Memorial day weekend, 2020
What do we gain by looking at the past? Some might say, very little. Yes, we live in the present, and hope and plan for a better future – but the past still speaks. It tells us stories – sometimes in words, in letters, more recently in videos, and silently in photos, in eyes that gaze into our present from times we never walked in, and people we never knew in life.
Perhaps you, like myself and many others, look back on your childhood and feel a combination of gratitude, nostalgia, and yearning – some things you treasure, some you wish could have been different. Although we cannot change what happened –sometimes, life gives us an opportunity to see the past through new eyes. I was given that opportunity, and it helped me understand my heritage, my family, and life in ways that I would not otherwise appreciated. I feel today’s attempt to share how this came to pass for me will not be fully successful – too long, too personal, perhaps – but if you are willing to come along, let me try to share how seeing the past anew helped me build a better future.
This look back begins with a stack of letters in the 1960’s – from probably my age four to age 8 or 9. My Mom, as she did with so many things, kept the letters – some would I know question the wisdom in that, but I am grateful she did. They are undated, for the most part – all but a few typewritten, from my Dad to my Mom. He would type them at work, I believe – some even on the stationary of the “correctional institution” where he spent his career. Although I have wonderful childhood memories, I have few of my parents being together; they divorced when I was 7, being separated much of the time before then. So they are my father’s words, not my memories. Whether my Mom wrote back is unknown, but I doubt that she would have.
Here is the beginning of one from I believe 1964, just the first stanza of a poem from my Dad to Mom –
Ten years ago today, you became my wife
My pledge of love to you was for all of my life
Our honeymoon I remember, so well, so very well
Why did it have to change and become a living hell.
The poem, titled “To Nancy with Love”, continues for 7 more stanzas. One page, brimming with regret, anger, sadness, pleading – like all of the roughly 2 dozen others. My parents had married in 1954, my brother born the next year, I in 1958. She had worked at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, her coworker’s husband worked with my Dad at the state prison at Terminal Island; they met, dated and were wed at her mother’s home. They honeymooned in Ensenada (she kept the napkins and matches from the hotel) and ultimately moved into central and then Northern California as my Dad transferred to different correctional facilities, eventually returning to Southern California, where family remained and where I grew up.
Dad’s letters are filled with pain, but vary wildly, sometimes even within the same letter – one five pages long, typewritten. Dad revisits arguments, his attraction to other women, medications, group meetings, talking with doctors and counselors and even the priest at the prison; feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, apologies. Promising that he has always loved her, always will; in one, he blames Mom for the most recent incident, whatever that was, and points out her “unhappy life with your father”, which was true. Her parents had divorced in the 30s, when that was quite rare, and I know she was scarred by it. But he also admits to his problems with drinking; of physical violence between them; of emotional abuse. He talks about leaving our home after a heated argument, emotionally upset, and driving the car off the freeway. “I often cry when I see the boys”. Yes, I realize, he truly did cry. Nearly 6 decades later, I can feel the pain in his words. He wanted a better life, but he didn’t know how to make it happen.
Of course, all these letters were written while they were separated, and in some cases even after the divorce. Some letters touch on problems at work, staying with his older brother whose wife had died, his ailing parents, his mother’s stroke and hospitalization and his father’s decline. In his later years, Dad told me stories of his own father’s alcoholic issues – about his mother sending him to “get his father home from the whorehouse in time for Sunday dinner”. One letter includes a detailed budget, with the notation – “Since there isn’t any money, I will have to stop drinking, but not because of your dramatic performances and emotional feelings”. She was emotional; she also had severe health problems, exacerbated by rheumatoid arthritis that developed after my brother’s birth. They struggled financially, like many families. And I am sure there were other families in our neighborhood dealing with alcoholism, or worse issues.
It is somewhat revealing to read Dad’s thoughts about my brother and I, referencing regret about missing my birthday, our first Christmas apart, and other events. In one, he says my brother has “much better control of his temper” and that I am “still full of the devil but is growing also”. There is a note about taking my brother camping for the weekend with the neighbor boy (their father was a local attorney, also divorced). In one he talks about plans to go to Disneyland “soon” – I remember a trip, perhaps that was a seed that led to my own love of “the happiest place on earth” – a place I saw as a refuge from my own pain in adult life, when I had not yet realized the answer to the loneliness and isolation I struggled with, like Dad, lay within, not in escape from reality.
