A Penny for Your Thoughts

cropped from scanIn the late 1940s, when my dad traveled with his college football team to games around the country, he would send a one or two sentence message to my mom for one cent and a longer letter for just a few cents more. His letters were not gushing with heavy sentiment or blatant lust, but in their innocent simplicity, were still full of affection and longing, which I found enduring. Words like “swell’ marked the times they lived in, and nicknames like “Slim” and ‘Buddy,” are a sweet reminder that they were once young and hopeful, full of possibilities and dreams, before the days of diapers and bills that we all lived

My mother and father on their honeymoon out west, in the San Luis Valley, Colorado 1950

My mother and father on their honeymoon out west, in the San Luis Valley, Colorado 1950

through together.

The digital age has it’s perks, and I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to not only sort through my parent’s boxes of letters, trinkets, flowers smashed between pages from long forgotten bouquets, and personal relics, but to also be able to scan them digitally in an effort to preserve them long after even my generation is gone, is just remarkable. It’s interesting, though, how before text messaging and email, people took the time (because that was their only means) to write postcards and letters from weekend get-a-ways or excursions just to ‘drop a line’ or write a ‘goodnight’ or ‘miss you’ passage on hotel stationary and local postcards and post it quickly…without much effort. The effort, it seems, was in the ‘stopping’ to contemplate words that silently said, “I took the time…was focused on only you”…and literally sent a ‘penny’s’ worth of thoughts.

During my life with my parents, my father often mentioned a wish to see certain far-away places and reflected on the few travels he was able to experience with fond remembrance. But, the normal burdens of raising a large family on a teacher’s salary required he often work during his summers, and as the years ticked by, dreams of traveling were always prefaced with ‘someday.’

He got to Florida and California to see family and took a few jaunts to neighboring states, but my father never got very far into those ‘somedays’ before his life ended. We had our summer weeks at the ‘cabin’ in mid-Michigan, where dad, I’m sure, relived his boyhood memories, and perhaps on some level those rugged, lazy days satisfied some of my father’s desires to ‘get away’ or ‘go places.’ But, there were greater places that he dreamed of seeing, including ‘the Alamo,’ which is now just thirty minutes away from my home. Well-versed in American History and a lifetime of western movies, when my dad learned that I was moving to San Antonio, he was so excited about the prospects of seeing the Alamo and experiencing the vast mystique of Texas, that he immediately started planning a trip. Time and fate had another journey in store for him, so that trip was never to be.Letters sent to Mary Ann from Miles on the road_0001

Letters sent to Mary Ann from Miles on the road_0002I sometimes wonder if that is where I got my wanderlust, all those reflective talks of Colorado, St. Louis, and Oklahoma…places he had only gotten the chance to ‘stop’ at

Dad at far left standing. The tallest guy, always.

Dad at far left standing. The tallest guy, always.

during his team traveling: places he wanted to share with his family.  Perhaps my father’s unfulfilled dreams are what fuel my desire to drive…anywhere…just to see a new landscape, to immerse myself in history, and learn how other people live.

It is certainly easier to travel now, even by car. With GPS systems that talk to you, cell phones that can save you in a desperate situation, or to just ‘check-in’ with those that are worried, have made the scary and dusty road of travelers a safer place, to some degree. No need for the hotel stationary or picture postcards either, when just a click of one’s phone can get you and a monument pictured all over the worldwide web and a quick ‘I am here’ message can cover more territory that a one cent stamp ever could. One can send an “I love you” or “Goodnight” without the effort to find a decent pen, and calm the hearts of mothers and lovers with ease and some level of immediate satisfaction, as well.

But with all things new, there is something lost and something gained. The gains of the digital age go without saying, but the losses…the anticipation of a letter from far off places, the unique scroll of a personal signature from the hand you love, even the ‘art’ of the stamp…are certainly ‘lost’ to our comfort with immediacy. Someday, not too far in the future, there will be no more boxes of letters, postcards tied-up in once-worn hair ribbons, or those precious markings of personal handwriting left to future generations to sort through, run their fingers across, and read.  Who will ever know of the deep abiding love between two people, secret letters, and children’s words to Santa or from summer camp, or see specially selected cards with hearts and kisses penned inside, if all of our communications are just floating in a cloud? It may make no difference at all to the people who exchanged such words, but to those left behind; those before us will become more of a mystery than they already were.

