Today is a day to read a little of my dad’s journal, written while we were growing up. And it’s a day to pour over my mom’s letters, written later, while she was in the hospital.
I’m not sure why I choose today to read some of them. Maybe because it’s so dark and gray and dreary outside. Maybe I’m just in the mood. Not sure. But, for a few hours, I sit with cup after cup of coffee, Kenny G’s music playing in the background. I go through a teeny-tiny bit of a big plastic crate that I store in my closet and hardly ever open. It holds some of what my father wrote during his life and some of what momma wrote during her own.
Of course, they each wrote of the mundane – You know, things that happen in everybody’s life. Talk about weather, kids and laundry, about yard work and birthdays. Momma wrote about sewing five new dresses for Easter and trying out a new – fangled recipe for dinner. She’d note which meals were a hit and which were an absolute flop. Dad wrote about working long days in Boston, then taking us all to Jones’ Beach at the end of the day, even though he was exhausted and would wake up to do the same damn thing tomorrow.
Momma wrote about adult education courses she was taking at Dean Jr. College, mostly women’s literature, while dad wrote about meetings with the governor. She wrote poems and short stories about life and love and darker secrets, he wrote about his love of transits and telescopes, the detailed history and restorations of surveyor’s equipment he worked on. Mom wrote about five daughters walking through the woods, playing in the ‘ Mystery Forest.’ Dad wrote about bills and never-ending trouble with the car. He was always trying to figure out how to afford fixing tires and gas leaks, how he was going to pay for a new inspection sticker and yet another tune up.
In the middle pages of my father’s journal, I stumble across a few things that startle me. His best friend, Arthur, had just died. Dad wrote about his friend, then my mom, how they’d both helped him through the tough times of childhood, then his troubled teenage years. He talked about his great love for both of them. Together, it seemed, they’d drawn him out of darkness. My father talked about Arthur’s passing and the torrent of tears that followed, traveling from the soles of his feet, this immense loss tearing his heart out.
He wrote this: “Tonight, I held the hand of your oldest son. He told me that he’d leaned on you for so much in life. Now that you’re gone, he’s afraid he’ll have to grow up and learn how to get through it by himself. ” There were some eraser marks on the paper, then ” I promise, I will be there. As much as I can be, Arthur, I will be there for him.”
Dad talked about grief, standing at his friend’s grave, how he cried like a baby himself. I read his words, begging Arthur to stay near, to somehow cheer friends and family on through life, though from a much different place. Dad said he got up from the grave site and went home to momma. she’d held him, rubbing his back while he cried some more.
In other journal entries, he talked about how much our mother meant to him, how she was such a wonderful light in his life, and how she was a good parent to all of us. He talked about his instruments, how some of the ‘kids’ were showing interest in helping him. I smiled at the memory. I’d tried hard to learn the art of restoring transits – and had made some progress, working side by side with him. My younger sister, Laura, was working on the books and he wrote that he thanked God every day for the math genius she lent him.He wondered if another sister, Karen, would want to learn any of the ins/outs of the business and was contemplating approaching her. My other sisters, Barb and Norma, both lived in Maine. Besides that, he didn’t think it had ever interested either of them. Now, with many miles between, he was not going to bother.
Momma wrote about women’s rights,about how hard it was, being a woman in a man’s world, She wrote a good deal about Martin Luther King and rights for the blacks.She wrote of her mixed feelings on a lot of different things in life,especially her own existence.
Sometimes in pen, sometimes in pencil, she wrote about her deep love for my father, how they’d found their way in the world together,through ups and downs. She kept mentioning the miracle, that somehow, someway, they’d survived.
And she often wrote about how much she loved her daughters, the five of us.
Later, in another part of the his weathered journal, dad wrote about a bunny in the yard that he’d taken care of for two seasons. He talked about how the bunny would sit on a high shelf out in the shed while he was working. Dad would often try to pet it, but the bunny always shied away. If dad pretended he was alone in the shed, ignoring the bunny, it would come near him, willingly, rubbing against him with his soft fur. When the bunny died, my father said he cried again, and felt like he’d lost another good friend. He worried all night in the darkness about how he was going to break it to mom, she’d loved the bunny as much, if not more, than he did.
Who really knows their parents? We think that they are stern and hot headed – maybe tough or unreasonable. Some parents are. My dad could be extremely tough. His expectations could be so high you doubted you could ever reach them. It was a surprise, to read that so many of his writings were warm, soft and emotional. There were times my mom seemed weak, sometimes too quiet, but her writings were full of strength and determination. Momma’s dreams were solid and she truly had more direction than I thought at times.
I leaned on both of them, through most of my life. I went to my parents for advice and direction – even when I disagreed and ended up going the opposite way.
There were hard times, for sure, hard years really. There were harsh words and hard feelings at different times in the family. But I always knew they loved me. I always hoped they knew how much I loved them.
I think that’s what makes it hardest now – missing them both when an anniversary comes and I have to acknowledge they’re gone (again.) I light a memory candle, aware that I have to (continually) grow up and figure out this crazy whirlwind called life, on my own.
I thank God every day, and believe in my heart that I can still reach them, even though it’s not in person. And I’m grateful, each time I feel their loving touch in my everyday life. I find myself smiling, when I remember something funny and precious. Other times, I’ll cry over a memory I wish I could still grab hold of.
Today? Right this second? I’m glad to have a few pages of what they wrote. I’m so grateful I can read about the hopes and dreams they shared as a couple. I hold some pictures to my breast for a moment. I run my fingers over penmanship of yesteryear. I think about their life and dreams on Maple Street. Dreams they had together and dreams they had apart. My family was far from perfect. But it was my family. Still is.