I don't know what I was searching for exactly as I looked through a hodgepodge of photographs, the kind that get put in an oversized envelope with more stray snapshots and then stored in a box on a shelf someplace. I dumped out the envelope, pawed through a collection of what must have passed at one time for Kodak moments, but didn't find anything interesting. Then, unexpectedly, a small folded square of paper fell out; the letterhead was from the business my father and uncle owned together (lettuce growers and shippers). At the top, typed like the rest of the note, was the date: June 25, 1984.
In that note of less than 100 words, including an update on the lettuce crop that would be harvested before July 4th, was a reminder of my father's love -- and the exact advice that I, as a parent today, need while my son is away at college for a second year. Who knows what prompted Dad who, like so many of his generation, rarely (if ever) expressed his feelings, to write that short note to me. Maybe he was a little melancholy that day, and yet, as I well know, there is no specific trigger for missing a child who is away. You're here, and they're there, with quite a bit of heart distance in between.
The opening is typical Dad: "Sunday and raining. Doing book work in the office and falling asleep." I can picture that office still: cement floor and cement block walls, smelling of onions from the adjacent storage rooms, a crackling radio playing in the background and a cigar smoldering in an ashtray.
"Wish you a lot of luck on your interview tomorrow. Don't settle for anything less than what you want." The interview was for my first journalism job in New York City, for a trade publication covering the metals industry (I was hired to be the "aluminum reporter"). As a 24-year-old who had lost her way temporarily, having left my first job away from home and enduring a disastrous and abusive relationship to boot, I was probably so busy proving myself again that I missed the full impact of Dad's advice about not settling, words that I could have heeded more closely in many contexts over the years.
"Sometimes I wish that you weren't so far away so that I could see you more often, but thanx (sic) to Alexander and the ponies we can keep in touch." Now I remember, that line gave me pause to figure out Dad's clever comment: Alexander Graham Bell (telephone) and the pony express (U.S. mail). "Closing with love and will be talking to you soon...."
I'm sure I called my dad as soon as this letter arrived and, knowing that he wasn't the type to write frequently (let alone use the word "love" in any form of communication), I kept the note for 28 years, through moves and marriages, all the way until now as it sits, unfurled from its deep creases, on my desk.
Why today and why this note, I wonder, giving into a habit, silly perhaps, of reading meaning into things beyond the surface. Dad at his desk doing "book work" and me at mine working on a book manuscript form the too-easy connection. The deeper tug is the admission of how much I resonated with his words of "sometimes wish that you weren't so far away so I could see you more often" and the assurance that "we can keep in touch." In Dad's note is permission to admit my own feelings about missing my son who is away at college, while keeping them in perspective, of what it means to love a child who has entered adulthood.
Had Dad asked me to pack up and come back home, out of New York City (too big and dangerous in his mind) and back to my hometown of Oswego, NY on the shores of Lake Ontario, I would have protested and refused. But he never would have held me back, not for a chance to do what I wanted with my life, which in those days was journalism and, today, continues to be writing. I had his permission then. And now, six and a half years after his death, I have it still.
That's quite the legacy to find stuck in the corner of a manila envelope with a bunch of old photographs -- a legacy that should be passed down. With Dad's letter open on my desk, I wrote a short email to my son, following the format of 28 years before: a short update on the weather, what's going on with me and my work, and then a few heartfelt lines.
Love, let go, and love some more. It worked then, and I trust it will work now.