Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Men of Letters

It seems as if no one is teaching cursive writing any more. I look at the letters my Dad sends to me.  The writing has gotten a little more shaky as he ages. Still, there is the unmistakable detail in the forming of each word, two "o's" that loop like little Slinkies, a "b" that is as bold as the word it forms. In failing to teach that, we will lose something, one more remnant of civilization, of creativity, scrapped in favor of a world of electronic messages.

I rarely text. Perhaps a simple "I'm in safe" if I don't wish to interrupt someone with a phone call at work or a short note in response to friends, followed up by a call. but that's pretty much it. When I eat out with friends, we may look up something on the magic elf box, or take a picture or two, but we mostly talk, simple and animated human interaction much missed when we're apart. I watch young people out dining together, and everyone has their heads down constantly texting or surfing the Internet with a look of bovine interest, no one looks at each other, no one talks. They're friends only in that they share a table, eating food they don't fully taste, as they type in words discarded with a press of a button.
In the attic at my parent's home, is a locker in which are Dad's WWII uniforms, photos and remembrances.  Big Bro and I were adopted when Mom and Dad were well into Middle Age. They had a history that went so far before us, yet it was one we wished to learn of as soon as we were old enough to comprehend.

So Big Bro and I carefully, and with Dad's permission, went through that locker.  There are so many photos of the Liberator, flying among flack as thick as snowflakes, flying desolate above land whorled with the unreasoned, the craft solitary about the destruction that it would rain. There, underneath of the photos, a stack of letters he and my Mom wrote to one another while he was gone for four years, not returning Stateside once in that time. Reading them is almost like eavesdropping, as you can almost hear the words as they formed, heartfelt, intimate. I open one, there is just that one single page, and the thought of the way the day stopped at the brink of it.
There was talk of how much they missed one another, how their families were faring, of good coffee and how Dad missed vegetables from the farm, of burning heat and a cold on the field that would murmur to your very bones. They had been inseparable since sixth grade.  There was playful affection, there was unstated passion and stated promise. Some was in Mom's flowery script, the rest in Dad's meticulous, indomitable hand. "Is everyone there well", Mom would ask, and Dad would reply they were (though some were now only well beyond Lamentations). "How is the homestead? he would ask, and Mom would reply "fine", not telling him that they were occasionally going hungry.

They speak of the future, of their past. They do not speak of the B29's that limped back to England only to crash on approach, their violent end felt through the ground like a vibration rather than heard. They do not speak of her working two jobs after her Dad's death while logging, to support two younger brothers and her Mom. So much spoken and unspoken, two mourning doves calling back and forth across an endless summer, all now just held together by a blue silk ribbon.

Not all missives that went back and forth the seas were good news. Just up the road from Mom's, the week after Pearl Harbor, a neighbor stands by the mailbox with a piece of paper not even big enough to start a fire with, the envelop fallen to the ground as bland words exploded one by one, and that families grieving began. There was only the notice, there was nothing to bury, though you don't need a wooden box to capture the form of courage and sacrifice.
How many millions of messages like that went out in old wars, not taking long to read, as there was no real time in it, not in that demarcation between the hope that someone lived, and that place where you knew that was no longer true,  that you wished that this moment existed only outside of time. There were only moments in which a written word hung in the air as if hopeful silence had been so long undisturbed it had forgotten its purpose.

I look again at those letters my Dad kept. The actual forming of the letters is uniform, flowing, like words pent up too long,  The letters are Sixty some years old, powdery and delicate in my hand. But Sixty years was just a moment ago for my Dad, something so fierce and encompassing as war always standing out in his memory, no matter how many years distanced him from battle.
I still get letters from my Dad, less frequently now, perhaps one every couple of months. I've kept quite a few of them, some faded with time, a bit frayed around the edges, the words upon them written with clear, flowing script, the stamps carefully placed, the envelopes addressed with precision.

They began when I first moved away from home. No one really had computers then for personal use at college, the phone was the most common source of connection for family. But as computers became second nature, my father continued to write me letters, refusing to learn to use a computer for such purpose.
Simple letters, simple words.

The letters themselves are not full of particularly sage wisdom, or things that might be considered of great depth. They are simply the doings of his day and the memories of his heart. What he planted in the garden, where he went out for lunch after church. A bird he saw on a long drive, a story of that steelhead trout he finally caught under the covered bridge at Grey's River. He wrote to me after he buried someone he loved more than life, words flattened out on paper, like rain, but not lost like rain, streaming out to a valueless torrent of dissolution. His words, though heart rending, uplifted me, a love not lost though life's unravelings. When I held on to him at her grave, while taps played in the distance, his words were engraved on my heart.

They were words that didn't teach, or lecture or portend, but words, that on their reading, mattered. For they filled me with elation that in their capturing, those moments would never be lost, that even when my Dad was gone, there would be stories, of meals, of moments, of caring.
Is that a testament to the power of the word or simply the power of the habit of writing? That which, however mundane, comes to our mind each day. Small, succinct phrases of thought that capture the dots of our lives, connecting us, transcending time or moment. What was in the past is here in my hand now, as if it transcends time and for just a moment we are free of the confines of past tense.

He is here with me now, with his story of that fine day, that could have been seven years ago, or seventy, in words caught and released, a brilliant day, a fighting salmon. A trip to the store, or a small prayer over his breakfast, shared with me here, as if the paper had caught it in time. Our lives are in these moments, gone too quickly, rushing water over our days.
Each of us live in the present, yet we contain our past, and we can not put our future into words until it too, becomes our past. Time is an illusion and death is a transient bend in a long journey that will take its own time. Past, present, future, I'll retain my Dad's stories, his laughter splayed across a small white page, as if part of the paper. As I fold it up and place it carefully in my desk drawer, to perhaps be opened up one day again, a thought comes unbidden. I realize that what is here, be it thought, emotion or the trivial events of our day that we share, for someone, somewhere, will be the most precious of memory.

I take out an envelope and small piece of paper, and on it scribe some words. You are the best of men. I love you. I will not mail it now, but I put it in the envelope and seal it with a small kiss from my lips, the paper resting for a moment like a wafer on my tongue, confession, redemption,

When the generation of texters have departed the earth, who will there be to inherit all those messages, the loves and losses spelled out there in abbreviated script that aren't published for the world, intimate moments and messages that were simply sent and discarded?  Will anyone chronicle, the building up of hope or the cold dismissal of it, there upon a word. What remains of them, those words, short scratchings, almost depthless there against old, transparent glass? So many words, so many thoughts floating around the ether, impossible to capture with a faded blue silk ribbon.

How sad to me, that there will be no one to physically inherit those stories, and perhaps a story of that one great love, all those words gone silent as ghosts, vanished into a the chill emptiness of electronic space, like sparks of ice.

- Brigid