Since the beginning of time, man has written on ‘something’ to leave his mark on the world or on the hearts of others. Letters and postcards are artifacts of another time and people.  Their thoughts and affections are the ties that lovingly bind us to family and friends like the ribbons they are tied in. They are sacred, real, and evidence of who we are and where we come from. They are words on a real ‘wall’ to tell our stories that will last.

Once this digital age of people disappear, what will people know of us? Surely, just as dreams of traveling roads to new and interesting places will be lost to obligation and duty, now our very thoughts and reaching words will be lost, as well. Stationary, stamps, pens, even worse… eloquent and descriptive words… will be lost to time eventually. “I ‘heart’ U” will replace a poetic tongue, a deeper meaning, and the message of “I took the time…” will lose its value. Perhaps it already has.

From a small pile of letters that my mother saved, I have gotten a glimpse of a young man and his youngLetters sent to Mary Ann from Miles on the road_0004 love for my mother, and it’s painted a lovely portrait of a 1940s couple, just as their hats, gloves, and shoes do in photographs. It documents a time in history, a union that still cultivates family roots and belonging, and reminds us how to talk to each other…even as one is just running off to meet a train or a plane…or drifting off to sleep. A penny sent a lot more than just a quick message, and is was worth so much more than we will ever know and understand again.

Certainly our grandchildren won’t know, and if we are able to save what is left of the written word in diaries, personal letters, and photographic images, they will surely see these ancient artifacts as a marvel of meaningful intention from a more enchanting time when every stroke of the cursive hand and now unfamiliar words, meant people had ‘time’ to consider others, to find the right words of love and affection, and to send them across the miles through some magic world called ‘theLetters sent to Mary Ann from Miles on the road_0005 mail’ where others ‘waited’ patiently to receive them. They may shake their heads in wonderment, but what a gift of history they will be able to experience hands-on and a personal connection to people who once were theirs.

Maybe a spark of romanticism will inspire them to do the same, and ‘writing letters’ on paper with a pen, in one’s own hand using original thought, will become a new trend again. Handwriting will return to the school curriculum where ‘writing specialists’ will be hired and revered on campuses across the land. Stationary will appear on store shelves again, and countless people will become employed by the US Postal Service.  Best of all, the writing of beautiful ‘words’ through the art of communication…may become valuable again, and people may stop and ‘take the time’ to send a line or two just for the love of it, leaving evidence that they once loved, were ours, and were here.Post cards sent from Miles to Mary Ann 1948-49_0014Post cards sent from Miles to Mary Ann 1948-49_0013

Post cards sent from Miles to Mary Ann 1948-49_0003Post cards sent from Miles to Mary Ann 1948-49_0004

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Through My Father’s Tears

 “History is a guide to navigate in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
~David McCullough, American Author

dad alone by lake

Dad in his early teens by the lake

Just as ‘all who wander are not lost,’ all who ‘look back’ are not sad, depressed people living in the past. Through the popular notion that to ‘look back’ on one’s life is somehow an unhealthy indication that one is ‘living in the past,’ and that we should all just ‘let it go’ and move forward, we are being lead to believe that we gain nothing of value from the people and places we once loved or knew. As if to look back fondly, or with bittersweet regard and nostalgia, one must not be happy where they are. What does that say about our society’s interest and reverence for history, geography, and ‘home?’ Furthermore, what does that say about our respect for those that came before us, and, for that matter, how WE will be remembered, if at all?

