Letters: life fixed, life retrieved

“Letters,” noted journalist Janet Malcolm, “are the great fixative of experience… They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so.”

Over the past months, off and on, I’ve been re-reading letters — letters from Helmut’s family in Paraguay, as well as our letters to his mother, who had carefully saved them so they could be returned to us later. In 2020, the year before Helmut died, he looked into that box of letters and read quite a number of them. Mainly, I think, he read the ones we had written, which he enjoyed because of the way they brought parts of our past back to him. He would stop sometimes and tell me bits that he discovered or delighted in.

I didn’t look at the letters then, but when I decided to go through them to organize and re-read and decide if any should be kept, I was astonished how many there were. Apparently we’d kept them all! I gave up counting, but it was hundreds. (Since many were written on thin airmail paper, they hadn’t taken up much space, even in a pile.)

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Some of the letters we got from our Paraguay family over the years

Reading old letters can definitely be interesting. It can also be unsettling. As Janet Malcolm said, in reference to a biographer’s use of letters, “Only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers his sense of life retrieved.” So thoroughly can a letter provoke presence and a sense of “life retrieved” for me — especially from two of Helmut’s sisters with whom we were close and who were terrific correspondents in terms of lively description and “gossip” about anything and everything — that I find myself wanting to sit down immediately and reply. The next moment, I shake back to reality, of course, for these sisters have since died. But it feels like whiplash.

For the same reasons of presence and sense of life retrieved, however, I’ve enjoyed the instances of Helmut’s letter writing I come across. I did most of the correspondence to Paraguay, which he appreciated, while becoming well-known for Schluss machen (making the close, i.e. the last few sentences). This was — understandably — never quite enough for his mother and one sister, who poked at him about it sometimes. After enough nagging he might fill up a whole page. A letter to his mother for Mother’s Day is a treasure to re-read. There’s never been doubt about his affection for her but, once again per Malcolm, what letters do is “prove…that we once cared.”

This might be a logical place to launch into regret that handwritten letters through the postal service are no longer a thing, but I’m not going there. We loved getting letters, that’s for sure, and I’m grateful for the retrospective this trove has given me, but I haven’t forgotten that it took time and effort to write them. As much as we wanted to keep in touch with those faraway in South America, it could be burdensome at times, for they were many families writing us and we were one family replying to them all individually. I like the various and often easier ways we have of staying connected today and will gladly leave, to future generations, the task of figuring out where life has now been fixed and how to retrieve it.

Charlie Pride at midnight

I keep telling myself I don’t want to write about grief, but then I show up to my semi-regular blog writing and it wants out again. Grief expert Alan Wolfert says grief is the interior experience and mourning expresses it outside yourself. And mourning is essential, he says, because one heals through mourning. (My friend Ruth Bergen Braun alerted me to Wolfert’s work; see “The six needs of mourning”.) So here I am, expressing.  

I’ve been reading Emily Carr’s journal, Hundreds and Thousands. I had not known that, besides her wonderful painting, she was such a good writer. Describing her dead sister Lizzie “radiant” in her coffin, all her “frets and worries” gone, she writes “I always want to remember Lizzie’s coffin face. It was so completely satisfied.” Seeing the dead person may be traumatic in many circumstances of death but my experience of Helmut’s body was similar to Carr’s of Lizzie’s, for in spite of the awful sad silence of him no longer breathing I was struck by the beautiful ease of his face. He looked good. I’d always thought him handsome, but what I mean is, his face was settled — utterly settled. There was nothing intentional or effortful there, just rest. This wasn’t entirely new for his face, for he’d won resolve and patience in his suffering, but now it was a step beyond; perfected.

So I was thinking about that, remembering, and later, when I went to bed I couldn’t sleep because I was imagining him slipping away from himself with his last exhale, but I couldn’t see him running or leaping or dancing, the way people often imagine their ill loved one’s release. He was never runner, leaper, dancer. What it would have to be was the sensation of wind, freedom on the open road. What he felt on his motorcycle. A motorcycle ride was like prayer for him: restoration in almost every kind of way. And if his drive took him northwards or through Birds Hill Park and he happened to see a deer, that was a God-sighting as bonus. D4EBDA4D-42F0-4903-A444-A202CBD15A03

Yes, that I could imagine. Or flight. He’d taken a test flight once and would have liked to learn to fly. Air and speed or lift. Not the mechanics of these objects in their metal and leather for his soul, but the particular ecstasy of movement they imply.

Or like hitting the road in his El Camino. Which made me think of our honeymoon, a road trip from Manitoba to Ontario and back again, all those hours in that two-seater brown El Camino when we listened, many times, to his tapes, chiefly Kenny Rogers and Charlie Pride. Music in my family of origin consisted of two kinds of music — classical and church music like hymns, fireside choruses, cantatas, oratorios, and the like — to which I added radio pop, but he liked country, and that’s what we listened to that week, and the sway and croon of it seemed just right for miles and miles to go and for a honeymoon.

