Remembrance of Things Past—A Packet of Letters—Ha! Ha!
When I was seven years old, somewhat of a lost child, uncertain about every aspect of my life, my Indiana cousin Shirley, two years older, took me under wing. Shirley spoke with firm confidence and sureness, always. She quickly became my mentor, my hero. For the next five years she was my best friend.
Then my family moved to Montana. Shirley and I wrote frequent letters until she left for college. Over the years and over the miles, our lives split onto widely divergent pathways.
At previous reunions, we had exchanged greetings and superficial small talk. I’d had more intimate conversations with strangers on the Empire Builder. Last summer, for the first time since high school, we spent a week together. We took long walks down back roads. It seemed we never quit talking.
Both of us stayed at Aunt Mary’s home, her mother, my aunt. One morning, when we met in the kitchen for breakfast, Shirley handed me a small packet of letters. A second-grade school photo fell from it into my lap. In the picture my sweater, buttoned to my neck, covers my best dress that I wore for picture day. My lips are closed to hide the gaps of missing teeth. My hair is cut across my forehead and with another straight line below my ear lobes, bowl cut by my Dad with shears from his home barber kit.
When I opened the earliest letter, I burst out laughing. I instantly felt like the gangling young colt of a girl who had written it. Across the top of the first page I had scrawled, “Fred, Fred, You’re weak in the head. Ha! Ha!” I had sprinkled ha-ha’s throughout the four page letter. In proper letter form, I had included the date, June seventh, 1957. I had just finished sixth grade. I reported that our end-of-year tests were “pretty easy. I made the highest marks so they must have been easy. Ha! Ha!” I also wrote, “Don’t let anyone read this.” Who would have wanted to see my scribbles about school, church, weather and “mosquitoes, terrible, I have bites all over”?
I was a pious young thing. I concluded my letter with prayers and enclosed a Holy Card of the Infant of Prague. I tagged on a post script, “Do you still like DK?”
“DK” had lived up the hill from my Indiana home. I don’t recall that Shirley liked Dickie Knear; I liked Dickie Knear. Had Dickie even glanced at me, I would have been mortified. He was my secret fantasy boy-friend until two years later when I spent the summer back in Indiana. Shirley and I slurped root-beer floats in the Barnes Store in Elizabeth when Dickie and a couple buds sauntered in for Cokes. He looked like a hood, hair slicked back in a DA, cigs rolled into his white tee-shirt sleeve, pimply-pocked face. I plummeted from puppy love into disillusion.
The last letter from the packet, dated the summer of my sixteenth year, is eight tightly written pages. Right off the bat, I wrote, “Don’t you dare get married until I meet him. He looks nice but looks aren’t everything. It may not be true love. You’re my godmother and I feel it is my responsibility to see that he isn’t a wolf or somebody infatuated by your great beauty and wealth. . . I think you should wait a year but if you want to rush into it, it’s your neck.” She ignored my advice. Shirley and Nick are still married.
Much of my letter was filled with social life and plans for my future. The last page brought tears to my eyes. “I told Father Pauson and he just stared at me with a ‘heaven help them’ look on his face. Brace yourself. I’m serious. I’m scared. I’m happy too. I’m going to be a nun. I’ve been thinking about joining a cloistered order such as the Carmelites. But my friends think I’ll be the first girl in my class to be married.”
My plans also included a dream to study journalism at IU but I didn’t think Dad could afford to send me. Two years later, while the ink was still wet on my high school diploma, I walked down the aisle with a young rancher.
Had my dear best friend, cousin and godmother rushed to Montana and waved the pages of this letter, filled with my unwitting wisdom, in my stubborn face, how different my life might have been. I doubt I would have joined the Carmelites. Maybe I would not have married so hastily. But she was the only person who could have talked to my scared, confused self.
But I’m puzzled. Who in the world is “Fred, Fred, weak in the head? Ha! Ha!”
HDN: Looking out my back door
April 11, 2013