Saturday, October 23, 2010
A little bird told me
I must have been about nine when my father’s aunt and I became pen pals. Our exchange of letters began after one of her visits to our house and lasted a year or so. One of our subjects, as I recall, was my piano lessons, of interest to her because she loved music and taught piano in her home. We also wrote about a little blue bird — something that she had either made or bought while she was visiting. The image is vague now. I want to say it was made of felt, or that it was embroidered on her purse; but even as I do, it seems the memory is about to come alive in my hands, with the warm beating of wings. And so it always is when I say I can’t remember, or can’t fully remember, that I imagine something new to carry forward and pass on. At such times, accuracy seems less important than the joy of recalling what might have been, and which probably was in some dimension and to some degree — for what child, what growing girl or boy would not naturally imagine to life a doll or toy?
Many years later, when my wife and I had young children of our own, this same aunt and I resumed our exchange. Our letters were short; she loved the kids, and was amused when I told her how often it was necessary for me to “thrash the children,” to which she responded, “Well, don’t thrash them too hard,” as if the thrashing were inevitable, and she were as concerned with my piano-playing hands as with the kids’ bottoms and psyches.
What an amazing woman. When my great-grandmother had the stroke that kept her in bed for eight long years, she dropped everything and moved in with her parents that very day to take care of them. She also, at the age of seventy-six, helped my grandparents — her brother was my grandfather — in their home. Finally, when she died at the age of ninety-seven, I thought, who will take care of us now? I thought the same when another of my father’s aunts, this one on his mother’s side, passed away at only a slightly younger age.
Further along into my thrashing years, as part of our correspondence, I began to send miscellaneous publications containing my meager literary efforts. This, too, pleased her. I have no idea what’s happened to them by now; she saved everything, so I suspect her daughter has them — her daughter, who is now about seventy-six. And so a pattern emerges....
What started me on this line of thinking is my own private correspondence with visitors of this blog. Years ago, when I first began to contemplate writing as a way of life, one thing I knew was that I wanted to exchange letters with people — almost as if my published writing were to serve as an excuse to carry on correspondence. Now, to a fair degree, I see that is has, both in the form of the comments we exchange here, and the correspondence I carry on privately. It isn’t a huge amount in the scheme of things, but what there is of it is very important to me. In each and every case, crossing borders and time zones, these conversations are with people I haven’t, and might never, meet in person. This makes them that much more special. And again, imagination plays a big role. While many of the details are likely amiss, they do arise from what we glean from each other, which means some of them must be accurate as well.
At the same time, it distresses me that there are letters I can’t answer — messages born of innocent hope and misunderstanding, of loneliness, loss, or despair; or perhaps I should say I don’t know how to answer them. I want their authors to be happy, but the happiness sought, to be of lasting value, must really come from within. On the other hand, maybe that is all I need to say.
Until finally, everything I write becomes a letter: to myself not least of all, and which, when opened, has its own joy to reveal and sorrow to bear: We are here for such a short time; how can we not love and want to help one another for that very reason alone?