Everywhere we are bombarded with daily reminders to ‘let go of the past,’ as if it’s a social disease to be curious, to tell stories, reflect, share pictures, delve into one’s family history, even attempt to unravel mysteries or heal old wounds that would, indeed, help people move forward. Yet, some of the healthiest people I know are well-versed in history with a calm acceptance of their personal past. In fact, they live more in the ‘present’ BECAUSE of their awareness of the past, than those who prefer to numb themselves in hopes of forgetting, or preach the ‘let it go’ theory because they don’t want to forgive or understand the motivations and circumstances of those that came before them. “It is what it is!” is the one- dimensional decree of the ‘don’t look back people .’ Maybe it’s a good intentioned defense mechanism, or fear, or ignorance, but promoting a overall attitude against ‘looking back’ is to me rather arrogant, as if all things begin and end with you or me.

Even as an elementary school teacher, I can see the sad decline of the social studies curriculum, limited acknowledgment of notable people, moments, and movements in our country’s history; limited space in the timeline.  And what of the poets and lyricists? Awwww….they make us think about the past, don’t they? There is no time for THAT! It’s all about the application of math and science to the detriment of a well-rounded education. In our need for the illusion of perfection, to rise above other countries, are we not losing vital learning experiences  that would only serve to make us a better country…better people? You know the old adage, “Learn from your mistakes?” Well, if we are not willing to talk about the past, how can we learn from any mistakes? What a terrible disservice to the present and future generations, who may not be that interested in hearing about old Uncle Bill and his dancing tattoos, or how their great-great grandfather was a ship captain on the Great Lakes, but at some point they may be. What will they have to draw on later in life when they have questions and we know nothing?

“An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We’re raising a lot of cut flowers and trying to plant them.” ~David McCullough, American author, from “Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are,” April 18, 2005

Dad with his brothers

Dad with his brothers

Dad and Archie

Dad with his brother Archie

My father was a humble man, as many from the ‘greatest generation’ were. Born in 1929 on the onset of the Great Depression, he saw his share of sadness, poverty, and hard knocks in life. His sixteen year old brother, Archie, was shot dead accidently by a stray bullet in a ‘cops and robbers’ incident on the streets of Detroit in 1943. Daddy was fourteen and lost his best friend; his closest companion. Dad’s mother had a brain tumor in her late 40s and after her brain surgery, he wrote, “We had our mother with us for many more years but she was never more than 75% of who she was before. My wife and I were deprived of a beautiful friend. My children were deprived of a youthful, fun-loving, talented grandmother. The only thing not affected by her operation, was her sense of humor which was as sharp as ever.” And THAT is what I remember about my grandmother, her sense of humor. But, I also learned so much more about her through my father’s recollection of her earlier days when she was healthy and there for him. He painted a different picture than the limited one I saw myself.

Dad with his mother swapping hats

Dad with his mother swapping hats

At family parties or after dinner with all of us sitting around the table like a classroom of students drinking coffee, he would share bits and pieces of his life, and for someone like me, who truly was fascinated with social history, even the sad and unpleasant parts, I was the perfect student.

Several years before he was diagnosed with Lou Gering’s Disease (ALS), he was sharing a story with me about his father. It was more of an intimate look into his life than my father had ever shared before. Dad and I were not ‘buddies.’ He was always revered as ‘someone above me’ as many children, even in old age, perceive their parents. So I respectfully asked him if he would consider writing down some of his memories. He hee-hawed a bit, as older folks do, but I persisted. As a news writer in rural Minnesota, I saw this all the time. Older people just didn’t want to talk about their lives. Usually ‘other’ people would say it’s because it was too painful, but I always managed to get them to open up. Their resistance had more to do with humility than pain. I had a ‘girl-next-door’ quality in interviewing; they felt I could be trusted and was as interested as a daughter. I always was, but in my dad’s case, I was the real thing, and very interested. So, he told me he’d write things down as he remembered them, which, for you aspiring memoirist, is the best way to do it.

In my father’s case, time wasn’t on his side. Once we all knew he wouldn’t be with us much longer, he decided to follow through with our ‘memoir plan’ the best that he could. In my mother’s view, it was painful, not only physically (at first he lost control of the muscles in his fingers, and then later in his tongue so he could not speak clearly), but also emotionally. But, my father was a wise man. He had a choice. He could have sat there watching one TV show after another until he passed away, or he could ‘recall’ his life, walk through it again, and relive both the sad and joyous moments of it in order to pass those memories along to us, namely to me, because he was a man of his word.

