My father had recently turned 29. It’s impossible to know how my mother, in her innocence and optimism, received his letter at the time, but in general, considering the woman I grew up knowing, I can say that it was absolutely not the sort of letter she would have wanted from her romantic interest. Her valentine’s cutely punning conceit taken literally as a reference to track ballast? And she, who spent her whole life shuddering free of the hotel bar where her father had worked as a bartender, getting a kick out of hearing “rough talk” from the town drunk? Where were the endearments? Where were the dreamy discussions of love? It was obvious that my father still had a lot to learn about her.
To me, though, his letter seems full of love. Love for my mother, certainly: he’s tried to get her a valentine, he’s read her card carefully, he wishes she were with him, he has ideas he wants to share with her, he’s sending all his love, he’ll call her as soon as he’s back. But love, too, for the larger world: for the varieties of people in it, for small towns and big cities, for philosophy and literature, for hard work and fair pay, for conversation, for thinking, for long walks in a sharp wind, for carefully chosen words and perfect spelling. The letter reminds me of the many things I loved in my father, his decency, his intelligence, his unexpected humor, his curiosity, his conscientiousness, his reserve and dignity. Only when I place it alongside the valentine from my mother, with its big-eyed babies and preoccupation with pure sentiment, does my focus shift to the decades of mutual disappointment that followed my parents’ first few years of half-seeing bliss.
Late in life, my mother complained to me that my father had never told her that he loved her. And it may literally be true that he never spoke the big three words to her–I certainly never heard him do it. But it’s definitely not true that he never wrote the words. One reason it took me years to summon the courage to read their old correspondence is that the first letter of my father’s that I glanced at, after my mother died, began with an endearment (“Irenie”) that I had never heard him utter in the 35 years I knew him, and it ended with a declaration (“I love you, Irene”) that was more than I could stand to see. It sounded nothing like him, and so I buried all the letters in a trunk in my brother’s attic. More recently, when I retrieved the letters and managed to read through them all, I discovered that my father had in fact declared his love dozens of times, using the big three words, both before and after he married my mother. But maybe, even then, he’d been incapable of saying the words out loud, and maybe this was why, in my mother’s memory, he’d never “said” them at all. It’s also possible that his written declarations had sounded as strange and untrue to his character in the 1940s as they now sound to me, and that my mother, in her complaints, was remembering a deeper truth now concealed by his seemingly affectionate words. It’s possible that, in guilty response to the onslaught of sentiment he was getting from her notes to him (“I love you with all my heart,” “With oh so much love,” etc.), he’d felt obliged to perform romantic love in return, or to try to perform it, the way he’d tried (sort of) to buy a valentine in Fairview, Montana.