Monday, April 30, 2012

Do We Ever Really Know Our Parents?

Some years ago, Mother asked me to read letters that Dad had sent to her while they were apart, she at home in high school or with her mother in Washington, D. C. working for the government one summer, he left behind in his small home town, a recent high school graduate on his way to San Diego for naval training. Yellowed and brittle, the envelopes spoke of an era past, their addresses further proof of their age. They were addressed with Mother’s name, her home town and the state. No street address, zip code, or defining numbers needed until she and her Mother moved to Washington for a few months. It was the 1945, the year the war ended, a simpler time--at least for the United States Post Office

Most often the upper right corner carried the word “Free” because Dad was in the Armed Services, according to the return address. He enjoyed the benefit of sending letters without any cost. The cancellation stamps proved that Dad wrote to Mother at least every other day, sometimes twice in one day.

And that was good enough for me. I didn’t really want to read them. I somehow felt that reading his letters invaded their privacy, but their contents delighted Mother so finally I found the time to read them. I’m still not sure what to make of what I found.

Dad began and ended every letter telling Mother how much he loved her. Many letters repeated his vows of love in every paragraph. Several times each month, he promised her a future with him, vowing to work hard to make a good life for her.

A few letters offered glimpses of him that informed and amused me. In one, he describes learning to fly by renting an old “oil burner” from an airfield. The owners told him not to “gun it” and he’d get back home just fine. But Dad was a dare-devil. He rode motorcycles and pushed the speed around hair-pin curves. In one of his letters, he apologizes to Mother and wonders if he scared her so much that she never wants to ride with him again.

So Dad “gunned” that old plane and ran out of oil several miles from the field. He landed in someone’s field, called the owners, and told them to bring him nine quarts of oil. They did, but they were furious, probably working up more fury with every dusty mile they had to drive. After they’d poured the oil to the old engine, they told him to bring it home without “gunning” it again.

But I guess telling Dad what to do grated on him so “gun” it he did, landing that plane on the home field, the engine hot and again in need of several quarts of oil. The owners told him not to come back, but he had his revenge by stomping off across the field to buy an old plane for $1,125.00, one that he could “gun” as much as he pleased.

While I was growing up, Dad didn’t own planes or drive motorcycles, but when my sister and I were on our own, he bought big Hondas to ride around curving roads in the Arkansas hills. He also bought a couple of planes, one at a time, of course, to commute between his new home in those hills and his daughters’ home on the flatter lands of Oklahoma. I never had first-hand experience with “gunning” planes, but remember enjoying the colors of Arkansas as he took us for flying tours.

In a few letters, Dad told Mom to have a good time while he was away, not to cloister herself, but to believe that when he returned home, he wanted her to throw her arms around his neck and kiss him even if her grandmother stood close by. He made it clear he meant to make a life with her and for her. He often begged her to tell him if she had changed her mind about him so that he could try to let her go.

Yet in all those letters from 1945, she wrote to him fewer than ten times. He mentioned each time she wrote and was overjoyed to receive word from her. I’d call her effort a half-hearted, lukewarm response, but his devotion never waned.

In some letters, he told of going out with friends, including female friends, to drink or dance, but he professed that he pretended that his date was Mother. He confessed that he wanted to see her wrinkle her little nose--proof positive that love is utterly blind because none of the women on her side of the family, including me, have small noses. Ours are prominent and hard to miss. By no stretch of any imagination except Cupid’s could our noses be called “little.”

One of Mother’s letters apparently challenged Dad’s definition of fidelity. As many fifteen and sixteen-year-old girls would, she doubted that she could trust the words of her man. He was hurt but did not in any way back down. He reminded her of “their bargain” that seemed to require they tell each other the truth if their hearts had grown cold. His had not, he said; he was in love with her and could not stop thinking of her. He worried that hers was stone, however, because she wouldn’t write and because she accused him in snips and barks when she did write.

These revelations that Mom invited me to read still baffle me. From my vantage point as their child, I would have told you that Mother was utterly devoted to Dad, smitten with him no matter what he did, yet he stood apart, reserved. He earned the money and decided how to use it. He determined where they would live and travel. He advised her for whom to vote, and he tried to insure that she could live comfortably once he passed, but failed to teach her how to balance a checkbook or read invoices.

To discover that he was such a passionate boy and she so reserved makes me wonder what happened. Did life conspire to turn his flames into warm embers? Possibly. He did turn to alcohol, after all.

Was he simply just the most private man imaginable, revealing himself only to her? Quite likely. I'm n introvert myself, known best by my dear husband.

Or did life together disappoint him--so much so that he became a dutiful if taciturn man, unable to reciprocate or show affection? Yes. He even signed the rare letter he wrote to my sister or me with just his first name, almost never under the common family closing: “Love,” and once when I told him that I loved him, he answered, "That's nice."

Mother offered no answers to my questions. She simply basked in the testimonials of love that she seemed to have forgotten until the letters surfaced. Now she has forgotten the letters ever existed as dementia steals a little more every day. She just wishes that she had died the day he did.