Time in a Bottle by
25
(48 Stories)

Prompted By Snail Mail

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Or, more accurately: Time captured in a batch of letters.
After my mother passed away in 2007, my sister and I found a stash of letters tucked away in my mom’s old cedar hope chest, along with some of what we assumed was her honeymoon lingerie. What a find!
I’d forgotten about the letters, but going through my sister’s things after she passed away in 2015, I rediscovered them. She had been the keeper of the correspondence all those years.

 

I sat down recently and read all the letters again, the neat stack bound by a nearly dried out rubber band that snapped the minute I touched it.

My mom’s instantly recognizable penmanship: cramped and hugging the bottom line, unlike my dad’s–whose handwriting matched his larger, more expressive personality. Harder to read, but dramatic in its presentation.

What I saw re-reading these letters was a glimpse into the relationship and struggles of a young couple dealing with a temporary separation. I can empathize with my mother’s predicament: stuck in a small apartment with too many people–including her overbearing mother–and dealing with one and then two small daughters.

The letters were written almost daily during two times in the early years of my parents’ marriage. One set, far less interesting to me, naturally, were written before I was born– when my mother took my sister to Detroit to visit her family. The focus was often on money matters, since they were pinching pennies rather carefully in those days.
But another set of letters were written by my mom to my dad during the summer of 1954. He was in New York, at Columbia, doing graduate work while my mother, my sister and I stayed with my grandparents and uncle back in Detroit. Reading these letters provided some interesting insights into my three-year old self. Unfiltered. Parent to parent. Juicy details. Children behaving badly, with all misbehavior well documented by a woman seemingly on her last nerve.
From a letter dated July 1, 1954:”Your little Risa misses you so terribly that last night I said, ‘Look at the picture of Daddy and say hi to him.’ So she turns around and says, ‘But he doesn’t talk to me that way!’ ” (The letters contain many reports about my my bathroom issues, which are discussed in painful detail. TMI, Mom!)
A behavior report, dated July 6: “When they’re behaving, they’re like angels.” Elsewhere, our antics are described as “embarrassing.” Yikes.
And by July 8, our shenanigans had been upgraded to “impossible.” If my older sister set a bad example, I would mimic her.  But then our mom tried a new tactic: “I bought the girls a bunch of stuff to play with yesterday and am taking them places each day so they won’t become bored or obnoxious.”  Score!
My molars merit a mention in the letter of July 11. Plans had to be canceled on my account. Not really my fault, but still.
July 15: I’m a water bug! We went swimming at a friend’s house. “Nobody could get over the way Risa took to the water — just like a duck. She has a pose that would slay you –she leans back, and it’s as if she were languishing on some gorgeous beach.”  I can still do that, too.
On July 17, we received a package from my dad. In my mother’s letter she writes: “Included you will find a thank you note, written by your daughter [my older sister. For some reason, I do not rate that same description] herself! And Risa signed her name too.” [Somehow, this still stings a little.]
There was a downside to an exciting day of playing with some other kids. “Risa was so pooped, she fell asleep at 5:00 while we were on our way home…I decided to deposit her in bed, and then just wait for further developments. You can well imagine what has transpired. She awakened at 8:00 full of vim and vigor, completely refreshed! Oh woe is me!”

Who could be mad at this darling child?

Clearly, this was a rough time for my mom. She writes:”I hate to say that I can dislike my own child [my sister this time, not me], but she’s become more than I can take…I’m afraid that one day my rage will take over….” And her  efforts to get away (from us!) to spend time with our dad take on an air of desperation: “They’ll just have to suffer through it! I’m sure they won’t be any more the worse for wear….if they will only cooperate, my mother can manage. I’ve promised them they would get some dolls only if they were good and didn’t make too much of a fuss about my going.” (My grandmother was a stern and forbidding woman. We  didn’t take kindly to her, so this was probably not going to work out the way my mother hoped it would.)

In these letters, I see the beginnings of my mother’s dissatisfaction with us as we assert ourselves, develop independent minds, and show signs of rebellion. We were not the “seen and not heard” children I’m sure she would’ve preferred. This would not improve or change as, years later, we entered our teens.

