STUMBLING ON SECRETS
As a child, I never could resist an opportunity to investigate in places I thought had been intended to be unavailable to me.
One of the most memorable times occurred while I was in college. I can’t remember why, but during summer vacation, I was in the basement of our house and spotted a trunk of the sort that isn’t a steamer trunk type but was larger than the then ubiquitous foot locker.
I had visions of antique clothes like those stored in an old suitcase that proved to be my grandmother’s silk wedding gown, or perhaps the newspaper-wrapped bundles that proved to be Meissen porcelain dessert plates. Because of what I did find instead, I no longer remember what I uncovered before I got to the letters.
My mother was a complicated woman, and one I probably have never properly understood. In my twenties I still didn’t have her figured out, but she had an outstanding characteristic that anyone who knew her recognized. She was able to appear entirely without sentiment except with animals. When I recognized her handwriting on a few envelopes bundled with others with my father’s handwriting on them, I could scarcely contain my delight. The handwriting itself, reinforced by the postmark dates told me they were written when my parents were young — in fact, during the first year of their marriage.
I confess to a psychic shiver of guilt about investigating what I realized was apt to be personal, but there was no question of resisting such a temptation. I sat back on my heels and lifted the dozen or so envelopes out, closed the trunk lid so I could set them down, and opened the one on top.
My mother had written to my father in a prosaic way about her hope that he wasn’t working too hard. The address was in a city where I knew he had traveled fairly frequently while he was with the orchestra whose assistant conductor he had been at the time. She referred to the weather (in New York City), and said she would be glad when he came home.
The next letter was from him to her. There had been a few months between the two. His letter was addressed in the way my adolescent imagination had pictured a love letter should be. He told her how much he missed her with positively poetic images of how he thought of her. I was entranced. Demonstrations of emotion were so rare in our household I had trouble imagining the man I knew could, even over twenty years before, have expressed himself in the way I saw on the page. He actually called her his naiad.
Then came the paragraph in which he apologized with abject humility. I understood the reference he was making. He pleaded with his young wife not to be too upset at the prospect. He admitted it was perhaps sooner than they would have liked, but he suggested they might together find satisfaction in what was to come.
The chill came over me when I realized that what was to come was me. The letter was dated early in the summer; I was born early in September, about a year after they were married.
If I had had a different kind of childhood, if I had not been twenty years old by the time I saw this, perhaps the shock would have been of a different degree and kind. As it was, I saw some events of my own past in a slightly different light from my earlier assumptions. The news was one of those shake-ups that don’t leave one off balance forever after, but it was a jolt.
As a child of the Great Depression, I had been very lucky indeed. My father always had work, I had a wonderful school experience, was never bored nor lonely for the siblings I lacked. In many ways, I was a child of privilege who had been reared to recognize that fact.
Years later, another examination of correspondence led me to more revelations probably never intended for my eyes, though by then I had lost both parents. The question that occurs to me now is how to leave something for my children to find that might reveal as much to them about their parents as I was able to discover about mine. That is, of course, if they should ever be curious.
©2010 Joan L. Cannon for SeniorWomenWeb