My mother died at the end of October. At her wake, Duyen Pham asked if my mother ever wrote me, back in 1975. That was the year Duyen (13 at the time) and her family fled from Vietnam to America. My parents took the family into their home for a couple of weeks, and Duyen wondered if my mom had commented in writing about that experience.
I thought she had, so after I returned from Chicago to San Diego, I searched my house for old letters. Stuffed into shoe boxes and packing cartons and a battered red cloth suitcase, I found a jumble of offerings from siblings, old friends, ex-boyfriends, former co-workers, and my mother. It took me two days to organize it all. When I was through, the pile from my mother was the largest. Between April of 1974 (shortly after my husband and I moved to San Diego) and 1986 (when I began throwing her letters away; they seemed such a commonplace), I'd saved 138 of her dispatches. The vast majority are two to three pages, typewritten and single-spaced.
With Duyen in mind, I pored over the ones from 1975 first, and it struck me that my mother was 51 that year. I'm 51 now, though I was 22 when I received them. But I felt ageless as I read, a time traveler transmitted to another era.
She never went to college and had no literary aspirations. Her grammar sometimes made me wince. But she recorded what she was experiencing in her life and in the moment. "My dogs are going crazy as they've spotted a bunny and a squirrel in our yard," she interrupts herself, halfway though a two-pager. "Oh, how they'd love to chase them!" While commenting on my middle brother Lee's behavior in a June letter, she types, "Oh nuts, I think he [Lee] just got up.... I hope he doesn't look over my shoulder as I don't like people to read what I am writing."
References to the Vietnamese family pepper the second half of that year, though there's less direct description than I had hoped for. Having the Phams stay with them so delighted both my parents that I think they splurged on more than the usual number of long-distance phone calls to tell me the exhilarating details, which meant the letters came less often in those weeks.
My mother's missives from that year told me more about the smaller dramas that preoccupied her. A postal truck smashed into the rear right side of her VW Dasher and inflicted $682 in damage. A blizzard lashed the Chicago area in March. Here's my mother's report on it. (All the ellipses are hers. I believe she thought they were somehow more conversational than cold, unadorned periods.)
"I've been wanting to write about our great MARCH SNOWSTORM last Wednesday.... What a surprise it was...most of all to our weathermen. I was at work at the Tennis Club and Lee was to pick me up about 3:10...but he said we may just as well stay inside as there were about 20 cars lined up trying to leave the club and going nowhere as the lead car was deeply stuck in snow. Well, we left in about 15 minutes and really slipped and slid at about three miles per hour. Lee stopped once to help some guy and then he and I went grocery shopping at A&P because I knew that once I got home my car was going to stay in the garage. The wind was so fierce and the snow was coming down sideways. We got about 12 inches which is a whole lot! Mary [my sister] and I then shoveled the driveway. John [my youngest brother] had done it twice in the earlier afternoon and Lee was still sick with bronchitis. Anyway Mary and I had a good time. We took a few pictures.... I hope they turn out. The Farmer's Almanac was true....it said we'd have our worst snow storm of the year in March and we did!"
She chronicled pleasures more often than dramas. In August my mother and youngest brother came to visit us in San Diego, and somehow they got upgraded to first class on their return flight, where their menu selections included (according to her letter)
"Filet Mignon, Chicken Teriyake, Crab Legs All American! The dish of appetizers given to each person (for themselves) consisted of shrimp, hard-boiled egg, tomatoe wedge, large cheese wedge, rolled-up salami and I think 'anti-pasto' (if I am spelling it right)...this came with bread sticks....then a delicious salad and hot rolls choice of several kinds. Before our plane lifted off champagne was served. With dinner adults had a selection of wine and John was on his fourth coke. After coffee and fudge sundaes, liquors were offered plus 'after dinner candy.' "
Even more delicious than all that food was the greeting they received at the gate at O'Hare. "Lee and Dad were at the airport to meet us (we landed on time). Dad greeted me by picking me up and swinging me around...for someone under 30 this is a great greeting but for me...hummmmmm.... I am a little more sedate BUT THAT DIDN'T BOTHER DAD!" Once back at the house, she noted that their tiny garden had produced "good size green peppers, cucumbers, green beans, onions, radishes and the tomatoes are really red now. Dad picked nine beautiful ones yesterday."
In October of that year, she finally got the new carpet for her living room that she had coveted for so long. "It really looks beautiful! It's a real blue blue....sculptured and the sculpture design has dark green in it...from a distance it looks like a dark blue or black. In fact, much to my surprise there is a little of this green in the other area of the carpet but you can't see it except on close examination. I'm going to enclose a little piece of it for you to see.... The carpet has an underlay of waffle rubber about 1´´ thick."
What's not in the letters is any awareness that less than 11 years later my father, who adored her and amplified her already abundant native happiness every day of their 34-year-long marriage, would be dead at 56, from lung cancer. My brother Don, today a despairing alcoholic, was industrious and ambitious then. My brother John, who's in a psychiatric prison for having stabbed my mother to death while in the grip of psychotic delusions, was a happy-go-lucky 12-year-old. Every one of them, along with Mary and Lee and me, felt optimistic about the future.
My mother's letters from 1975 plunge me back into the fullness of her life that year. I haven't read through all the other letters from all the other years yet, but I'm happy to possess them. I wish I had more. I wish I'd saved every one of the ones I tossed. I wish phone service had never gotten so cheap that my mother stopped writing. I wish she were writing me still.