The other day, my mother (your grandmother) came into my room (well, technically, as of this writing, it’s no longer “my” room, but serves as a guest room in the empty nest of my parents’ [so your grandparents’] roost) – she came with a small manila envelope and a handful of letters and envelopes and various folded papers bound together in twine into the guest room in which I happened to be lounging. She sat down on the edge of the bed and said they were letters, preserved over the years by her aunt (your great-great aunt) Peg, from my grandfather (so your great-grandfather) to various relations of his, mostly to his wife and mother (so if I have this right, that’d be your great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother, respectively?). She said I could have them if I wanted. She herself did not know their contents and had no interest in reading them for various reasons, the psychology of which is beyond me here (you’ll understand it when you’re grown, though the thought of it makes me mournful). I thanked her and she left the room and I unfolded a few dusty leaves and surveyed what I had been given.
Thus far, the majority of the contents in these documents are of little interest to anyone outside of our family: reflections on the weather, reports on the children (so, ok, let me see, that’d be your great-uncles, three of them total, in addition to my mother, i.e., your grandmother) and their developmental accomplishments (in one, from my grandmother [your Gr-GndM] to her mother [your Gr-Gr-GndM], my uncle [your Gr-U], now in his early seventies, had just learned how to roll over), summaries of the day’s minutiae, recipes, travel plans. Of broader historical interest, perhaps, are a series of correspondences between my grandfather and his mother from the fall of 1943. In these, my grandfather writes of his duties and achievements as an officer in the medical corps stationed in San Francisco (later he would write from various European countries with which I hope you are by now familiar thanks to your public education history and geography classes). He and his correspondents refer calmly, almost detachedly, to “the war” and their plans once that particular catastrophe reached its inevitable conclusion.
Doubtless all the letters are interesting in some Studs Terkel-ish social-history kind of way (just look him up on your hypodermic hotspot micro-hard drive or whatever piece of technology you kids have now that makes storing anything in your own brain obsolete), and there is something to be said here about your average GI’s writing habits during the period (and let me say that I don’t mean to sound so disillusioned, but the letters are really kind of boring, and there’s a lot of them). But more particularly, kiddos, two things here occur to me: 1) these letters were not written to me, nor was my existence so much as an unconscious consideration in their composition and so I feel somewhat like a peeping Tom, and yet: 2) I feel as though they are mine – that they belong to me and are, in a way, for me, and that now: 3) I am responsible for their, I don’t know, preservation? – that I have been endowed with the secret knowledge of a dusty little corner of family lore (our family’s lore) and am now this little piece of lore’s caretaker and executor and ambassador. Apart from all that, however, or maybe in addition to it, is the feeling these writings have given me a sense of something that I can’t quite put my finger on but if I had a gun to my head I’d call it: “belonging”.
You see it’s like this: so I don’t know how many of you there are – circumstances willing there’ll be a few of you but even if there’s just the one, know that you’re loved and everyone’s proud of you and you are the light of our (i.e. mine and your mother’s, whoever she is) lives – but there was only ever one of me and I never felt, I don’t know, that connected to our family. Sure, I love them all dearly, and they all seem quite fond of me, but I never felt, viz. my (your [our]) family, that powerful and comforting sense of identification and belonging that all the families I see on television seem to evince during holiday get-togethers or group vacations. And I think the root of that estrangement comes from what I would diagnose as a dearth of familial tradition. You see, I never really knew the elders of our clan (those elders, that is, who were the elders before the elders with whom I hope you’re currently familiar assumed their “elderly” status). My mother’s mother (so as a refresher, that’d be your Gr-GndM) died when my mother was eight years old and by the time I was old enough to register his presence on a conscious level my mother’s father (your Gr-GndF and author of many of the letters mentioned above), after alienating most of his children and extended family by remarrying some resentful childless troll scandalously soon after his wife’s (your Gr-GndM’s) death, was well into the throes of dementia and, thus, a kind of non-presence for me. One of my mother’s aunts served as the de facto matriarch but she lived far away and wasn’t all that fond of visits. All of which is to say that the voices of those who were most responsible for the transmission of our family’s history and traditions had either been extinguished or, as it were, cut off from the group before anything could be transmitted in a way that made sense to anyone.
