About letters

Lately I’ve been thinking about letters, because we’ve been reading them. Husband H. worked his way through a small pile his mother saved, returned to us after her death: letters he’d written as a young man newly immigrated to Canada from Paraguay and letters from the both of us after we married. He’d look up now and then to share bits of what we’d written, especially the antics and achievements of our kids (which we assumed a grandmother would want to hear). I was absorbed in Margaret Laurence & Jack McClelland Letters, some 27 years of correspondence between the well-known Canadian author and her publisher, eavesdropping on their relationship as it were, watching formal beginnings turn into affectionate — and frank — friendship. (Margaret Laurence is one of my literary heroes.)9781772123357

By-gone letters pull us intimately into the moment of their writing and thus seem truer than memories. From a particular someone to a particular someone else, they’re deeply revealing of relationships. They’re wonderful, really, if you have still some to read.

IMG_7207Which brings me to a bit of rue. Some months ago, in one of my periodic attempts to reduce accumulation, I came across a large envelope of 1970s letters from my parents. Here their warm and chatty voices, the vitality of their early fifties (which had seemed ancient to me then.) Mom’s handwriting sprawled out the broad strokes of happenings. Dad typed when he wrote and said a great deal more. I re-read them with pleasure, made a few notes, plucked out samples, and shredded the rest. Then, Oh dear. Should I have just done that? I felt I’d obliterated my parents in some way, silenced this connection.

Well, I found another packet of letters, and now I see I still have dozens of their letters from the 1980s and 90s. So they’re not quite silenced yet. The dilemma of papers remains, however.

By letters I’m talking of course about the kind that used to come and go by post, and I suppose now would be the time in this post to act really elderly and bewail the fact that few, including me, still write such letters. But I won’t, because I’m actually not that bothered by it, and besides, we’re still communicating nowadays, in many other ways, and if my children and grandchildren don’t have inked-on-paper artifacts to access the past, they’ll figure out what they need and find it, retrieving from the Cloud I suppose, which they understand and I don’t. Plus they won’t have to worry over to shred or not to shred.


Today at our “North of 60” gathering we played the Smarties game. Everyone picked one Smartie out of a bowl. A list of questions that corresponded to the colours was then posted on the wall. Questions like: What was your first job? How did you meet your spouse? What are the most difficult and most rewarding things about aging? How have you seen God at work this past year? What are your favourite things to do in winter? 

img_7205We were 27 women so there were lots of answers, lots of stories. Sadness appeared in some of them but we laughed a lot too. It was fun. And everyone seemed eager to participate. Why not? Past 60, there’s hardly a shortage of stories and sadness and laughter. And if others are willing to listen, well that’s a bonus.


Not on the tip of your tongue

I intended to write today about words I’ve been losing (though eventually finding), like “omelet” and “dominoes”. The author of “5 tips to tame word-finding difficulties” says losing words happens to everyone, though increases with age. Does it ever!

Then I came upon Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness”, which describes the phenomenon so perfectly! Here, from the Poetry Foundation, where you can also listen to it, “Forgetfulness.”

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Same house several ways

I’m noticing that memoir involves two kinds of investigation. One concerns “facts”: research in various sources for context as well as gathering memories. Two concerns meaning. It probes at memory with a present-day eye to patterns, to who I was then and how I was shaped.

For example, on the left, a photo from my father’s slide collection of the house (near Linden, Alberta) where I lived between four and eight, the only photo I have of it but a solid truth. It was the church parsonage, built into a hill, with a garage beneath, and I know from what I was told and from the evidence of church minutes that it was small and inadequate, especially for a large family (four, and then five, children there with two parents).

Since I’ve been trying to see better via sketching, I copied the house. As I looked closely in order to draw it I was delighted to spot the childhood wagon. And I was intrigued by the milk cans on the porch. The milk cans and signs of construction raised questions for which I have no answers. (I believe the house was eventually blue-grey.)



ScanBut, closing my eyes, remembering deep inside…. What was this place in my young life? What did it “feel like”? That house never seemed small, even if for lack of bedrooms I slept on the sofa. It felt cozy, happy, secure. It had music: huge reels pouring The Messiah into the air or the choir carolling outside at Christmas. It’s where Mom read us books and I got hooked on story. It set my default for beauty in the natural world: rolling prairie and sky. I see and represent that house (using watercolour paints) in simple lines, in joyful colour.


