter made its way into my mother-in-law’s hands.
My face flushed, my palms began to sweat. Did she read it? (I would have) What must she have thought? (I also have a son and know what I would think) I thought of all the letters I’ve sent over the years. My words…there are SO many words out there that I shared with so many people. Reading my own thoughts back was in some moments painfully embarrassing. Imagining someone else reading them even more so. I wanted to burn them all…
And yet someday I would love my grandchild, herself an adult, to find that letter and know that regardless of what transpires over the next few decades, in that moment so long ago, her grandmother adored her grandfather enough to give her whole self to him with the intention of never loving another. In the words we shared, we also shared our love.