Thus a kind of generational isolationism took hold. What traditions my mother and her brothers did inherit were informed by so much bitterness and disappointment that they were either discarded wholesale or performed with so much irony as to be uncomfortable for everyone (witness, e.g., your GndM’s thing with the mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving and your Gr-U Carl’s awkwardness around televised sports). Which means that the “traditions” and the attendant narratives I inherited had not been passed down from generation to generation but were created on the fly one evening or one summer solstice some time ago in these elders’ early adulthoods when occasion and expedience arose (which, ok, maybe if I were a wiser man I would acknowledge is the source of all traditions). Another way to put it might be: our family’s tradition is this very lack of tradition. And yeah, I suppose there is something special about creating from the foundations the things your family will cherish as tradition, but it comes with the cost of this weird kind of ahistorical unrootedness that, in many ways, leaves me (your father) feeling, I don’t know… unmoored. Rudderless. There is no legacy for me to uphold, no originative narrative of which I am a part and a continuance, no historical alliance to which I belong and whose posterity I am responsible for upholding. And yes, I know what you’re probably thinking, yes it is quite liberating to feel so free of any kind of historical determination, but you must understand the other side of things which is that without tradition, without the narratives tradition engenders, one is left with this overwhelmingly oppressive sense of – and I can’t think of a better phrase than this at the moment – existential dislocation. As in: without these traditions and narratives to orient oneself, it’s easy to feel as though one doesn’t belong to a place, a group, a people – that one is, in a word, alone.
Which brings me back to your Gr-GndF’s satchel of letters. And lest you get your hopes up for a saccharine Hallmark ending (they still have Hallmark cards, right?), let me say here before I continue that the satchel is most certainly not a total palliative to the anxieties enumerated above (as if things were ever that easy). But it is something special. And it is something that begins or, maybe better, re-establishes those narratives that were severed with the trauma of your Gr-GndM’s death. Because, really, until I began to read them, the names in these letters existed as flat, wraith-like characters in a series of someone else’s anecdotes. They weren’t really people – at least not fully, not in my mind – from whom I descended and to whose legacy I belonged. But now, I’m beginning to know them. I’m beginning, through their writing, to construct memories of them. Your Gr-GndF, for example, as you’ll see in the enclosed letters, was a man who, having never left Cleveland, found San Francisco a strange place indeed; who didn’t know yet when his next leave would be but hoped it would be soon and looked forward to seeing his mother and his sister (even though he hadn’t gotten a letter from Peg in “quite some time,” despite the frequency with which he’d written to her); who preferred his new Chevy to the old Ford because the heater actually worked; who hoped Mr. ¬–¬–¬– would allow him to return to his old job at the tool factory (!) after the war; whose handwriting was crooked and cramped and was (gratefully) replaced with the cleaner font of a manual typewriter in November of 1943 in a letter to his mother proudly informing her of his promotion to Corporal; whose wife’s handwriting looks exactly like his daughter’s and seems, almost more than anything else, indicative of the familial attachment to these people I didn’t know I had.
So then we do have a family. We have a history. It’s all there in the letters. And part of what makes these letters special is that they are singular: there is only one of each. These documents have not been mass-produced for mass consumption. They are ours and only ours and they speak of only our family’s singular experience of a collective history. Believe the writing for it is real. The writing is our tradition. It is our narrative. It is how and who we know ourselves to be.
In closing, then, my dearest progeny, I hope you cherish what I here bequeath to you. No, the letters are not to you, but they are for you, and they are yours. And You are Ours.
Your loving Father
1. Imagine, if you will, your GndM as a lonely and newly motherless eight-year girl whose brothers fled the home, too heartsick and outraged to stick around, and an emotionally distant father who replaced her mother with an angry old witch, stinking of bourbon – I’d imagine you’d’ve tossed out their “traditions” too.