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THE LETTER: "ON THE EVENT OF MY DEATH"
bibliomaniac
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On the envelope

In my mother's funeral file was a note that there was a letter for me in her safe deposit box. She said the letter had originally been intended for my stepfather, and after I read it, I could give him a copy.

The note wasn't in the safe deposit box. I speculated that she changed her mind and ripped it up. Of course, I was incredibly curious what she might have written and when. What was so important that she made a note to look for it?

The day before her memorial service, my brother Stuart and his wife Kim were going through boxes of unlabeled and unordered photos when they found the letter which had the words, "To be opened only in the event of my death." "Phil" was crossed out and my name inserted.

I opened the letter. It was a typed letter, two single-spaced pages with a few handwritten insertions, and it was dated November 28, 1961. That was nearly 49 years to the day of her death. It was written to Phil just a few years after they had married. Unfortunately, he died last year, so he never got to see it. Maybe that was best. After all, he'd remarried and had had a lovely wife who'd died from the flu a few years prior to him. I'm not sure he would have wanted to read how much my mother had loved him when she was in the prime of her life and feeling low.

Interestingly, this was written after she had had three children with the fourth yet to come. It was four years before she took the plunge to use her education and become a working woman when less than one percent of executives were women. The 1965 Civil Rights Act put a legal end to discrimination against women. A Harvard Business Review survey that year showed that 90% of business executives felt that for a woman to succeed in business, she had to be exceptional. My mother fit the bill. Her letter, though, showed many, many doubts.

On the morning of my mother's service, up very early and with this letter in hand, I changed my speech for that day. To do the letter justice, I need to put it in perspective. Thus, I give you what I said that day. You'll see that I ended it partly borrowing from my blog last month.

Eulogy for My Mother

         Here's an obvious thing: I knew Mom since the day I was born. Except now, recently, I've looked at her life much in the way one would watch film strips in grade school. That's where the teacher at the beep would slip to the next image of a volcano or gorillas in the mist. We all have memories of my mother, and mine start when I was in a crib. Beep. When I wanted out of my barred bed, there she'd sweep in with her soothing sounds, her face filled with anticipation, and lift me to freedom.

            Beep. There I am having to take a nap at age five at the house on the lake, but I wasn't tired, so I picked at a hole in the wall, which led to a chunk falling out. I picked and more chunks fell out, and soon I learned of lathe beneath the plaster. Very interesting. The hole after a half hour was perhaps the size of a head. Mom gasped when she came in to get me, but I don't remember her being mad.

            Beep. That same house had on its second floor a glass window that looked down onto the first floor. To us kids, it was like a portal in Captain Nemo's submarine, and we could spy on the life below us, usually our parents or someone at the front door. One day Laur managed to get his body stuck between the narrow posts that kept little boys from climbing onto the window and probably falling through. The fire department had to be called-all very fun with the men in their big boots slipping Laur out to freedom.

            Beep. I was maybe eight years old and I came across Stuart, age two, drinking Bruce floor cleaner from a can. I ran to Mom to tell her, and she quickly ran up--and all I remember was how she remained calm, clear on what to do, and she called the doctor to find out should she make him throw up or not. Stuart had to drink milk and then get his stomach pumped.

            Beep. Elihu appeared when we were in the new house, and I remember the little baby and how Mom would breast feed him. Skip ahead a few years and slides, and there's Elihu coming out from the woods, his face blackened and hair singed from playing with gun powder and matches.

            This is to say, Mom had four children who kept her on her toes. We were each distinct, and she didn't mold us to be anything other than what we wanted to be. Because she was a woman, however, she had to fight for what she wanted to be, which was to be a business executive in man's world of the sixties and seventies. At dinner, we'd hear what some crass guy told her that day, or what she did to prove herself at work. She effused creativity in the ad copy she wrote and the campaigns she designed. Unwittingly, she made her four sons feminists. Last year, Ann and I introduced her to the TV show Mad Men, about ad executives in the sixties. Mom adored the show. I pictured Mom as the scrappy Peggy Olsen character. Ann, however, bets Mom identified with Don Drapper, the lead who has to be more than what society had set for him.

