These are mundane discoveries. No family secrets are divulged, no buried scandals. Yet to me they are golden because these letters tell the story of how my mother became a mother. And it is fitting that she is telling this story to Nancy, who is six years younger and not yet married. Will Nancy remember her words when she is entrusted with mothering Jean’s baby boy?
I read the letters again, more slowly the second time. More soberly. My image of my mother has been vastly altered. I have always viewed her as a tragic figure, a mother who died young, whose children either never knew her or can’t remember her. But these letters reveal that her life is unfolding according to plan. It will be her family and friends who suffer a catastrophe when she dies suddenly.
On this March evening, I finally stop reading. I turn my gaze to the window and stare at the familiar trees lined up like sentries across our back yard, surrounded by crusty piles of late-winter snow. I listen to the rustle of wind spreading through the branches, highway noise in the distance as commuters return home from work. Behind the trees lies Crooked Lake, spreading outward like a cloak. I have lived on this Minnesota lake with my husband and children for over thirty years. I am temporarily living alone while John volunteers as a physician at a refugee camp in Rwanda. My children are grown.
A familiar feeling washes over me, as if rising up from beneath the quiet waters, a feeling of sorrow so great its strength weakens me, sinking my shoulders from the heaviness. The letters aren’t enough to assuage this grief. But they are a precious gift.
I run my hands over the smudged stationery, embossed with pink and grey flowers and feathers. I stare at the elegant handwriting gently tilting rightward. I press my nose against an oily stain. I lift the stack and carefully put it back in the manila envelope. Then I place this unexpected gift against my chest, this envelope which contains long-lost memories of me and my mother, when I was a little girl and she was still alive.
Martha, daughter of Jean