44 years

We happened to be in Toronto on our wedding anniversary so we celebrated with our Toronto family by going to Niagara Falls, which was our honeymoon destination 44 years ago. The Falls tumbled and roared and sent up great clouds of mist, just as they had then, so we stood and looked a while, then strolled the walkway alongside and went for lunch and passed by “attractions” of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not variety where the kids enjoyed the outside teasers. Then we went to the butterfly conservatory, which was everyone’s highlight.

And of course we told our Niagara Falls honeymoon story, one of those bits of lore couples gather and repeat over the years while forgetting nearly everything else. Namely this: when we arrived to the Falls, he looked and said, “Is this it?” That hurt. It bugged me, actually. I’d so looked forward to showing off this Canadian wonder to my Paraguayan-born-and-raised young husband! Now this little blot, this disappointment, on an otherwise wonderful honeymoon.

Well, we got it clarified, just as we’ve clarified many matters large and small over the course of 44 years. I’d heard unimpressed, he’d meant is there more? and some years later when I saw his Falls — the Iguazu Falls of South America, where water spills at every turn of a long walk, the clarification was even fuller than before.

On that honeymoon road trip, we also listened to his Charley Pride and Kenny Rogers tapes. A lot! I’d grown up with two kinds of music — church and classical — so this was a stretch. But it was fun; it fit the occasion. So in gratitude for 44 years with the man I love, here’s a link to some country, nostalgia meter set as high as it goes. Remember when?


On the road

Further to Carolyn G. Heilbrun, mentioned last week, and the notion of being a rememberer. I don’t know if finding things in my journal that I’ve completely forgotten counts as memory, but in this way I “remember” I first read Heilbrun’s book, The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, in August 2002 on the long drive across the prairies from Winnipeg to Calgary to deliver our daughter, our youngest child, to school at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. It was the hardest “leaving” of my life. I can’t say why I chose to read that book, I was only 52, but maybe it’s because I find it hard to do things at the last minute! 🙂

Anyway, we were on the # 1 highway, the long straight asphalt line of it, and besides the book, I was considering the scope of our journey, the reason for it, and our daughter said, “Technically, I [will] live on this road.” I considered this. Yes, of course, SAIT was on the #1 through Calgary. “I can see it in the distance,” I teased.

This small exchange gives me pleasure when I encounter it now because I know that when we deposited her there and when we left, two in the car rather than three, and parents and daughter weepy with the farewell, we drove back home along the line where she lived, and it was the line of our future and hers, separate but linked, and I can see that we all “survived” it, as parents and children do. I was looking towards sixty as well, perhaps earlier than necessary, but I’m beyond 60 now, and surviving that too. One does, in all kinds of ways.

Carolyn Heilbrun, unmet friend

I’ve read The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty by Carolyn G. Heilbrun twice. I’ve been thinking it may be time to read it again. Heilbrun (1926 – 2003) was an ardent feminist, scholarly, opinionated and unconventional, and that’s what I find compelling in her work, being more timid and conventional myself. She makes me think, makes me agree or disagree, inspires me. “Women catch courage from the women whose lives and writings they read,” she said, “and call the bearer of that courage friend.”

41qphFrXRWL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_By that definition, Heilbrun is what she called an unmet friend. When we first moved to Tsawwassen, for example, I signed up for a couple of Eldercollege courses, six afternoons on Shakespeare’s Richard III, then another round on Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit, and these were fine, they were good, but I recalled Heilbrun saying that rather than dabbling, a course here, a course there, retired people ought to find a “world,” a “work” that “requires strong effort and the evidence of growing proficiency… [the purpose being] to maintain a carefully directed intensity.” I realized I still had a world of work, I wasn’t done with writing yet. That’s where my intensity longed to be.

Heilbrun also said she didn’t want to be a “rememberer.” Memories “can evolve into the ultimate temptation of one’s last decade…to recall grudges, to dwell on ancient wrongs and miseries and betrayals, to allow these memories…to dominate thought and therefore life.” Better to stay in the present, she said, to make friends of the young and not put them off with relishing the past. Unlike Heilbrun, I want to be a rememberer. But since she’s a friend, I’ll listen at least, I’ll consider the caution in her words, try not to put off the youngers in my life.