            Mom would talk and tell stories, which is what delighted many people. When I was a teenager, though, her sense of hyperbole and my sense of independence drove me to not listen anymore. In one ear, out the other. However, I rediscovered my mother in my forties. She was like a fantastic channel you didn't know you had on your satellite dish. This is when I started traveling with her by car from Wayzata to the Indiana Dunes to visit Katherine Washburn, another incredible and independent woman. In Mom's stories, even if some of them were exaggerated, I heard the truth. I sensed how, when she divorced my father, she was ostracized by society and even her parents. She took Laur and me to Palm Springs, where she seemed to rediscover life. Another year later, she met Phil.

            Two days ago, Stuart and Kim gave me a letter they found that Mom wrote. On the front of the envelope there had been one word: Phil. His name had been scratched out and my name penned in. Also on the envelope was a note saying it was to be opened after her death. She wrote the letter in 1961, when she was 32. It starts, "I'm in one of those moods where death seems closer than life, and I want to say a few things in case I'm right." She goes on to say how she's had a beautiful life with Phil so far and goes on how much she loves him. She thanks him for his strength and his love and says, "My weaknesses are too many and often discourage me, but if and when I die, I hope I will leave behind me something of what I lived for: honesty, courage, kindliness, beauty, intelligence, order, responsibility, and improvement. If my sons will have received some realization of how important these qualities can be as a guide to life, then I have left a little of what I thought was important in life."

            She goes on to say she hopes that if she dies early, that Phil, Stuart, Laur, and I--this was before Elihu--would grow to love the house and the land. She writes, "I want the children to grow up surrounded by that kind of beauty that is a part of everyday life, not something that you only find in museums or antique shops or exhibits."

            As much as she loved the house and the eight hilly acres, Mom was so at ease when she traveled. At home, sometimes responsibility had about ten capital R's and weighed her down. In traveling, though, she let it all go. She seemed to love the daily even hourly delights of the new. When my first marriage unraveled, Mom took me to England. After I met Ann, Mom took me to Denmark where we met up with cousin Liz, who was teaching in Finland. The photo over here of Mom is from Denmark. It's from when we walked from the train to the Louisiana Museum of Art in deep snow. The three of us laughed a lot that trip, and I saw such beauty in her.

            Mom loved to read, and when I became a writer--first in poetry, then in short fiction, now novels--she encouraged me a great deal. She didn't love everything, and she'd say where I was off, but I quickly learned it was where I could offer surprise in a sentence or story that she'd smile.

            The closest I have to a biography of Mom in one of my stories is in "The Rotary" from The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea where I imagined my mother and father dating in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I gave the name Henry to my father George so I could concentrate on the emotions more than real-life details. Consider this another frame in the film strip. Beep.

            I wrote, "My mother at age 22 stands in a long skirt and pretty pink blouse by a particular entrance to Harvard University waiting for Henry, her new beau who, unknown to her, is off buying a ring. They have had three dates, and already he wants to marry her. This is 1951, and she is a Radcliffe graduate student, the third of five children, and she does not know Henry's intentions. In fact, though she likes him, she's wondering if this is a time to have a beau. Maybe she should stop seeing him. She has school, after all, and all the Harvard boys think Radcliffe girls are just looking for a husband, but she's not. She wants to be taken seriously and eventually run her own company."

            I look to fiction as the stuff of real life. People need good stories as much as air, so writers become a type of heart and brain surgeon. The last book she read before she fell and stopped reading in October was my novel. She told me she just wanted to read it one more time, and she enjoyed it so. I can't thank her enough for what she gave me.

            I spoke with Mom the day before she died. She sounded upbeat, even if her attention to breathing wore her out. I told her how I was coming in December, and we ended as we always did, saying, "I love you."

            If I could send you a letter though time, Mom, I'd say, "Dear Mom: Thank you for writing me in camp when I hated camp then learned to love it. Thank you for taking me to London after my divorce, and I learned to accept it and love again. Thank you for loving that first short story I wrote in college about the guy accosted by various religious groups, each with a different vision of the afterlife, and he dies and learns people come back the way they think they'll come back. Maybe you'll come back the way you thought."

            Here's to you ... and to freedom.