letters

My letters to Ireland come home

Emma_typewriter_rw1-RGBAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 15, 2020.

The letters reveal their treasures in different ways, reflecting the evolution of personal correspondence over the last 40 years. Some are on yellow foolscap, handwritten in blue ink. Some are typed, single-space, on translucent onionskin. And some are on white printer paper in a crisp Arial font. But they all have one thing in common: The letters were written by me.

Two years ago, I came into possession of them thanks to my dear friend Grainne, whose family I lived with as a student in Dublin, Ireland in 1980. After I returned home to Rhode Island, she and I began a correspondence that has spanned nearly four decades. Our back-and-forth is mostly digital now, which makes the physical letters I sent to Grainne and her husband, Sean, more precious. I’m grateful she returned them to me.

Grainne’s understanding of what the letters represent came from personal experience. She had recently found missives that she penned to her mother while attending school in Italy as a 16-year-old. “It can be quite an emotional experience,” she said of reading one’s long-ago reflections, “like they are from someone we don’t recognize – the person we were then, young and innocent.”

How true. I unfold one of the typewritten letters, from 1981, and am struck by the brash voice of a 21-year-old wannabe writer: “If I pursue a Hemingway-like career in Ireland, as you suggested, your house will be my first stop.” In another, sent a year and a half later, I report with relief that I had landed a job: “I was hired by an advertising firm as a copywriter. Not a novelist yet, but still a writer of sorts.”

The early letters serve up multiple references to Bruce Springsteen, whose latest album, “The River,” I had obtained during my Dublin stay. I’m reminded that I played the LP, frequently late at night, in Grainne and Sean’s living room, which was right below their bedroom – perhaps a bit too often and too loud. Having left “The River” behind, I suggested that Grainne give the album to her younger brother David or toss it in the fire, which she might find more satisfying.

A handwritten letter from 1986 brings news of romance: “Cupid’s arrow has pierced my heart and now I spend lots of time with Deb.” A laser-printed note from nine years later continues the story: “Well, now there are five of us – Deb, me, Peter, Evan, and … Juliana!”

A Christmas card from 1993, bearing news of my father’s death, makes my eyes sting: “He was only 59. I miss his wit, his Saturday afternoon musings on literature, his calls during basketball games.”

According to a study by the United States Postal Service, letters sent between households plummeted 61% from 2001 through 2016. The report concluded that “correspondence mail is fading as a channel of personal communication,” noting that emerging electronic alternatives provide an “almost perfect substitute.”

Almost perfect, to be sure. These days, email and Facebook Messenger allow Grainne and me to continue our correspondence with speed and ease. But I’m glad such platforms weren’t around 30 or 40 years ago; my letters to Ireland might or might not have survived in the cloud, but it’s unlikely they’d be in my hands now.

Of the 50 or so students that attended the School of Irish Studies during the fall of 1980, I was the one randomly assigned to board with Grainne and Sean’s family. Such luck was not lost on me. Here’s how I closed my first letter back to my kind and loving hosts: “How fortunate I was to have lived with you; how happy I was in your house!”

Today, the letters sit on my desk. The envelopes are like wrapping paper, and the pages within are gifts, filled with revelations.

Thank you, Grainne, for returning parts of my story to me.

 

 

Helping me hear my mother’s voice

22

Above, the author, right, with his mother and brothers in December 1965.

As published in The Providence Journal, January 21, 2018.

Imperative verbs — that’s what I remember about my mother’s writing, at least from my early years. Before and after school, her kitchen-table notes delivered directives. “Don’t forget your lunch” was probably the most common one, followed by “Working until 5:30 — feed the dog and look after your brother.”

When I studied in Ireland as a college junior, Mom’s writing became more expansive. Her letters brought news of family gatherings, her store on Atwells Avenue, recent deaths. Here are excerpts from a note dated October 28, 1980: “Vinny’s getting married on November 23. It will be a small affair at The Golden Lantern. I’m sorry you’ll miss it.… Business isn’t bad – we’re paying the bills.… I wrote you that I had taken Georgie to the vet. Well, John, I’m afraid there wasn’t much that could be done.”

I loved getting Mom’s letters in Dublin, but they didn’t give me the sense that she liked to write. Her penmanship looked rushed. Between the lines, she seemed to be saying, “Oh, if we could just talk over coffee, that would be better.”

So it surprised me when, at age 71, my mother began writing reflections on her life – rich, evocative pieces that shared stories I had never heard before.

One recalled her dash home from Nelson Street School in Providence during the Hurricane of 1938: “Gravel underfoot jumped to life, stinging the back of my legs.” Another revealed Mom’s trademark cheekiness: “Being the youngest of the four girls at my house, my vocation in life was to get out of there.” Recollections from her early teens referenced a sister’s boyfriends: “Every one was movie-star material to me.” A sketch about my younger brother recounted the morning he left for the Coast Guard: “All pre-dinner cocktail highs from the celebration the night before were diluted by now.”

And then there was “The Blanket.” “I guess it’s a poem,” Mom said modestly, handing me the page. “A memory, really.”

My mother’s poem-memory brought me back to when our family lived downstairs from my maternal grandparents in a double-decker on River Avenue. I was in kindergarten at the time and didn’t realize that my grandmother was ill; I just knew Mama waved to my older brother and me from her kitchen window as we played football in the backyard. Nor was I aware that, as my baby brother slept in his crib, my parents’ marriage was quietly unraveling. What I did know is that I liked to watch “Get Smart” with Mom and Dad on Saturday nights because the show made them laugh together.

“The Blanket” let me see this world anew. It recalled a pink-and-white bedspread that my mother had received as a gift. The poem, in part, reads:

 

Guests, calling to visit, led me to lay

the blanket on my mother’s sickbed.

 

Its newness would certainly warn

the transporter being sent to take

my mother away

that she wasn’t ready yet!

 

Whose eyes would watch from the

second-floor window as the four-year-old

football hero ran for the touchdown pass?

 

Where would I find the approval she

gave me, in the midst of my own

chaos, I pressed my new baby into her arms?

 

In “How to Write a Memoir,” William Zinsser states: “There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative.” He calls memoir “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

My mother left behind a stack of photo albums, which include fading prints of her as a cheerleader at Mount Pleasant High School, a young mom in an East Side apartment, and a proud entrepreneur on Federal Hill.

But it’s her late-life writings that I treasure the most. In those black-and-white word snapshots, I hear her voice – human and funny and wise.

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