the letters tumbled out the other day, years and years of history, pages from a childhood, not yet examined, spilling, pooling, on the kitchen counter.
they’d arrived in a fat envelope, addressed to me.
and what spilled out was from me, penned by me, over years and years. in orange pen, and loopy l’s and i’s and p’s, in hearts drawn upon page after page, on gingham-checked cards, and flower-petaled stationery, and plain old legal paper, too, yellow, lined, official.
i wrote, it seems, on whatever surface was put before me. didn’t matter much. the voice was, at its heart, the same; growing older though with every page, every “dear grandma and grandpa,” every “love, barbie.”
i grew up, it seems, writing letters, writing those letters. and because my uncle’s moving soon, he started sifting through old boxes, boxes he’d acquired when my grandma died. these had been, he tells me, among her treasures, and he thought they best belonged to me.
so he addressed and mailed them back, tucked in a few other pages besides.
and i of course immersed myself in a slow course of who i was, letter to letter, year after year.
a stash of old letters, surely, is a mirror into the soul. especially, intriguingly, when the soul we see and study is the one we call our own.
i saw my little self–my 1969 self–come tumbling from that stack. i read, between the lines, how hard i tried to be so good, so very very good. i read, too, that i’d just begun a sewing class, that my little brother had the flu, and that we’d just gotten, the day before, a new angora kitten.
i saw my 1975 self, a year that was so hard for me, a year i will spend my life trying to understand. and there, a gift from my grandmother, my long-dead grandmother, my grandmother i remember more as harsh than tender, i see she too understood that year was one i might some day choose to re-examine. so she saved for me more letters from that year than any other year.
because, of course, when you’re a writer, letters are the clearest snapshots of your soul. so i held them to the light.
i read those words and cried. i felt the tenderness of a grandma who’d saved my words. a grandma who might, too, have been worried that year. who, for some reason, held onto those letters, the letters of ’75.
but the piece of paper that caught my soul the most, that held me, drew me deep and long, was a radio script from 1952. from WCPO in cincinnati.
“bob otto’s broadcast,” it says up top, on the yellowed, typed, page.
6 p.m., may 31st. that’s the day, the paper tells me, my great-grandma died.
her name was kate. i’ve always heard her referred to as “laughing kate.”
bob otto writes, on the evening of her death, in a broadcast heard all around the seven hills of cincinnati, that if he had to pick anyone who, in his “childhood, boyhood and adolescence, stood in second place” behind his own “very best of mothers,” it would be my great-grandma kate.
he goes on to recall her kitchen, most of all, and her cakes, “luscious apple, peach and cinnamon cakes.”
he writes how so many kids–little kids who grew to be teenagers–congregated, through all the years, in her kitchen.
“maybe,” he writes, “we congregated there because we grew to love her as well as her baking, though i don’t think in those years we ever dared place affection for a human above that of an aromatic cinnamon cake.”
in the last paragraph of this grown man’s tribute to a now-gone mother figure, to the great-grandma i never knew, but suddenly had such a sense of, such a pull toward, bob otto writes:
“today, one of the many boys she always attracted, realizes that essentially the hold she had on us after all might not have been her magic in the kitchen.
“we couldn’t have put it in words then,” he writes, “but i believe we can say as men that what we liked most about [her] was that she was a genuinely good mother and an all-around great lady.”
i was struck, still am, by that picture of my great-grandma kate and all those cakes and all those kids, crowded ’round her table.
struck by the notion of how she–someone else’s mother–pulled growing, searching souls ‘round her ample bosom. how she fed them, so much more than apple, peach and spice. how sweet her kitchen must have felt. how safe.
i’m struck too that upon her death she was remembered in a broadcast not for her heroics, but for her simple, profound humanity and her deep maternal streak.
i felt sad, a bit, as i always have, that i’d not known a minute of her goodness.
but over and over and over this soulful week, i’ve felt richer than before that i got a glimpse of my great-grandma kate huddled in her kitchen.
and i’ve thought long and hard about the simple gift of making cakes, and drawing hungry searching souls to your table.
not for what you slice so much as what you serve in ample helpings.
dear God, i whispered more than twice or thrice, stir in me, the very gifts you stirred in grandma kate. and bless her soul with ever-lasting peace.
beloved chair people, happy independence day. today’s my half birthday. today’s the day the sky explodes in starry lights and pyrotechnics. today is red white and blue, and very much the essence of summer. i’ve been pulled a hundred different ways here this morning, so it took a while to pound this out.
but here it is.
and here’s my question: have you stumbled, through a letter or a well-worn snapshot, onto some soul from your past, someone to whom you are tied through genes and heart, and whom you learned from long long after that someone was no longer?
and, p.s., thank you thank you uncle david for taking the time to bundle up those letters, and the lessons they contained. i am forever grateful. love, bam