By the end of my grandpa Pop’s life, we thought we had pretty much cleaned out his and GG’s house. Their third house, the first two having burnt down. Somehow they were able to salvage or save a few photo albums from the fires. Most of what was in their house – beyond the personal items like the stuffed squirrel Nutsy on their bed since time immemorial, and the miles of fabric scraps and piles of needles in my grandma’s sewing room – were things that their siblings – 10 of them all in – had left. They were the last of their family line in that way.
Uncle Wilbur’s mining hat and rusted lamp. Uncle Kenneth’s WWII pins and flags. Aunt Velda’s porcelain elephants from her time in Thailand.
All of them were wondrous in their own way. A period of time in someone’s life. Someone who I mostly never met and my mom remembers pretty well, long weekends of the aunts and uncles visiting, playing rummicub and spades and smoking cigarettes and pipes and 6-packs of beer in lawn chairs on long summer nights with the windows open and the cicadas chirping. I can feel those memories tucked into my own in that house on S. Hibbard street, the pretty white Victorian with gingerbread trim.
We would figure out what to do with those artifacts of my great uncles and aunt’s lives, mostly keeping them in boxes for now to deal with later when the Marie Kondo craze would ask if they gave us joy.
The thing though – the thing we were most surprised by – were the letters. Stacks of envelopes, with handwritten letters, delicate, from Alaska, the western Pacific Admiralty Islands, on a steam ship and plane and train all the way to my grandma in Gillespie, Illinois. And then those she sent back, on the train, plane, and steam ship to corners of the world, while my grandpa built runways and went below deck when it got too cold or too hot depending on which part of the Pacific he occupied.
When my grandma died unexpectedly, and my grandpa became fully blind, we found other ways to keep their memories alive together. Stories, books, photo albums, visitors. The longer he lived, the more he remembered, or at least shared, of his youth, his time in the war, the early days of their lives together. But he never mentioned the letters. And we didn’t do much cleaning out when he was alive – choosing to spend our time with him instead. To try and be present.
What do we do with these letters. My mom said, these hold my mother’s secrets. They are so private, I cannot possibly open them. What would I need to learn that I don’t already know? That they loved each other so fully and presently? That their love will endure forever?