I inherited my mother’s home in the Oakland, California hills several years after the firestorm of 1991. A shifting wind spared the house, a modest 1950s ranch-style with a stunning view of San Francisco Bay, and when the fire was over, Mother’s was the only one still standing in a two-block radius of blackened rubble.
In retrospect, it might have been better if the house had burned down; at least the insurance company would have built her a new one. By 1991, a penchant for Caribbean cruises and flights to Hong Kong had exhausted Mother's small inheritance, and the reality of living on a widow's pension that sufficed to buy designer clothes or maintain the house, but not both, was sinking in. She opted for Versace, and by the time I took possession of the property, the wooden deck was falling off, the paint was peeling and the roof leaked. My real estate agent said the buyers would tear the place down; only the land was valuable.
I set to work getting the house ready for sale. One afternoon, between trips to the dumpster, I discovered several cardboard boxes full of old letters underneath the bed in my parents' room. I found two more cartons in the closet under a pile of straw hats, then four more in the bedroom that was once mine, and then ... In short, my mother had saved all the letters she’d ever received, hundreds of letters, perhaps thousands of letters, in a correspondence going back more than 60 years.
I was astounded. Why hadn't I seen these boxes before? And why had my mother – who was neither sentimental nor a hoarder – saved the letters? I dragged the boxes to the living room and sat down on the floor to examine them. Most of the senders I couldn’t identify, and these letters I threw in the trash, but when I recognized a familiar name, I couldn’t resist the temptation to read a few lines.
In a letter three decades old, a high school friend of Mother's wrote that her daughter was coming home to have a baby while her husband served in Vietnam. Mother must have been happy to read Vicki’s news, but it brought tears to my eyes because I knew the Viet Kong shot down her son-in-law's plane and he never saw his little boy.
Another friend wrote to say a mammogram had detected a tumor in her breast, but since the growth was small – thank goodness – the doctor expected her to recover fully. He was wrong.
Granddad wrote that my grandmother was ill, then that she was worse, and finally that she was dead.
Dead, all dead. I don’t know why I opened those letters; reading them was like walking through a graveyard.
But there were happier ones. A small shoe box contained the letters Daddy sent to my mother in 1935, during their engagement; although the handwriting was familiar, I didn’t recognize the urbane man I knew as my father in the author’s awkward prose. In what were probably the first love letters he'd ever written, the young naval officer described his ship and his comrades; he thanked Mother for finding an apartment. And here and there, almost with embarrassment, he inserted a timid word of affection.
The last box was sealed with heavy tape; I got a knife from the kitchen and slit it open. To my amazement, the letters inside were mine – letters in a childish scrawl beginning invariably “How are you? I am fine,” sent from various summer camps, and others mailed from a boarding school in Spain. At the bottom, tied with a faded blue ribbon, lay a stack of letters I wrote from college, and in reading them I rediscovered myself.
Were those letters really mine or was it someone else’s correspondence in my mother’s box? Was I the girl who wrote about the Paraguayan professor that invited her to drink wine and listen to folk music in his apartment? I had felt so sophisticated telling this story. (True, I’d omitted a few details: we weren’t alone, and after the first sip of Chablis I was seized with a coughing fit).
Was it I who described a joyous day of sailing on Puget Sound with salt spray on my face and the wind whipping my hair? Was I the one who'd fallen head over heels in love?
With the passage of time, marriage, work and children, I scarcely recognized the light-hearted girl of 40 years before in the sober adult I had become.
I looked at the handwriting; it was little changed. And the return address, yes, it was the residence hall where I lived, but the author, was it really me? I read a few more of the letters. They were full of joy, exuberant, and bubbling with life. And they were mine.
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