Mom also had stacks of letters from attorneys; issues about his owing fees, the ownership of the home and property; and Dad’s handwritten will leaving his property to my brother and me. One attorney letter advised Mom that Dad was going to tell the state, who had financed the home mortgage under a veteran program, that he was abandoning the home and to take action against her; in another, her attorney indicates that Dad was representing their divorce was “off” due to “conciliation” – but that was not to be. Their divorce was final in October 1965 after years of separation. In the end, the home was awarded to Mom, along with $150/month alimony and $100/month child support for each of us – $350 a month. Mom’s physical and emotional deterioration continued; she never returned to work.
In 1966, when I was 8, my Dad married a wonderful woman who did what she could to include both my brother and I in their lives. We went on vacations to Pismo Beach and Arizona, I spent weekends visiting them a few blocks away. In time, they had a son, and he and his family continue to be a blessing in my life. My Dad did all he could, I believe – within his ability – to provide for my brother and I, to support us. I remember the weekend visits, the trips to work, watching “Seymour presents” and “The Outer Limits” on TV together, and later, support and encouragement in other ways. But no one has all happy memories.
Friend, I do not want you to read these words and be downcast or depressed. But something inside me quietly whispers that whatever value my experience has to offer others is dependent on understanding the depth of what came before. I literally have only one memory of my parents being together – my coming home from kindergarten with classmate Tina from down the street, to find my father screaming at my mother outside the home, her on the porch crying, and then him driving away. I suspect it was a form of self-preservation that the rest was erased from my memory. In a home with little money for anything other than food, I grew up feeling different from all the children in my classes; I remember the pain of 5th grade open house when I was the only child with no one coming to participate, and the loneliness of not being able to talk about TV programs with others because we had no TV in our home, and no car to go to school events. And, in time, I became aware of the other difference, the one that was not allowed, that caused my isolation to become even deeper – from others, and from myself. I buried my soul so deeply that life without hope, and intimacy, seemed normal.
We put together photograph albums, we set them aside, with the pretty pictures, the smiles, the happy memories. They are wonderful to revisit, and good to preserve. Personally, I do believe there is just as much, if not more – to learn from our family’s struggles and losses. Growing through them. Understanding them, perhaps – and maybe, using those lessons to chart a better path ahead. It may seem contradictory to expectation, but for me – coming to understand the flaws and challenges and disappointments of the past gives me hope.
When I first found these letters, I was 40; my Mom was in a care facility as I began the nearly 8 yearlong process of what I now call “reclaiming” my childhood home. She had a bedroom, their bedroom, filled with boxes and things she had shut away. In them, I found the letters, and … treasures. Photos of family I never knew. Family I reconnected with. And in time, that led to sharing, stories – healing.
My Dad and I had a difficult relationship for many years. My own journey seeking help – for a long time, for the wrong problem, unfortunately – led to separation from most of my family other than my Mom. During that period, I found the letters, and I learned to see that my understanding of the past was, like all of ours, incomplete – I came to a point where I realized that forgiveness was the only door that led to hope.
It took years, help from others, and pain – but in time, I made peace with my Dad. I dare to say we became close; my stepmother passed in early 2006, and my Mom a few months after. Dad outlived them both, and I am glad I could offer him support and care in those days. After they were gone – I continued to gain insight into their struggles, and mine as well. Eventually the desperation of my own emotional isolation and embedded shame brought me to a place where I found – acceptance, of them, from them, and for myself. Recovery, hope, faith – and love. And, in a way, I feel closer to both of them now than ever before. I know them differently today.
One letter is different from all the others – Dad wrote it to my brother and I at Christmas, with a note that he asked Mom to read it to us. In it, he writes – “I know that you both will someday have children of your own and my fondest desire is that you will become good, strong men who are loving, and will love your wives and your children. Never become mad or hateful as you only hurt the ones you really love and yourself”. Is that not the wish for every father for their sons? My mother has two grandchildren, my father four; none from me, but in my imperfect way, I try to share with all four the love that my parents had for their fathers, and I. And, thank God, I have come to know love, not in the way my parents wished, but one just as real and alive.
I close the file on these letters from the past; but I do not destroy them. They have shared their lesson with me, and perhaps hopefully with you. Parents and children, spouses and lovers, hopes and disappointments, sorrow and joy – like the rhythms of waves washing into our lives, generations repeating the longing of our hearts. With forgiveness, we have the chance to begin again, and build life anew – together. It is not easy, but there is a way to seek it, and to give it, for us all. I am thankful I found that doorway, and the life beyond and ahead.