But there were two other takeaways from this brief correspondence: my parents were truly in love with each other early on. It’s right there, written in pencil or pen on thin onionskin paper. They long for one another, and they aren’t shy about expressing their desire for each other. Some hot stuff in those letters, for sure.
The other takeaway has to do with my mother’s early dependence on prescription drugs to treat a variety of illnesses and conditions over the course of her lifetime. In one letter, my mother muses about “starting the methedrine routine again, because I’ve been eating too much and been getting too little exercise.” I had to read this twice to make sure I saw what I saw.  And it made me sad to think about her reliance on “Mother’s little helpers” from such an early point in her life.
These letters revealed a great deal about my parents’ early relationship, when they were desperate to be reunited and get back to life as normal. I also saw how helpless and unprepared my mother was in those early days. It’s all there, in her own words.

 



Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    Risa, great minds think alike! I used this song for the title of one of my stories too, about an old photograph circa 1924 of my mother, aunt and grandparents. Your packet of old letters was a written rather than photographic version of time in a bottle. How fascinating to learn so much about your mother, both the good and the bad in her life, all there in her own words. What did your father say in his letters back to her? Or do you not have his letters from the same period?

    • Risa Nye says:

      Suzy, I do have some of his letters to her. But of course, we weren’t featured as prominently in those! A lot of mushy stuff and worry about finances. Some dreams for the future. I wonder if either of them knew those letters were still knocking around. The letters my husband and I exchanged when we were teenagers (before we were married!) were pretty steamy…not really sorry my kids will never stumble upon them when I’m gone!

  2. Marian says:

    Risa, you certainly entered a window in time with these letters. What mixed emotions to read about you as a child, from a parent’s perspective, and then the adult-to-adult communication. That said, it’s wonderful that you have this history and the feelings and situations have been opened for you.

  3. Risa, a fascinating story on so many levels! Do you think your mother subconsciously meant for you and your sister to read those letters some day? I wonder if she realized how hurtful it could be to know how you both tried her patience to such an extreme. I, too, would have felt stung by her words “Risa signed her name, too” — as if you were an afterthought. Now we know those seemingly innocuous “mother’s little helpers” are addictive and dangerous and might certainly have contributed to her moodiness and made things even more difficult, not to mention living with her overbearing mother. I’m curious as to how things went once you were all reunited with your father. It sounds like things got better, although you mentioned the beginnings of her dissatisfaction with you as you were growing up. What was your relationship like once you became an adult? Your tender tone makes me think you ended up on good terms. I hope so! I had a difficult relationship with my mother that took me ages to sort out.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Barbara, thanks for your comments. I wish I could say that we ended up on good terms…but the truth is we didn’t. Your question requires a long answer, which I can’t really go into here. I’ve tried writing about it–a very painful process, which I’m sure you can understand. I will say that my own kids awarded me the “Most Improved Over a Generation” prize, so there’s that!

      • I had a feeling, and I definitely understand. Love that your kids get it — being a different kind of mom to my daughter than mine was to me was an imperative. Mother-daughter relationships are so often fraught with complexity — I’d like to write about it, too, but without too much navel gazing. It IS painful, and hard!

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    How lucky you are to have these letters, Risa. It must be amazing to have such a direct record of you as a child as well as of your parent’s’ relationship. I’m sure at times an overwhelmed single parent would have many of these feelings but putting them on paper makes them feel more powerful and painful in some cases.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    What a treasure to have these letters that give you insight into your parent’s’ relationship and your mother, Risa. I’m sure it was painful to read about your mother’s struggles as a single parent to raise two young daughters. You sound like a spunky child and clearly a survivor.

  6. How fortunate to have such a clear perspective on your childhood from parents who shared so much about their lives, and, by proxy, yours. An epistolary therapist! You’ve reminded me of how essential letters used to be, and how varied were peoples’ abilities to express themselves in handwriting. Nice retro revelations, Risa!

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