A few years back, my older sister gave me an old candy box. Across the top the words Gobelin Chocolates, share space with an illustration of three pieces of candy, one cross-sectioned to reveal a pink core. At the bottom of the faded and chipped yellow and blue box are the words
"ALL SOFT CENTERS."
"What?" I asked with my eyebrows.
"Love letters. From our father to our mother."
The second question, also verbally unasked was why? Why are you giving them to me now? What am I supposed to do with them? He didn't talk dirty in them, did he?
Recently, during my bi-decadal swamping out of my basement office, pool room and guy cave, I spotted the box on a bookshelf. Needing a break from cleaning (I'd spent a grueling ten minutes already), I pried off the lid and examined at a collection of envelopes, sent to my mother in the late fall and early winter of 1942 and 43.
To read, or not to read?
There are several good reasons I've held them in abeyance in the years since my sister dropped them on me.
I can't get past the idea that, somehow, even though my mother died in 1983 and my father nearly ten years later, that I would be invading their privacy. My father wrote those letters for my mother's eyes only. Who am I, nearly seventy years later, to eavesdrop on a confidential correspondence?
The second reason betrays the ego-centric tunnel vision of most human beings. Since I wasn't born until November 7, 1948, my parents, in my reality, didn't really exist prior to that time. Their life, as mine, didn't begin until that day. Oh, sure, I knew that all six of my older brothers and sisters were products of my widowed father's first marriage and my mother's earlier, unsuccessful relationship, but those were abstract concepts. The Carroll and Jo Eleanor Nettleton I knew were an older couple (I came along very late in their lives. Probably not a poster child for successful contraception), who worked hard at a variety of low-paying jobs, were involved in their community, taught me life lessons by example, and supported me in everything I did or attempted to do. They were not, by any stretch of my young imagination, two people who'd carried on a love affair, either via mail or face to face, six years before my birth. No how, no way. Even now, at 62, the same age my father was when I started high school, the perception is hard to shake. Your mom and dad, for crying out loud, were never people. They were your parents. A totally different genus and species.
Except here was the evidence, in a box that was once packed with sweet confections from a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I slid off the lid and drew the first envelope, dated November 2, 1942 out. Using my thumb and forefinger, I plucked out a single sheet, filled on one side with my father's small, neat hand, and began reading.
Darling, Jo: it began. Over a period of several days I read most of the letters. Much of it was a chronicle of the trials and tribulations of two people, during the difficult days of World War 2, trying to come to grips with their feelings for one another and the complications caused by my mother's rapidly disintegrating common-law marriage. I was struck by the depth of my father's love for my mother and the heartfelt expression of his ache for her. He used fanciful words, (all G-rated, thank you very much) that I would have never guessed were in his vocabulary.
I'm glad I read the letters, even though the mere mention of them still makes my eyes go moist. It brings my folks, gone these many years, back into sharp focus. It's almost like a blank silhouette of them has been suddenly filled with color and light and fully animated. They lived, they loved, they did the best they could. It's all any of us can hope for.
"ALL SOFT CENTERS"