When the Unexpected Arrives

Mr. NYer and I are among the last people who still send Christmas cards.  Okay, that’s only partially true: We do receive cards from others, so someone else is sending them.  And we actually send holiday cards, because we have friends who don’t celebrate Christmas, plus there’s always the chance we won’t get them out in time to arrive before December 25, in which case they’re New Years’ Cards.

My mother always sent cards. When she sat to do the Christmas cards, she wrote the salutation to every member of the family, including all the kids.  She’d often include a note.  The cards had to be hand-addressed, too.  At some point she gave in to the logic and ease of pre-printed return address labels and self-stick stamps.  Helping her stamp and seal Christmas cards introduced me to the wonders of using a soaked sponged in a cup instead of your tongue.

We get fewer and fewer cards every year, but because we live so far away from friends and family, we feel it’s a good idea to keep sending them.  But we’re lazy — I print out address labels and return address labels and we order cards with our names inscribed.  Rarely do I have time for personal messages, and I’ve never been one for the annual letter, although I enjoy reading them from others.

Most of my cousins are on this routine exchange with me.  We send them a card, they send one to us, and only if we’re all using photo cards do we figure out that someone has lost weight or let her hair turn grey, or got a new dog.

Yesterday, as we were leaving to go to a friends’ house, Mr. NYer brought in the mail.  It included a card from one of the cousins whose greetings tend to be as impersonal as mine.  Mr. NYer opened the mail and said, “Take a look at what your cousin sent you.”

There was a note, in my cousin’s neat engineer-style print.  He thought, it said, that I’d enjoy seeing this letter my mother sent his father (her brother), before any of us came along.  It was from 1945, and she was writing to her favorite brother from Brooklyn.  He was in Europe.

My mom died 15 years ago, about six months after my uncle had died.  The fact that this piece of paper had been kept by my uncle, as he made his way home from the war, and saved, through his marriage and family years; and that his son had held onto it for over 15 years and still had it, and that it was now in my hands, kind of knocked me back a bit.

Especially since my parents saved none of their own wartime correspondence.  I’m sure it was copious — they married in 1942, before my father’s induction and nearly 4 years of service in the South Pacific.  But it was theirs and not for the prying eyes of anyone else.  As far as I know, those letters were destroyed soon after my Dad shipped to the west coast and disembarked from his train cross-country.

So, we’re about to go out the door, but I have this letter in my hand in my mother’s handwriting, and I have to quickly read it, knowing that I will read and reread it over and over in the next few days.

It’s dated August 11, 1945.  To jog your memory: that’s a couple of days after the bombing of Nagasaki.  There was word that Japanese “accepted” the terms of the Potsdam agreement, which called for total surrender, but no formal surrender.  That would come four days later.  Her brother was in Europe, having participated in the Normandy invasion as a glider pilot and slogged through the Battle of the Bulge.  Her husband was in the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa was one of these), part of the massive build up of troops and equipment being assembled for an invasion of Japan itself.  About his postings she simply said, “I’ve certainly learned a lot of new places since the war, places I never knew existed.”  And probably would have been quite happy to have never heard of them.

She nods to the moment in history, saying that she imagines he’s heard about the offer of surrender, and writing, “We are all living by the radio, so to speak, to see if it’s accepted. I for one hope so.  This war has been bloody and long enough and it’s time this slaughter was put to a stop.”  She describes the mood in New York as “quiet,” noting that “Everyone is waiting for the official word before celebrating.” But she adds, “Me, I’ll wait until all our boys come home.  Then, I promise, to get drunk.”

And anyone who knew my mother knows how unusual that promise was.

Mostly she’s chatting about what they’re up to at home.  She’s been busy helping their sister-in-law who’s just had her second child.  Meanwhile, another sister — who worked in a shipyard as a Rosie the Riveter — was “on vacation this week getting her place fixed up.”  Four siblings were all married just before or during the war, but waited to set up separate housekeeping until their spouses were back.  My aunt must have been expecting her husband soon.  And despite the vast relief at the prospect that the war might finally be nearing an end, she noted that it might not be all good news.  “I just wonder,” she wrote about her sister, “how much longer she’ll have her job as a welder.”

Another sister, the youngest at 15, “wasn’t working anymore” she wrote. “I made her quit, her hours were changed every day,” my mom wrote. “I never knew when she was coming or going.  She was also gaining too much weight eating all that ice cream.”

And anyone who knew my mother will find that one easier to believe.  Not knowing if someone in her care was “coming or going” was still a concern 25 years later when I was 15.

But there were other issues to explore, too.  My uncle had apparently sent home two rifles. It’s impossible for me to imagine my mother was happy about this, but she managed to conceal any disapproval.  She reported that their youngest brother, then in his teens, “greased them both then put them away.”  But she couldn’t quite resist.  “What do you expect to do with them? Go hunting or just keep them as souvenirs?”  And then, a bit of commentary about her father.  “Pop wants to hang them up on the dining room wall.  You know Pop; he want to hang everything up.”

It’s after 7 pm.  She’s been managing the house, acting as mother to her siblings (my grandmother died five years earlier, and Mom was the oldest girl), and now, at close to 8 pm, she wrote that “I’m waiting for Pop to cut lobsters so I can cook them for him.”  But she added, “I hope you get home before the end of lobster season.  If Pop knew I wrote you about what I was going to cook, he would yell at me.  He thinks you feel bad because you can’t have them.”

I, for one, feel good about having this little glimpse of my mother before we all came along.


An Abrupt Change of Plans

Twenty-two months ago, I turned 60.  The next day, I sat at my computer and created a table four rows across and six down.  I typed the numbers 1-24 into the boxes, printed it out and posted it on the wall of my workspace.

A month later, I crossed out the 1.  Every month afterward, I crossed out another number.  Last time I did it, at the end of November, there were only three boxes left uncrossed.

As some of you have probably guessed, I was counting down to the day when I could, if I wanted, retire and begin to collect Social Security.  In the last few years I’ve thought a lot about how I want to spend the rest of my life.  If nothing unexpected happens, I figure I’ve got 15 or so reasonably active years ahead of me.  I’ve worked pretty much nonstop for a long time, since I was a college student.  I have other interests besides work, something not all my colleagues can say.  I enjoy travel, love to act and direct, would love to have time to write, and have so many books to read.  My mother worked until she was 70, but not me.  Because even though I might reasonably have 15 years or more, it’s also true that I might not.

So I figured that, sometime within the next three years — maybe one, two at most — I would retire and launch into the next adventure.  At times I was bored; sometimes tired; often just wanted to have the freedom to pick up and go.

But last week I unpinned the paper with the 24 boxes from the wall above my computer and I ripped it up. On November 9, everything changed.  And it’s good, it’s okay.  There’s too much work to do and I’m too fired up to retire.  More than that, at a time when lots of my friends are feeling helpless, I’m actually in a place where what I do might make a difference.

Turns out that I remembered that I thrive in opposition.  I’m a natural-born rebel.  If he were alive, my father would agree.  Well, the opposition has a job for me, and I’m all in.