letters carried on the wind
My great Aunt Inis passed away when I was home last month in Colorado. As I headed to a friend's wedding in Grand Lake my mom journeyed to Westcliffe, her childhood home nestled in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, to say goodbye.
For several days the Byrne clan gathered to share in stories, grief and celebration. And, inevitably, to rummage through a lifetime's worth of stuff. Among the hundreds of newspaper clippings and Tupperware assortments and Christmas tins and jewelry, there was one particularly valuable gem - a collection of old family letters.
They found a chest full of letters exchanged between Inis and her husband Bill during World War II. He was a pilot who "flew the hump" over the Himalayas into China and they wrote nearly everyday during those long years of the war.
There was a collection of letters between my great grandmother Stella (a school teacher) and my great grandfather George (a miner) as they planned their elopement. In one letter, Stella recounts a dream in which "I went to sleep again and dreamed you were hurt in a mine and someone was bringing you home. For goodness sake George, be careful and don’t let my dream come true." Each letter from George beginning "My Dearest Stella" and signed, "I am yours forever with all my love" in meticulous cursive.
When I returned home from the wedding I felt inspired to find my own collection of forgotten letters, stored in the bottom drawer of my childhood dresser, untouched for years:
- Countless handmade notes from spit-fire young girls who would grow into the remarkably beautiful women that have seen me through every stage of life and shaped the very edges of my being.
- Yearbook photos from other, more distant childhood friends. Each signed with “lots of love” and promises to never, ever lose touch. ...Yet you do. Life spins on, the years pass and those who once filled our days scatter like seeds across some vast plain.
- Decades of birthday letters from my parents, each with the same general theme of love and joy and gratitude. And those from my early twenties - when seeking one distant road after another was the more exciting, less scary alternative to examining my own inner avenues - with the parent addendum that they love my spontaneity, but dear God would I please be careful as I set out for yet another haphazard adventure?
- A thousand letters postmarked Ohio - a time capsule of love's first falling, the purity and naivete of which will never be relived.
- Letters, poems and songs written to me from men who, to quote Neruda, loved me “as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul”. The piercing beauty of their words remain as both light and shadow in the recesses of my memory, filling me with simultaneous reverence for what was and relief for what is.
As I sat on the floor of my childhood room I was overcome with the magnitude of my life, held within the arching ink of all those words - and a profound gratitude for each and every hand behind them.
I know many who would recommend getting rid of all old letters so as not to live in the past - to burn them ceremoniously as some sort of feng-shui for the soul. But I can't bear that thought. They are hilarious, they are heartbreaking and they are the shimmering fragments of time and place that are my life.
While pondering this, I stumbled upon an old letter containing a poem from one of my favorite poets, Rilke. Do not be afraid to suffer, give the heaviness back to the weight of the earth; mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.
Even those trees you planted as children became too heavy long ago-- you couldn't carry them now. But you can carry the winds-- and the open spaces.
And my thoughts drift back to my great aunt Inis. And my grandparents. And great grandparents. And great great grandparents. And all of those ancestors who have been 'chosen, sound and whole'. Who have 'given their weight back to the earth.'
And I think of each letter exchanged between them - letters of love and war, elopement and mines, of mountains and seas, birth and death - as individual trees planted very long ago. Trees that have also given up their earthly weight, dissipating like leaves; like tender murmurings of love that carry the wind and the open spaces.