My dad had a romantic soul. Even in that terrible year of a slow, unforgiving death, I knew he wanted to be remembered for more than what appeared on the surface; “father, teacher and coach.” There was more to him, as there is to all of us. In that way, we were cut from the same cloth. He was passionate and emotional, and at times sobbed uncontrollably. Tears make other people nervous because they assign their own beliefs to them. They believe tears must be bad, uncontrolled emotions, a sign of weakness, heaven forbid! Have a drink! Crack a joke! Numb that shit up! Yes, my dad cried a lot through the process. But in my mind, he needed to after a long life of being ‘the strong son and brother’ in the family, standing tall and taking care of everyone, as he himself faced one challenge after another, and then got hit with this final blow. Crying is a release. ‘Letting go,’ if you must, and sobbing is as natural as laughing, indeed it’s healthy to let the tears flow to help wash away the grief of lost time and people.

After his funeral, I took home a briefcase full of chicken-scratched notes, badly-typed stories, some on torn pieces of paper, smeared ink passages as if someone carelessly scribbled them out on a wet napkin. The text was full of big Polish names I wasn’t sure about, and places along the avenues and streets of the old Detroit where my dad grew up…places now closed up and gone. It was a mess of a project and took me too many years to compile, but what a gift! In his wake, he left a wide path of understanding, a portal into what makes us who we are, and a colorful slice of life that will never be seen again. He created room for forgiveness, a sense of history and belonging, and a place for others to stroll back easily into the past and find a piece of themselves.

What I admired most about my dad’s memoirs was how they were written straight up. No frills, no analyzing, no blaming or interpretations of why people were the way they were, other than the obvious socio-economic scene; they were easy to read. He seemed to share everything he could remember, from the everyday life of city boys playing in the park, to his first sexual experience in the woods, to his endearing friendships with the men who were still his best friends to the end, to the sweet simple romance between him and my mother.

“Our courtship was a series of parties punctuated by quiet walks and talks. Our favorite date was going to the Rialto on Gratiot and Mt. Elliot, then interrupting the workers at a local bakery and taking home a loaf of fresh bread and sharing it at her house on Kirby Avenue. I walked the mile from Canton to Kirby at least a hundred times. I knew she was the girl for me.”

The courtship of mom and dad

Mom and Dad courting

As I wrote and re-wrote his words, crying and stuffing bread in my mouth, I found myself falling in love with the boy who would become my father. I could see my young parents stopping at the 1940s bakery, them walking hand-in-hand down the darken streets past the once manicured lawns of a different Detroit. It was easy to imagine them sitting in my grandma’s kitchen by low light, sharing the loaf of bread and maybe a cup of coffee…the difficult goodbyes…and daddy walking that city mile home in the dark alone with my mother’s perfume on his collar. My only regret was that he was no longer with us, for I knew there must have been more that he just didn’t have time to write.

Sad? Yes, on some levels, but sweet as well. But, in the telling and sharing, the listening and receiving, there is a kind of awakening and freedom that comes from the voices of the people before us, and an awareness of why we are on the paths that we walk, why we love or distain the things we do, and why we can hear our parent’s voices in our own words. The perception that it’s an avoidable dark journey to look back, is that of people who don’t want to ‘feel’ anything, people not able to face the fact that maybe other people had rougher lives than theirs, or better. People who want to glorify or dramatize than own existence, rather than learn that we are all more alike than different. In fact, I think that knowledge of one’s family history and dynamics, and the acceptance of it, is necessary to be ‘truly present’ now.