So I was thinking all this and wasn’t falling asleep. Suddenly I wanted to hear Charley Pride once again. I knew there was a CD of his hits in the other room, which hadn’t been listened to for ages, and I figured maybe I would listen the next day, for nostalgia’s sake. But no, I needed it now and I argued with myself because I glanced at the bedside clock and saw it was midnight. But who would it bother, I was the only one in the apartment, and besides, I would keep it midnight low, so my wanting won out and I got up and put the CD in my little boom box, next to my pillow, and I listened through all 20 songs. They sounded a bit thin in that little thing, and began, the sleepier I got, to sound more or less the same, but for that hour or whatever it was, I lived in the longing and heartbreak of that music, and in the memory of being on the road a long while ago, together.   

A walk to the library

I need to return a book to the library. As I usually do, I’ll walk. Want to come along?

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I live in an 80s-something building here in Tsawwassen, B.C., in a third (top) floor corner apartment, where the view from my balcony is of another building in the complex with adjacent parking lot, 16th Avenue just behind it, and –happily– trees, both surrounding my place and in the distance.

I take the side door out and go down the back lane. It’s a sunny 22 degrees today, and the air seems mostly clear of smoke. At the corner of 16th and 56 Street, where I turn left, there’s a Shell station. The price of gas is $165.9 L today. I have no good idea why we pay such a high price for gas, but this is a car-based community and people simply pay. If I happen to be in Ladner, a mere 7 kilometres north, when the tank is getting low, I fill up there, because invariably it will be several cents less per litre, which doesn’t amount to that much on a tank, I know, but it’s the principle of the thing and it’s the best I can do.

I walk along 56 Street, the main road into Tsawwassen, a busy road, lined with little strip malls, fast food places, and apartment or condo buildings. Fortunately there are boulevard plantings, including –yes –palm trees, to draw the eye. Once I’m up the bit of incline into “town,” there are several ways to get to the library. I’ll take my favourite way. (I remember how excited I was to discover it.) I turn right off 56 into a quieter street, and then through an archway (is there anything more intriguing than an arch?) and through the “common grounds” of a condo complex, which happens to be a shallow lake. It’s like a little taste of Venice I suppose, in that the water comes right up to the buildings, though there are no canals, gondolas, or singing gondoliers. 

 

There are no benches to linger on and enjoy this lovely sight — I guess the sitting and enjoying belongs to those who live in the condos, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone sitting on their balcony and doing so. I cross the wooden bridge over this little shallow sea, go around the fountain at the end and follow some other paths that weave around the buildings until I come to a last slightly elevated path up, and there, the town’s library.

The library recently set out artificial turf and some chairs and the town supplied some bright flowers made of that polyethylene foam used in pool noodles. These blooms have been rotated through different parts of town, with the hope to cheer us up. Unfortunately they prompted a huge, even nasty, debate on the local Facebook group, on account of some decrying the lack of regard for the environment, because the foam is difficult to recycle, and others decrying those concerns as grumpy pettiness, and on and on it went. Honestly, this town is the friendliest place, people greet when passing on the sidewalk and so on, but some exchanges on that social media site have me shaking my head. Although I next-to-never post, I did venture a comment about the undesirability of leaf blowers once — citing a California community that banned them — and landed in a hornet’s nest; did I expect people to rake and sweep? One guy said he would find out where I lived and come blow his blower outside my window until it ran out of gas. Seriously, though, this is a friendly place.

So I drop off my book, then take another way back to 56, through a pleasant patch of water and rocks at the centre mall. I decide to stop at one of Tsawwassen’s two thrift stores, to check if there were any “new” jigsaw puzzles (I like 500 piece sets for a quick puzzle fix) and run my eye over the books. This store now organizes their books by colour — a long shelf of red, another of blue, black, yellow, and so on — and the usefulness of this baffles me. I remarked to a volunteer shelving some books that it’s actually more difficult to scan through the books that way. He replied that it was too hard to alphabetize them. I hadn’t suggested that as the option, it would be fine, in my opinion, to have them all mixed up. But, speaking of books, I forgot to mention that Then the Fish Swallowed Him was an excellent read, “convincing, unnerving,” as one review put it, about a man named Yunus (Jonah) in modern Iran, caught up in the prison innards of a repressive regime for a slight involvement in a bus drivers’ strike.

 

But homewards now, back down 56 Street. On very clear days, the far mountains are visible as I come over the bit of the incline. Walk, walk, walk. I look up at my apartment, left side corner, top floor. It used to be that when I walked to do errands, Helmut might be on the balcony when I returned, and we’d wave, or, when he was still able to go out, he might be coming back and I would see him, so same thing from a different perspective, that exchanged gesture that always provoked a tiny spike of happiness.

And now I’ve nattered and chattered all the way there and back, and I thank you for your company.