a therapy session, a time machine, and a Penseive

How well do you think you know your parents? How much of their past--their deep past, the one before you came along--do you know? Do you understand who they are, and why they are the way the are?

By the time I reached my teens, I had my parents pegged. And my portraits of them weren't all that flattering. My mother was the needy, morose, passive aggressive alcoholic; my dad the stubborn, ill-tempered cynic. Family dysfunction, addiction, and occasional violence prevented any kinder or even just more nuanced characterizations of them from ever emerging. As far as I was concerned, they were a mess--and the reason I was a mess. It's so convenient to have it all figured out at sixteen.

Anyway, my father's cynicism, for as long as I can remember, was absolute and all-encompassing. Politics, culture, romance--you name it, he scoffed at it. Romance in particular was a subject for intense jeering. No matter how excited I was about a boy, from the time that boys were something to be excited about, my dad would find a way to cut down my happiness. That sounds cruel, I know, but I won't pull the punch. He did. I still loved him.

To him I suppose it was a form of teasing, though underneath there was probably some warning being issued. Be careful honey. Love will hurt you. Maybe he was only trying to toughen me up. Whatever his motives, I would never, ever, ever think of my dad as the romantic type. In fact when I told him I was getting married, his critical and dismissive response upset me so much we wound up not speaking for nearly three years. I walked myself down the aisle to greet a husband he hadn't even met.

My father thought marriage was a terrible joke of an idea. His divorce from my mother had nearly killed them both, so acrimonious, expensive, and protracted an event it was. Anyone having gone through such nastiness could be forgiven some Scroogitude where relationships are concerned. It's just really hard to see that when it's your dad.

Of course, despite being the Anti-Romantic, he still pursued women. He'd occasionally share his dating site matches with me, show me the letters in which he wooed would-be lovers. My father was nothing if not clever; these flirty missives were something else. But flirty is where they stopped. I'd even describe them as wary. Chary. Once burned, he was twice shy about climbing back into the fire. And he made it clear to the women he was dating: expect no Romeo, and certainly no ring.

Then my mother died. And a new window into my dad's personality cracked open just the tiniest bit. He did something that caught me completely off guard, it was so uncharacteristic and unexpected. He asked to have her ashes. His ex-wife's ashes. A woman whom he'd been bad-mouthing to me for the better part of twenty years. He promised he had no nefarious intent whatsover, that he would safeguard them for as long as he lived. What the hell.

I didn't question it. I chalked it up to nostalgia, to late-life sentimentality. And I obliged. It's a very odd thing, signing off on having your cremated mother FedExed to her ex-husband. But so it went.

Then the window, through which I had already glimpsed a softer side of my dad than I'd suspected existed, swung open further. And revealed was a man nothing like the one I'd grown up with.

Here's what happened: I found, among my mother's things, a stack of love letters he'd written her. They were dated from May of 1966 through December of that same year. When I came across them I spent a good minute just frowning in confusion. Wait, what? What is this? Someone wrote all these sweet, romantic letters to my mother and signed my dad's name? I don't get it.

It just didn't compute. He wasn't that person. He'd never. Only, here was the proof, right before my eyes. Immaculately kept and bundled neatly with a bulldog clip (which raised all kinds of questions about my mother in turn, like why on earth were these so precious to her when she so hated my dad?). Chronologically ordered. Neatly typed with my father's address in Alaska heading each page. Things started to click into place when I saw that header. Holy shit. This...this was during their courtship. When he was working in Fairbanks and she was still back in NYC. These...this was before they were even married

I thumbed through the stack and let my eyes fall on a random paragraph. As luck would have it, though I wouldn't know it for nearly seven years, I just so happened to land on the one semi-explicit sexual reference in the whole set of letters. Nothing too crazy, just a little kinky. But oh my god, that was more than enough for me. Nope nope nope. Not my business, boundary needed here, don't wannna know. I dropped them as if they were a smoking gun.

But the seed of a thought had been planted: maybe my father hadn't always been a cynical hardheart after all. Maybe a long time ago, before life had its way with it, his heart was full and open.

I mentioned the letters to him casually during our next phone call, keen to hear his reaction. Curiously, he didn't seem all that surprised. Maybe he'd known she'd kept them. Maybe he understood their post-divorce relationship better than I did. At this point I didn't know what to think. But when he asked in a quiet, hopeful voice whether I'd mind sending them to him unread, at least I knew what to do: send them to him, unread.

Fast forward three years to, this time, my father's death. Spring of 2012. Along with the rest of his estate, the letters come back into my possession. There is no one else to pass them to. (My brother would tear them to shreds without hesitating.) But grieving as I am, reading them seems impossible. It's not that I don't want to know what's in them, it's just that I can't yet. I can't. So I put them away, among my other personal memorabilia. I leave them untouched and unread for three years. I don't forget about them, I never once forget about them--but the time doesn't feel right. Until that is, yesterday.

Why yesterday? Well, that...that's difficult to explain. Suffice to say it was a really, really, really bad day, and I spent most of it casting about for a lifeline. Something to make me feel less alone, and more connected to the parts of me that I'm okay with. Something to center me. The letters, I remembered. It's time.

Terence was asleep. It was past midnight. I stood on a chair to reach the shelf above the kitchen cabinets, and pulled down all three of my stuffed-full memorabilia boxes. The letters were in the first box I opened, in as near-mint condition as when I'd found them seven years ago. I grabbed my glasses, took the letters over to the rug, and sat underneath an angled task lamp.

I read the date on the top one: 31 May 1966. Almost fifty years ago. I did some quick math: my father would have been 27; my mother, 25. I curled my feet under my legs, took a deep breath, and discovered a man completely unrecognizable from the one who raised me. A passionate, dreamy, tender romantic. An optimist, through and through.

It took me less than an hour to get through them. There are only sixteen. But they are lovely. They are so lovely. They are sweet and funny and playful and hopeful. They break my heart and then fill it and then break it again. They are exceedingly well-written. They describe in direct terms my father's life in the remote Alaskan tundra, and in indirect ones the life my mother was living concurrently "down south" in New York. They paint a picture of a couple desperate to reunite and reignite a flame they'd only just lit--my parents spent a mere month dating before my dad landed a work contract that took him across the continent. These letters are their courtship. They are full of references to things that would later be a part of my own life. They allude to planned vacations the pictures of which I saw time and again, in photo albums that lined our living room shelves. They shed light on aspects of my mother's character that I would come to share. They are a therapy session, a time machine, and a Penseive.

I am, perhaps understandably, more enamored of them than would be a stranger. But I believe anyone with a heart would find them at least a little charming. So I'm going to share them. I'll either transcribe them or just scan the letters themselves. I might post them here or, if I can find time, give them their own simple website. I'm thinking about adding to them somehow. Annotating them, using them as a starting point for my own essays, creating short fiction to complete them--I don't know. I just want to do something with them. Both characters are gone now; it's been almost four years since my dad died. I believe it's okay to do this. There's nothing overly personal and beyond a few playful moments nothing explicitly sexual. After all, they barely knew one another at the time.

You have to spend a lifetime with someone, to really know them. Sometimes longer.