I know there are people who had very difficult, unthinkable childhoods. I also know that many therapies designed to help those bearing the scars of childhood, are based on recalling and moving through those heartbreaks to heal. I did this, in a way, with my mother. Our weekly phone calls included many laughs and ‘how are the kids’ chats, but often we circled round to the ‘what happened when and why’ of our lifetime together, and respectfully we opened up those old wounds, explained, shared, cried, and healed our relationship. But, we had to open the door to the past to move forward. We had to become vulnerable, let our armor down, and be willing to feel something! The emotional gift of delving into the past together, my listening and appreciating all her stories of her life growing up, her feelings about my father and the years when we were babies, brought clarity and life-confirming affirmations and gave us both a kind of peaceful satisfaction that, regardless, all was forgiven through understanding and knowledge. We had no loose ends, and we both knew that when my mother left this world I would remember her for only the love and goodness she brought to my life. In return, I received wisdom.

There are a lot of broken people out there. Some drink or eat or drug themselves to forget. Some just hide their memories away, proudly carrying the banner of ‘be present’ when, in fact, ‘they’ are still stuck somewhere else. I think it’s time we stopped this overly romantic view of the ‘here and now’ and the warnings, especially to our young people, that looking back is dangerous and unhealthy. It’s time we try again to remember, to show respect, and honor those paths we and the people before us have walked, with a story. There are other banners like, “Everyone has a story to tell,” that can be plastered all over Facebook walls and encouraged in classrooms. How about we give a listen, read their writing, and learn from the past, if not for pure enjoyment, then maybe for a lesson or two. One look at a day on a social network or in a ‘test focused’ classroom or at the crap they call TV these day, begs us to reassess what is really important. Certainly history has to rise from the dead and enlighten us again, especially if it’s our own.

My father at college

My father at college

My father was the first person in his family line to finish high school. He was referred to as ‘the professor,’ as was common of college-bond kids back then. He earned a Bachelors of Philosophy (Ph.B) at a tough Jesuit university and later, after bringing eight children into the world with my mother on his teacher’s salary, he earned a Masters of English. He understood history, the human condition, and the need to teach children how to think and make connections. He had every right to be arrogant, but he wasn’t. He often worked two or three jobs, made a big pot of oatmeal on weekend mornings and coffee cake and donuts, like his parents before him, and let us shake on the sugary toppings in brown paper bags like easily amused kids with new toys. He sang old vaudeville songs in the station wagon with us, and enjoyed a smoke and cup of coffee with my mother who…well, had her own story, was a fireball of emotions, got in trouble with the nuns, was socially gifted and a sexy little thing to my dad right to the end. And in the end, he was recalling the simple things of a lifetime that stayed in his memory, worthy memories that he was, gratefully, able to share. In the process, I think we all learn a whole lot about ourselves.

“My brother Archie and I were constant companions. We shared the same bed, shared the same food and treats, played together, built model airplanes together, and went to the movies together. We did everything together. …My parents often were called upon to sing duets at house parties or whenever there were gatherings. My mother had an uncanny ear for harmony and my dad had a pleasant lead voice. Archie and I picked up on all their songs and managed to add a few of our own. When we went for long walks, we sang. When we had to wait in the car for a period of time, we sang. Even when we went to the outhouse together in the summer, we sang. That first walk to school alone without my brother after his death was the longest walk of my life.”
~ “Miles, the Memoirs of Walter Miles Currie

Dad with us kids in Lake Michigan

Dad with us kids in Lake Michigan

Through my father’s tears and words I grew to understand the boy who lived inside my big, brave daddy. He grappled with fear, like we all do, yet seemed to be the strongest person in our whole extended family, and that just makes me what to be braver and maybe take another big step just for him.

If you want to embrace the ‘here and now,’ then you have to look back first, even if it hurts. It’s good to learn about the people who ‘shaped us,’ for better or worse. It provides us with roots to grow, so we (and our children) aren’t just a bunch of “fresh cut flowers trying to grow themselves.” When we grow, we experience emotions, and to ‘feel something’ is a healthy human response, at any age. It provides a connection, insight and understanding into the reasons why we do what we do. It awakens potential and sleeping dreams. It waters us, gives us courage, passion, or even a fire to change our situations, and it’s the very thing that will enable us to truly ‘be present’ and blossom into the whole human beings that the people before us had hope for when we came into the world. Look back, heal, write your own story. Believe me, someone down the line will want to know who you were…