On July 28th, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday — obviously a big milestone for me. However July 29th marked another fifty-year anniversary I would like to commemorate as well.
A month ago in my hometown of Anderson, Indiana, at my family’s Annual Cousins Reunion (which is held each summer, but which I had never gotten off my butt to attend until just this year), I was approached by my cousin Maggie, whom like about 90% of the other folks at this gathering I hadn’t seen more than once or twice in the past 35 years. She didn’t greet me with a hug or even a “hello.” She simply walked up to me, leaned in and deadpanned, “Did he give it to you yet?”
“Oh…HI!…and, um…no…no he hasn’t, but he says he will.” I replied, believing I understood what she meant.
“Tell him I will HURT HIM if he doesn’t give it to you AS SOON as you get back to his house this evening.”
Maggie is a former marine. She could make good on that threat.
So what was “it?” It was a letter; a letter from Heaven; a precious piece of personal history that Maggie discovered amongst the belongings of her Mother (my Aunt Lee) penned by my mother, Annie, fifty years ago yesterday.
After running across it this past Spring, Maggie sent the letter to Jack, who was supposed to give it to me in late March, when I was in town for Uncle Jake’s funeral. But he set it aside and forgot. After learning about it in a phone conversation later, I was determined to remember and retrieve it when I returned for the reunion in June. Nonetheless, no one brought it up and I had forgotten all about it until Maggie’s query jogged my memory.
The letter was originally a communiqué from Annie to her Mother, my Grandmother Vera, the morning after the day I was born. Annie was in the midst of a four-day hospital stay — unusually long by today’s standards, but right in line with the custom of the day — recovering from her fourth out of an eventual five childbirths, all of which were boys.
My Dad would tell me years later just how much my Mom hoped I would be a girl — her “Julie Ann” — but as you’ll see shortly, while her understandable desire was to have at least one daughter, her love played no favorites.
Having never had the opportunity to ask her about it, I have often wondered if she really ever was disappointed that in me, the Y chromosomes had won again. But now, wonderfully, via this gift of yellowed, dime store stationery, I have my definitive answer.
Whether the letter was ever mailed, I do not know, but it ended it up among Aunt Lee’s keepsakes where Maggie found it following her mother’s death of a few years ago.
Let me now publicly thank both Lee and Maggie for blessing me with such an incredible link to my past; a gift too precious for words.
To briefly set up the context of the letter, Annie had just given birth to me, her fourth son on Saturday, the day before. However the circumstances were rather unique in that Lee, her directly younger sister and lifelong sibling companion was also pregnant and could deliver at any time. The hospital agreed to reserve the bed beside Annie’s for Lee, who would give birth to my cousin Samantha just the next day, on Monday July 30th.
Annie was understandably excited to be able to share such a rare and special experience with her sister, and while waiting for Lee to arrive, wrote to my Grandmother to talk about it.
In addition to being a very personal, wonderful, priceless glimpse into the mind and personality of the woman who gave me birth, this letter is just a tremendous slice of life; an authentic sampling of late-1950s American culture. My Mother’s description of her hospital room and meal; her doting accounts and descriptions of my brothers, as well as her simple, almost naïve-sounding commentary about childbirth, speak to an innocent, less-worldly existence back in a day when life just seemed to make sense.
Of particular interest to me is the wonderful grammar and sentence structure she exhibits in her writing; it’s nearly perfect — also a sign so typical of that time, but which is nearly non-existent in today’s culture of colloquial communication.
My Mother was a woman of faith — that much is obvious. She speaks of her relationship with God with such calm sureness; it is a testament to her spiritual strength. Included in the letter are numerous references to friends from church, a community from which, along with her family, she drew strength and purpose.
While nothing in the letter is really all that profound on its own, the fact that it affords me an opportunity to glean even a little bit more of the essence of this woman — whom I have so little first-hand knowledge of — is highly significant to me.
And since ya can’t tell the players without a scorecard, here’s a brief reminder who they are:
Mother: My Grandmother Vera, age 65
Annie: My Mother, age 37
Darren: My Dad (heretofore unnamed in any of my stories; It isn’t his actual name of course, but it means, “Great” so it fits), age 35
Lee: Annie’s younger sister, age 35
Jackie: My eldest brother, a.k.a. Jack, age 9½
Davie: My brother David, age 7½
Kenny: My brother TK, age 2½
AJ: Your neighborhood bouncing baby boy, age 1 day
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I’m lying here in bed wearing your yellow gown and your blue bed jacket while a nice cool breeze is blowing in on me. The bed next to me is still empty — waiting for Lee to come up here. I don’t know if they will hold it much longer — actually, thanks to Dr. Donaldson, they’re holding it as a personal favor to us.
Honestly, I’ll just die if they bring someone in who smokes, swears or has a radio. It’s so peaceful and quiet up here. This room is the nicest one I’ve ever had; it’s nice because it’s a corner room with one window on the west — alongside my bed and another window at the foot of my bed facing south. Then there is another window facing south at the foot of Lee’s bed.
So much about the room. Well, Mother my girlhood dream has finally come true — I have the four children I dreamed about for so many years. You can’t imagine how proud I am of them.
I know lots of people are disappointed that I didn’t have a girl, but Darren, the boys and I don’t care so why should anyone else! We are the ones who should be concerned. Before Jackie went to camp, he said, “I don’t care whether it’s a boy or a girl — it doesn’t make any difference to me.” When Davey left for Tippecanoe to go after Jackie yesterday, the last thing he said to me was, “Mommie, just be sure it’s a little boy.” And Kenny all along has said, “I don’t like ‘gulls.’” It isn’t that we don’t like girls or that we didn’t want one — it’s just that we never believed we could get one.
