The box sat on my desk for three months before I opened it. Inside were the contents of a drawer in an old secretary that we no longer had room for in the house, my keepsake drawer for letters and cards. It was a treasure box but also an emotional powder keg. In it were letters my mother wrote to me during the months when she was in a psychiatric hospital before she came home and died by suicide.
They spanned my college decision, my senior prom and graduation, my weekly visits to her over the summer, and the start of my freshman year in college. The last letter was dated November 20, 1963, two days before President Kennedy’s assassination, an event that bound us in a particular way. We worked together on Kennedy’s campaign and were rewarded with seats at his inauguration. I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with her at home, and then she was gone.
So much of what I have carried in the decades since is sadness about my mother’s anguish, the horrible way she died, and the grief, vague guilt, and confusion left in the heart of a teenager. However, what was lost on me as an 18-year-old I find now in reading these letters.
My mother, although deeply depressed, never stopped hoping and never stopped being a parent. In her letters, she talked about the future, about coming home, about shopping for the holidays, about traveling with my father. She reminded me to bring a hat for my sister’s engagement service, since it would be at a Catholic church. She regretted that she couldn’t drive me to college, and she wanted details of the campus, my dorm, my room, and my roommate. She asked about my friends and my love life.
At first, I wrote cheery answers, avoiding anything that I feared would add to her depression. But, missing the intimacy of our correspondence, I soon shared the loneliness and insecurity of my first weeks of college, where I knew no one. Then she offered solace and advice, encouraging me to attend social events and pursue friendships. When I felt overwhelmed by my coursework, she advised me to speak to professors and find mentors.
Side by side in the box are weekly letters from my father, starting when I went to college and continuing until I married. They, too, are filled with a tenderness and love that my 18- to 22-year-old self didn’t appreciate. Although he rarely mentioned my mother or her absence, his letters clearly show his effort to fill the roles of both parents: advising, consoling, cheerleading, and attending to needs both practical and emotional.
I find healing in these physical letters, in touching my mother’s words and seeing her distinctive block script on paper she held, and in picturing my father pounding away on his Underwood typewriter with its keys that always stuck.
Now I correspond electronically with my children and grandchildren, all of whom live 3,000 miles away. I love the simplicity of e-mail and texts — news of athletic victories (and defeats), cat videos, rants about politics, explanations of memes I don’t get. These exchanges can feel more satisfying than once-a-week letters and phone calls with my parents. But what box will hold these letters? I save them on my computer, backed up on an external hard drive. Where will they be in 56 years?
How can anyone know at 18 what it will mean at 73 to read the words, “I think of you a lot, darling, and am happy that college life is all going well. I send much love, as always, dear, Mom”? And from my editor father, the only reference to my mother’s death: “you — along with your sister — have provided the comfort and the strength that have made it possible, not just to endure, but to look forward in hope and confidence. All my love, Dad.”
Susan Stockard is a retired property management executive in Cambridge. Send comments to email@example.com.To submit your story for consideration for Connections, e-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.