I recently received several letters from the dead. I had gone to see my parents for the day, a glorious drive across the Golden Gate into wine country where sunlit almond orchards shimmered pink under snowy mountains. While there, my mother gave me a “baby book” she’d kept when I was an infant. Tucked inside were a handful of letters written to me – between birth and my first anniversary – by various grandparents, an uncle (the only writer still alive), and my great-grandmother.
In a typewritten two-pager dated October 11, 1973, my paternal grandfather introduces himself:
Here you are, 3 weeks old, and I haven’t even written to you yet! Don’t understand this to mean that your grandfather isn’t proud of you, or that he doesn’t love you very much – just say that I am a lousy letter writer and a little on the lazy side.
There’s another from him written a year later that includes his reflections on Watergate – an interesting coincidence since my wife and I only watched Frost/Nixon last week. Later in life, this particular grandfather, an old Iowa farm boy, would write an unpublished autobiography full of corncrib wisdom, charmingly titled I Was Here, World – Did You Notice?
In another letter from October ’73, my maternal grandmother is admiring a photograph of me that she has just received. “You’re a little puffy around the eyes,” she says, “but being born isn’t easy.” Considering myself in the mirror this morning I have to admit that I’m still a little puffy around the eyes. Being thirty-seven isn’t easy either. (I know, I know, this can hardly be interesting to anyone else, but bear with me…)
The letter from my still-very-much-living uncle, includes a brief disclaimer about this whole business of life that I’ve just been launched upon, and a heads-up about certain kinds of people I’m bound to run into sooner or later:
Lots of people now-a-days are really cynical and say they would never want a child of theirs to be born in such a world, a world of war, hate, greed, envy, hostility, sickness, pollution, etc. But [Ian], those are like dead people, they can’t find the happiness in life and so they think there is none.
Finally, inside a white envelope stamped with an 8-cent Dwight Eisenhower, there’s a card from my great-grandmother, Mary Irene. It’s decorated with a pencil sketch of a mother bird flapping excitedly over her nestlings. (A printed note on the back says it was drawn by a female polio victim who held the pencil in her teeth and spent two months on the picture). “Dear Wee [Ian],” Nanny writes:
Welcome to this world. It isn’t always an easy world. It is confusing and sometimes hurtful but there is joy and happiness to be found here, and may you find it in all fullness. May you, in good health, grow strong and sturdy, remembering always that you are God’s gift to us and that life is God’s gift to you. Use it well.
I don’t suppose very many letters are written to persons so patently unable to read or appreciate them as I was when these were put in the mail. But I was the premiere member of my generation on both sides of the family, and born at the far end of the country (my parents were in college), which probably accounts for it. Coming into possession of these letters now and reading them for the first time, I get a hot fluttering in my throat, a blush of omphaloskeptic vertigo. Too crisp glimpses of the past can make the present look blurry and precarious.
Use it well. I was just reminding a friend the other day how in our twenties we still talked in terms of what we were “going to do” with our lives. Whatever that was fated to be for each of us, we’re doing it now. Perhaps that’s why so many of our acquaintances, now that we’re in our late thirties and early forties, suddenly throw everything into the air and start over, no matter how recklessly. They panic, I think, at the sense of creeping irrevocability – Death, perhaps, by another name. I feel that panic too sometimes. To judge by every Woody Allen movie I’ve ever seen, it’s not going away anytime soon.
In an early chapter of Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov describes a visit to his St Petersburg home by General Alexei Kuropatkin, a friend of his father. Sitting on a couch, the general tries to impress young Nabokov by laying out matches in overlapping patterns that mimic stormy seascapes. Someone enters the room and the general stands: the matches scatter on the floor. Years later in the Crimea during the Russian Civil War, Nabokov watches a tramp with matted hair and beard approach his father to ask for a light. Nabokov senior pulls some matches from his pocket. There’s a moment of startled recognition: the tramp is General Kuropatkin, in hiding. But it’s not so much the fate of Kuropatkin that interests Nabokov as the symbolic continuity of the matches:
The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.
A strange bit of literary advice, but I was reminded of it yesterday morning when I found myself dressed for work in black woolen pants, a black sweater, black shirt, black socks, black boots and a black pea coat. In fact, two ideas suggested themselves. First, I realized that I was dressed for a funeral (I saw the faces of the deceased relatives whose letters I’d just received, and then myself in a coffin). Second, it occurred to me that my dress approximated the ravens I’d seen the day before. Walking with my son through the outdoor farmers’ market we’d heard their froggy croaking and found them hurriedly building a nest of foot-long twigs above someone’s third-floor bedroom window. They were twice as big as our regular crows, a mating pair, with ruffled chests, Roman noses, and wide purple-black wings.
Nabokov has his matches, and of course his butterflies. Here, perhaps, is my symbolic continuity: “Bird” was among the first words I ever spoke; like a saddled cowboy I used to ride the back of a giant cast-iron rooster in the garden; later, a songbird landed on my head and frightened me so much that for years I wouldn’t leave home without a hat; a favorite story from my father’s boyhood involved an aggressive pet goose named Big Chief Harvest Moon; then, of course, my maternal grandmother was always collecting owls – owl-shaped salt and pepper shakers, figurines, music boxes, etc. ; and of course there were the birds I had shot with my BB-gun when we lived in the country, blackbirds and sparrows mostly, whose feet I collected in a painted wooden box; and don’t I still take my children bird-watching at the shore and in the hills? and don’t I look anxiously for each year’s first hummingbird, first robin, first mourning dove?
And now here are these letters by slow post from my personal antiquity, one from a beloved great-grandmother with a curious drawing of a mother bird and her hatchlings on it. And here is this pair of squawking bully ravens and their ill-chosen nesting site, toiling with mere sticks to make a space in the world for their helpless little ones. And here am I, the little bird grown, rushing off on a frosty morning with my own son underwing to drop him at school.
I occupy three places at once, my image repeated as in a collapsible telescope: I am the long-awaited, the fresh from the egg, the mother hovering over her nest. My son is myself and I am my father. I will become my grandparents, and my great-grandparents too. Line up the symbols and scan for syntax – but what does it add up to? What does it mean? I’m not sufficiently perceptive (or schizophrenic) to read it. I can only smile at the correspondence and recall a favorite passage from Saul Bellow’s Herzog:
But he had not forgotten the odor of his mother’s saliva on the handkerchief… All children have cheeks and all mothers spittle to wipe them tenderly. These things either matter or they do not matter. It depends upon the universe, what it is.