The real test for me came when I came to yesterday and Darren told me we had a little boy. If I had hoped for a girl — as Rev. Losh claimed — there would have been a tinge of disappointment in my heart when he told me the news. But there wasn’t a tinge of disappointment at all. A little girl would have been very welcomed, but for some reason it wasn’t in God’s plan. And after all, He gives us what He feels we need.
So actually the prayer I prayed while I was in the delivery room was answered. I simply asked Him to have His way and we wouldn’t complain.
I was disappointed though in the fact that AJ only weighs 5 pounds & 4 ounces, although I don’t think I’ll have the trouble with him that I had with Jackie. At least he drinks his glucose and has nursed just a tiny little bit. If I can keep him awake long enough to eat, maybe I won’t have the trouble getting him started — like I did with Jackie.
I just had a wonderful dinner. I had the breast, wing and neck of a chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, broccoli, fruit salad on lettuce — chocolate ice cream and iced tea. Believe me I ate every bit of it and I’m stuffed!
Now I’ll get on with my news. Darren would probably get mad at me if he heard me say this, but I believe in being honest. AJ isn’t a pretty baby like Kennie and Jackie were. As a matter of fact, Davey wasn’t a pretty baby either. But just look how cute Davey turned out to be with his dimples and dark eyelashes. So there is hope for AJ too. When he fills out he’ll be cuter. But now he’s skinny and scrawny — but awfully, awfully sweet. He’s just a teeny, weeny thing. The first two times they brought him to me he wasn’t asleep nor did he cry. He just looked at me with such a sweet helpless look and I wondered then how anyone could be disappointed in the sex of a child.
I think Lulabelle Palmer paid us a great complement when she said, “Annie, boys need lots of love, care and understanding, and I think God knows which parents to give them to.”
We do love our boys and they’ve given us an awful lot of happiness. If I can just get AJ to nurse so that he’ll gain weight quickly I’ll feel a lot better.
Mother, I didn’t tell you about my water breaking because I didn’t want you to worry. I figured you were sick enough as it was without something new to worry about. Actually Davey’s birth was the easiest, but this one too was a cinch. Dr. Donaldson isn’t in favor of having “forced labor” and the only reason he did me was because I had lost all my water. I didn’t cry with any of my labor pains at all. In fact every time I felt one coming I would picture Jackie’s sweet face as we had devotions together before he left for camp — then I’d picture Davey’s dimpled smile and pretty eyelashes as he said goodbye to me and told me to bring home a little boy — and finally I could see little Kenny as he said, “Mommie, do you know what? I love you!”
And by the time I pictured all three of my boys in my mind, my pains were already gone! I learned more about having babies this time than I ever had before. I asked the nurse anything I didn’t understand and she told me.
By the way, AJ has a lot of real black hair and he’s dark. He doesn’t resemble anyone I know. Lee and Darren think he’s cute.
Well I guess I’d better bring this letter to a close. Maybe I’ll remember to ask Darren for a dime tonight and I’ll try to call you up.
Bye for now and here’s five kisses for you. X X X X X. I miss seeing you a lot, but I’ll be past Tuesday afternoon to show you your 6th straight grandson.
Lots of Love,
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I’ve never heard an untoward word ever uttered in association with my Mother; though there’s no doubt in my mind that she must have had some type of shortcoming, I’ve just never met anyone so inclined to list a single one. Naturally to that end I have to admit feeling more than a little bit cheated in not having any memory of a true connection with her.
Sadly, I don’t remember ever having a conversation with her on any level; only flash images of her doing housework, talking with friends on the phone, sunbathing on the back patio — wearing shiny copper pennies over her eyes to protect them from the sun — things of which I’ve written before; these are the memories I cling to, yet which often ring hollow; mere silent movies with no meaningful interaction.
Unfortunately I can’t hear my mother’s true voice within my memories. More often than not, the only voice I hear is that of the confused, middle-aged woman I knew when I was eight years old; her mind clouded by physical forces she had no way of understanding. I hear only frustration and the anger, not the love and vitality I’ve come to know as her hallmark by the accounts of those who knew her well; those fortunate souls who can reach back and pluck from their memory banks any number of rich interactions with Annie in her prime.
And though I’m indeed envious, I’m really not bitter, because I know I’ll meet her again someday, and I’ll know everything there is to know about her; and she about me.
But for now I’ll be content to augment my own memories with those of others. I’ll take advantage of opportunities such as the advent of this wonderful letter, projecting Annie into new scenarios, creating new memories for myself of her; learning what I can; what she thought; how she lived.
What a powerful thing to fathom, knowing what she was thinking so long ago. What a humbling experience to actually feel through her written words, the love that only a mother can have for her children.
I’m sitting here at my computer, wishing so much that you could see the man your scrawny, little black-haired baby boy has become; wondering if you’d be proud; wondering how different my life would be if I hadn’t lost you so very many years ago. And although I cannot know the answer to these questions now, I look forward to the time when I will know all things fully, just as I have also been fully known.
Thank you for this letter; for giving me another precious glimpse into your life and spirit; a spirit I’ve tried so desperately to emulate over the years.
I’m not sure whether or not they have Internet access in Heaven, but I trust this will get to you somehow. Thank you for giving me life; for loving me. Thank you for always being with me.