Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Old letters

I think the setting is important: an old man is just talking with his son, who's likely not a kid himself.  They're talking, these two.  Listen to the story.

His Elderly Father as a Young Man  

by Leo Dangel

This happened before I met your mother:
I took Jennie Johanson to a summer dance,
and she sent me a letter, a love letter,
I guess, even if the word love wasn't in it.
She wrote that she had a good time
and didn't want the night to end.

They're both, well, older.  I don't know that I would have talked to my son much about my old girlfriends when he was a kid. This isn't some facts-of-life about dating.  They're both too old.

At home, she lay down on her bed
but stayed awake, listening to the songs
of morning birds outside her window.

Jennie wrote him a very sweet letter.  It's no wonder he remembers. I'd remember too.

I read that letter a hundred times
and kept it in a cigar box
with useless things I had saved:
a pocket knife with an imitation pearl handle
and a broken blade,
a harmonica I never learned to play,
one cuff link, an empty rifle shell.

I got a bunch of useless things. Trust me, I know--we just moved. That cigar box holds meaning to no one on the face of the earth but him--and me--and us.  It's no Holy of Holies; what's in it could get tossed tomorrow and nothing about his life or mine or yours would change course because life is good anyway even without those memories. This old man would just keep marching down the path he's on should that pocket knife or the empty rifle shell suddenly disappear.

When your mother and I got married,
I threw the letter away -
if I had kept it, she might wonder.

Sure. Makes sense.  Tossing that sweet thing was, by all measures, a nice thing to do for a woman he loved.

But I wanted to keep it
and even thought about hiding places,
maybe in the barn or the tool shed,
but what if it were ever found?
I knew of no way to explain why
I would keep such a letter, much less
why I would take the trouble to hide it.

This poem--this morning's offering from Writer's Almanac--isn't a lament either. He's not mad. He's not saying he wished he would have married sweet Jennie, nor is he angry with the son's mother for prompting him to destroy that note.  That's not why he's saying what he is.  What he's testifying to is a little mystery of life he's stumbled on.  "Isn't that something?"--he says to his son.  "Isn't that odd?"  The letter is long gone, but it never left his heart, even though the woman did an entire lifetime ago.  "I knew of no way to explain why/I would keep such a letter. . ."

Sometime during those years when our kids were teens, I remember hearing some well-meaning Christian preacher-types claim the way our kids date damages their futures. Your children shouldn't date someone you didn't think they should want to marry, they said.  It's that simple.

Sure. And wouldn't it be nice if life were so uncomplicated? 

It seems to me the old man in this poem did the right thing. He saved Jennie Johanson's sweet letter, savored its treasures; and when he got married, he thoughtfully left it behind.

But what he's telling his son, years later, is that he never really forgot that note--"isn't that something?" 

Mysteries make life itself a whole lot more complicated all right--and a whole lot richer.

Even Christian preacher-types have 'em.  The truth is, we all do.  


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Anonymous said...

His character was worth noting by example, his memory still in tack at his older age, giving his son advice about how to make a decision about a "harmless" letter, that is best left in the files of the memory where only he can read. Really enjoyed the story that lets one ponder and wonder what was in that letter?

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