My mother died several years ago. No matter how old I get, I still have a pang of longing each Mother’s Day for just one more phone conversation, one more moment sitting together at the table, with our hands, so similar, wrapped around our coffee cups.
Mom was always extremely well-organized. A year or two before her stroke, almost as if she had advance warning, she shipped me a box of family letters that she wanted me to save.
I hadn’t really taken a good look at the box, other than to note that one envelope included my grandparents’ love letters.
Recently, I dug through my closet and opened the box. My intention was to read my grandparents’ World War I correspondence and perhaps get an idea for a story.
Instead, I picked up a stack of blue-and-red-bordered airmail letters from my grandmother to my mother. As I flipped through the envelopes, I immediately noticed the postmarks were out of chronological order.
So unlike my mother!
The top letter in the stack was dated in 1977, the year Grandma died. It must have been the last letter Grandma wrote to Mom. In her beautiful handwriting, Grandma said how hard it was to take out the trash during the harsh Iowa winter, and how she was worried about Grandpa slowing down. But her words still contained that upbeat contentment I so associated with my grandmother. She was looking forward to spring and already had some flowers blooming indoors.
The next letter, directly under the 1977 letter, was dated 1962. Apparently, my mother had written to Grandma that she was feeling depressed and adrift. My mother was in her early forties in 1962. Here is Grandma’s response:
“I suppose the 40’s are apt to be a time of reassessment. The glowing optimism of youth has become a little dulled. We may wonder just where we’re going and why.
But don’t expect to find all of the answers. I don’t think we’re supposed to, or perhaps we’d cease searching and struggling. It seems to me only the very smug pretend to have ‘arrived.’
Probably it’s a good thing we are already committed to our tasks and must carry on as best we can. The daily routine helps a lot when life may seem pointless for a time.
Natural phenomena helps me when I’m low. A flutter of wings always roused me enough to try to identify the bird. Flowers have always interested me, as you know. Sunrises, sunsets, cloud formations give me a lift.”
My grandmother goes on to remind my mother that she has good friends, including her husband, that she can reach out to. That she should remember not to take all of the burdens on the world on herself and not to worry about mistakes, they are part of life.
“Fortunately, you are not self-centered, you have always thought of others. To concentrate on oneself is a fatal mistake….One thing I’m sure you know you can count on, and that is our deepest affection, always. You have always brought us great joy, a daughter for which to be very grateful.”
How often in our lives do we hear pure, heartfelt, unselfish love? At that precise moment, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, I found Grandma’s words encircling me with warmth, telling me to take time to both forgive myself for errors and rejoice in the world around me.
But there was more. Tucked into that 1962 envelope was another letter, much older, that Grandma sent to my mother on her 21st birthday.
“To Dad and me it scarcely seems possible that you are twenty-one. It seems but a few years ago that you were enthroned on Dad’s shoulders with your baby fingers tangled in his hair while we took our Sunday walks over the Arkansas farm…
And now you stand at the threshold of adult life. I wish I could guarantee you a life of great happiness, but I cannot, for that will depend largely upon yourself. I asked Dad what he would choose to give you as a life inheritance if it were possible and he said ‘good health,’ that with it you could win nearly anything else.
The joy of accomplishment has always meant much to me, be the tasks large or small. Your grandfather told me he never cared to be wealthy, just so he could make enough money to associate with the people he enjoyed being with.
At any rate, we wish you an abundant life, full of congenial work, and love and friends. Seems as though such a combination should produce happiness.”
And, indeed, this wish did come true. My mother had a well-lived life — teaching, reading, volunteering. Always busy with ‘tasks large or small.’
I now know why these letters were out of chronological order. They were at the top of the stack so that any time Mom could reach out, unfold the thin pages, and hear her mother’s comforting voice in this our sometimes painful, often confusing world.
My mother gave me a gift this Mother’s Day. These beautiful letters. They remind me that strong families are built, in part, on a mother’s steady love, echoing down the generations.
Happy Mother’s Day