On Ignatieff’s “Scar Tissue”

I’ve just finished Michael Ignatieff’s 1993 novel Scar Tissue. It’s on Andrea Charise’s “Aging and the Arts” course list (see previous post), and concerns two brothers and their mother’s memory loss and death. One brother, a doctor/researcher, responds clinically; the other, the narrator, a philosophy professor, submerges himself deeply — at the cost of his family — into all the conundrums of selfhood that loss of self in Alzheimer’s and dementias involve. An ideal book for a class, I thought, so much here to resonate with, wrestle with, discuss. 41XWCW0TIxL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_

Ignatieff is a good writer. I remember how I savoured his nonfiction The Russian Album many years ago. (“Reminiscent of our Mennonite past,” my friend Sarah Klassen said, recommending it.) Scar Tissue didn’t work for me as well, not as a novel, that is. The characters never quite transcended diverse positions around the dilemmas of neurological illness. (“I began to think my mother as a philosophical problem,” the narrator says). I wished Ignatieff had mused on stoicism, the relation between selfhood and memory, the difference between giving up and letting go, etc., with the more compelling integrity of memoir. (After all, the book grew out of his own mother’s Alzheimer’s disease.)

What haunts me in Scar Tissue, though, is the narrator’s stark and subterranean fear, the mother’s illness “passed from cell to cell…the dark starbursts of scar tissue [in the brain]…the inheritance,” taking hold also within him by the end. I recognize that fear. But haunting too is a curious beauty when this “form of dying in which everything familiar becomes strange” is done, plus the vision of some kind of wondrous illumination/knowledge possible even within the blinding journey itself. That felt almost optimistic.


Mom’s advice

I’m in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, visiting Mom in the Mennonite Nursing Home.

My mother is 95, eight years a widow. She’s frail and in a wheelchair. Her memory and cognitive skills are greatly diminished. Conversation with her is difficult.

I brought along letters she and Dad wrote us in the early 1990s from Vienna, Austria, while they served informally in a Viennese church, thinking my reading them aloud would be a good thing for us to do together today. She listened intently, almost too intently; she was straining over them. Nothing in them connected. Even the fact that she authored most of the letters eluded her.

Tomorrow we’ll try something else, I think, maybe colouring together, or playing some simple Scrabble.

My experiences with my parents’ aging (and Dad’s death) add an emotional layer of complexity to the business of aging for me. I have much to say about that. But for now I’m in Rosthern with my mother and today in the dining room she took my hand and announced to her table mates, “This is my daughter,” reminding me that when I’m with her, I’m daughter-young. And then I feel my competence and my large stockpile of memory.

                    “You feel lonely,” she said.

But I had a good laugh with her when she asked me,  “When should I put you to bed?” I suspect she was wondering when staff would come assist for her nap, but in the moment of her “word salad” sentence, I was her little girl, her little Dorchen, as she called me in the days of putting me to bed.

I told her I was writing about aging and wondered if she had some advice. What would she say, I coaxed, about being old. That earnest, baffled expression in response, then, “You feel lonely,” she said. “You miss the parties [people] that are gone.”




I have a span by now

So we stood up from our comfy seats in the movie theatre the other evening and did that mental shakedown while the credits rolled, back into the real world from the reel* world of the big screen, and a sensation of giddiness and gratitude popped in me, over this one thing: I’ve lived long enough to have a span of history available to me. I can look back, and it’s a view, like from a hilltop over a valley. I mean, the valley is a decent distance and it’s a pleasure to see it.

The movie was “The Post,” and I remembered those times, remembered the people Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee and Daniel Ellsberg, and President Nixon of course, remembered reading Graham’s autobiography, Personal History, remembered from my first foray into journalism at a national Mennonite magazine how type used to be set with metal, etc. And I felt this remembering’s capacity to summon other memories alongside, and before and after. I could reach along a line.

     I can look back and it’s a view.

I think I’m trying to describe a store of knowledge that seemed in that moment a possession to appreciate, to roll in my hand like a beautiful marble, not merely for nostalgia’s sake, but because it’s mine and I still have it. And not believing for a minute that this store of knowledge is thorough or detailed enough—it’s simply not ever possible to pay enough attention in the moment—but, to mix my metaphors again, there’s a span to it by now. That’s what felt happy and significant to me.


*Note: I do know that movies don’t come on reels these days, but since my memories of movies started with film strips in junior high…