May 12, 2013
My mother would have turned 90 last week, and in her honor I decided I'd read a letter she once wrote me, one I'd deliberately never opened.
She had given me the letter on the last day of one of her occasional visits to Chicago.
"Honey, I jotted a few things down for you," she'd said that day, setting a thin bundle of cheap white stationery, folded into thirds, on the arm of a living room chair.
I'd seen her there in the chair, early in the morning, scribbling next to the big front window, intermittently pausing to sip her coffee or stare at the trees while giving her gnarled fingers a rest.
"Should I read it before you go?" I asked.
"No, no," she said. "It's nothing important. You can wait until I die, if you want."
Her crack about dying seemed to be a joke, but for some reason that was probably connected to my fear of her death, I left the letter on the arm of the chair for several days after she went home. Eventually, I picked it up and tucked it, unread, in a cubbyhole of my old oak writing hutch.
My mother lived for a couple of years after that, and as she grew frailer, unable to travel much, we still managed to see each other often, mostly at her home in Oregon. We had a lot of time to say the important things to each other, so I never worried that there was anything in the letter that I needed to know.
But what if there was?
After she died, almost three years ago, I began to wonder. Walking past the writing hutch, I'd sometimes feel the letter nagging at me, like a child tugging at a hem. I'd glimpse its edges while I fished in the hutch for something else and I'd think, "I should read that."
I didn't. I couldn't. What if it said something I didn't want to hear? Once, I reached for it and opened it just long enough to glimpse her tiny, flamboyant handwriting, the penmanship so alive it jolted me like a downed electric wire. I put the letter back, unread.
But now it was her 90th birthday, with Mother's Day coming, and it was time. I plucked the letter from the cubbyhole.
If your mother has died, at whatever age, you've probably played the game: I wonder what she'd be like if she'd lived longer. What would it be like to talk to her now? As I opened the letter, I felt I'd been granted a chance at a new conversation.
The letter, as it turned out, held no shocks or secrets. It was about trips we'd taken together when she was old, and she had written it mostly journal-style, not to me but to herself.
One trip was to France, and she remembered how, after insisting she didn't need her cane, she'd fallen in the Luxembourg Gardens.
"I wanted to just lie there a bit admiring the scenery," she wrote.
Another trip was one we took to Laurel Falls camp in the north Georgia mountains, where she had spent several teenage summers.
"Oh," she wrote, "the thousands of memories that flooded over me. I cannot at the moment describe what I felt as I wandered past what remains of the old stone library, the boardwalk, the huge stone fireplace which is all that remains of the gym where so many grand stage productions took place. All I know this morning is that an empty spot has been filled and I can close that special memory door. Gently. Very gently."
She added a P.S.: "Looking back to see if I can read my scribbling, I notice how many times I mention the word 'moment.' (At this moment, living in the moment). Is it possible I've finally grown up?"
Through the letter I saw my mother not merely reminiscing, but shedding her past, her yearning to touch the past, as if she were getting ready for death the way you might shed your clothes for a bath.
And she was doing something else. Toward the end of the letter, she addressed me directly: "Thanks for so many wonderful memories!"
On her 90th birthday, I was the one who got the gift, one of the best gifts of all on a birthday or Mother's Day or any day: The gift of a thank you.
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