After my mother died six and a half years ago, at 84, my father did not want to live in their house alone. They had lived in a small house near Chicago for fifty five years, and raised two daughters there. He came to live in New York with me for a few months, and my sister and I had to decide what to do about the house.
He wanted to move to a senior community in the same town where he’d lived. He didn’t want to spend time in the old house or sort through possessions. They reminded him too much of my mother. My father didn’t say this, but it was clear that the house, which had been a happy place, was full of sadness for him now. After she died, he wandered around the house in a way he never had when she was alive or he just sat in the kitchen. The house felt empty of her presence, yet somehow full of her presence.
My sister and I consulted with him, but she and I took over the task of selling the house. We had to find a realtor, set a price, and prepare the house for sale.
This was a difficult time. We were all grieving my mother. But the task of dismantling the house had to be completed and done quickly. My father moved to an apartment in the senior community, a trial, to see if he would like living there. In the meantime, my sister and I began to clean the house, go through closets, drawers, cabinets, shelves, our parents’ lives. There was so much emotion and discovery. Fifty-five years’ worth of possessions were crammed into the rooms.
As a writer, I find that my emotions sometimes make their way into fiction. This doesn’t always happen, and I often imagine emotions, but it happened with the house. In my new collection of short stories, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, there are two stories about a parent’s death and cleaning out a family home, “Relocation” and “Excavation.”
I was astounded by the things we found in my parents’ home: cards, letters, invitations from sixty years ago, war savings bonds, old photos, old clothing — even my mother’s home-made wedding dress. So much family history. I imagined other objects one might find and other scenarios; these made their way into the stories. The stories are fiction. What is true about them, though, is the emotion — the feelings of loss, letting go, the discovery of a parent’s past that a child may not have known about.
Over the course of months, my sister, some cousins, my children, and I cleaned the house. In a small room in the basement, my father’s office, we found a bulging manila envelope in a pile of papers. Inside the envelope were letters he’d written home from the army during World War II. Some were written on thin pieces of paper, airmail stationary, in his tiny scrawl. He wrote to his mother, sisters, and brother, sometimes just to a sister, about what it was like to be a soldier at that time in history and time in his life. I discovered he wrote beautifully.
My father was a quiet man and often listened when in a group of people. He had a great sense of humor and intelligence. He owned a wholesale store in Chicago where he sold men’s clothing and later was a manufacturer’s representative for a company that imported men’s clothing. The family story is he had wanted to be a doctor when he was young, but his father died when my dad was seventeen. My father helped support the family then and took over the small dry goods business.
He was responsible, smart, informed, practical, nurturing, and devoted to the family. We all understood that in the hierarchy of importance, he felt family came first. He knew about politics, facts, figures, history, and enjoyed music and theater, but he did not talk much about emotion. He did, however, in the letters.
The letters are sitting in the bulging envelope in a file cabinet in my apartment. I have read only a few of them. He died four and half years ago; the loss had felt too fresh. Those I’ve read offer a glimpse into a part of my father he did not talk about.
I didn’t, of course, know him when he was a young adult, but his voice, hopes, disappointments are there on the pages he wrote home. The war, history, and politics are on those pages, too.
“I read years ago that every letter has two lives,” a character in my story collection says, “One in the writer’s mind, and the other that the reader gives to it.”
I’m ready to read my father’s letters now, to give them their second or, perhaps, third life. Who knows what I will find or the emotions that will arise as I read them, the emotions I will discover. Perhaps in some form, some manner, they will make their way into fiction someday, too.