May 23rd was my parent’s anniversary. They would have been married 70 years. They nearly made it to 50 before my father died and considering that my father was 32 and my mother 29 when they married, that isn’t half bad.
70 years ago America and Europe were in the middle of a world war. My father, an English immigrant, was one of the many drafted for said war, sent not, as he hoped, back to England for eventual posting to France, but to the Philippines. My parents married just before he was sent overseas, having met a couple of years before in night school. This is what I knew, what my parents (mostly my mother) told me as I was growing up.
Kay in front of home
Some years after my father died, in 199,1 I came across a box of letters in the spare bedroom closet of their condominium as I was sorting out the room for my increasingly frail mother. To my surprise they contained literally hundreds of letters written during the war years between my mother and my father. Amazing. Amazing in the sense that I never knew she had them. This was a mother who was always showing me memorabilia from the past, wedding gown, photo albums, cards, and sharing stories again and again from her experiences and even stories that she’d gleaned from my father’s family of his own childhood. Also, as a child my sister and I would rummage in her sacrosanct closet to ferret out old clothes to dress up in when she was out. I’d never seen them there. My mother was a hoarder so there was always boxes stuffed everywhere and my sister and I tried to leave no box unplundered, curious as we were.
As a historian and archivist I was thrilled. Here in my very own family was a cubic foot of genuine raw archives material. Not just a bunch of Christmas cards and photos scattered in boxes (those I knew about), but letters still in their envelopes. But it was clear it was something my mother didn’t want to share. I never said a word to her that I’d seen them, just bundled them back into the closet.
Some years later, when she was dying in a nursing home I had to clean out the condominium in order to sell it and found the box still in the closet, untouched. I took the box home (along with a load of other things I didn’t know what to do with) and there they sat for a few weeks. Eventually, the archivist in me had to look through them, if only to see what was there and to organize them. I put them in chronological order, first my mother’s letters and then my fathers. I opened the first one of my mother’s and read, the historian eager to see social history of the war period from the home front.
‘ Oct 14, 1942
I just arrived home from work to find your letter and the films. I don’t know quite what I should say but I do know how I fell and that it’s just as you do. I don’t know quite what has happened. Life was going on so smoothly and suddenly everything is so complicated. I’ve thought until my head’s in a whirl. I was going to say no when you asked to come see me last week but on implulse I said you might if you w ished. Even so nothing would have changed if you hadn’t kissed me. You know my reputation is one of independence, of being a ‘man hater’because I won’t go out with every man who asks me. Of course I’m not really but I don’t, nor never have, gone off the deep end aboaut this one and that one. I told you I was once in love with someone who didn’t return it. Well that experience left me somewhat afraid of being hurt so I always kept my feelings in check. But whatever this was I was taken completely by surprise. So don’t blame yourself for ‘dozing’ as you say. It was probably as much my fault as yours and it was probably meant to be this way any how.
I’ll answer every letter you send me if I have to write them at work as Gladys does [friend]. She incidentally has been laughing at me all week and saying she knows something happened to me last Sunday because I was all right when I left her on Saturday and the phone call on Monday made her certain something was up. But I don’t care what she says.
Goodbye until the next time. Thanks for everything.
What I read was my mother and not my mother. It was a different view of my mother, in some ways. And it struck me how much we see our family members through the prism of their role in our lives and how our relationship with them can affect so much our perception of them as a person. This is obvious of course, but nevertheless we still unconsciously assume we know our parents.
In any case it stopped me from reading more. With my mother dying and the pressure of folding up her affairs even before she had gone I wasn’t ready to change or discover more about her and my father. In the ensuing 13 years I have moved overseas, first to England and then Ireland, renovated a farm house and dealt with many other things and still the box (archival acid-free) remained unopened.
Amid all the WWII anniversaries and commemorations of the last few years is now the time to go through those letters and read them? It’s something I now think and wonder how it might change my understanding of my parents who had a complex relationship. I don’t know, we’ll see.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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