I spent an entire afternoon with my mom today.
That’s quite a feat, considering my mother passed away in 2010, but it’s possible when you save letters.
An article in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, ‘Letters to Jane’ prompted this visit with Mom. The article was about a Dyersville woman who wrote her daughter Jane hundreds of letters while she attended the Iowa School for the Deaf in the 60’s and 70’s. It got me to thinking about the box of letters I store in my trunk. I kept every letter my mother ever wrote me, but until today, I hadn’t taken the time to look through them. I’ve read, and re-read, the letters she wrote my grandmother in the 60’s. Since her death, I’ve read her notebooks and the Memory book she filled out for me, but for some reason, I’ve never revisited some 200 letters I had stashed away.
How appropriate that the first one I pulled out of the (unorganized) box was dated 36 years ago yesterday.
In this letter, Mom informs me that there is a little snow falling, but my Dad doesn’t think it will amount to much. She also tells me that the previous week was the warmest January she could remember and she even hung out laundry and Dad raked leaves. The letter continues for two pages. My brother John had just been laid off work and was waiting for unemployment to kick in. My younger sister Jane had to stay home from school for several days with an earache, and my sister Pat’s children were recovering from the flu. But what I hold most precious from this letter are the words of encouragement regarding my college classes. I began attending the University of Northern Iowa in the fall of 1978, got married in the summer of 1979, and had my first child in March 1980. At the time my mother wrote this letter, David and I were both taking classes and working part-time, but we’d arranged it so that one of us was always with Dan.
“When we think back on it, we realize there must have been a lot of determination on your part to finish school, and you must have had a lot of discouragement too. Putting your stubbornness to good use,” my mother had written, a back-handed compliment (was she calling me stubborn?), but precious words of encouragement, nonetheless. As were these words, before my graduation in December 1985.
She didn’t make it to the graduation celebration, but there were several more letters that revealed her frustration and disappointment at not being there.
My Dad died the following May, and my mother became a widow at the age of 58, just a year older than I am now. I lived in Cedar Falls at the time so wasn’t privy to much of her grieving, but she shared pieces of it in her subsequent letters. She knew that first Father’s Day would be hard for all of us.
That first holiday season must have been excruciating for her, and yet she was still thinking of her children. This also wasn’t the only time she expressed a desire to write more letters.
I hadn’t remembered that Mom had attended a bereavement support group. This was in September, four months after his death.
Just four months after the death of her husband, and my mother was “helping” others in their grief. Note, too, how she laments the letters she owes others.
Many of the letters left me in tears, made me wish for another chance to talk to Mom, to ask her a question, or comment on something she’d written. There was laughter too, with some of Mom’s descriptions. Occasionally, a note from one of my younger sisters was included in an envelope. Once or twice, my dad wrote something.
But it was these words that really touched my heart today as I face some decisions in my life.
Thanks, Mom. I needed that.