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Mom, I Read Your Love Letters

You were a private person, even from your own daughter. I so badly wanted to know you.

By Lissa BayPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 8 min read
Top Story - June 2022
14
Deposit Photos

I learned about the place I was forbidden to explore when I was in elementary school.

"Don't go in there!" you shrieked, higher pitched than normal, when you turned and saw me sitting over your bottom bedside drawer, peering inside. Your static movements, and the way your body fought to hold itself back from lunging forward and grabbing me, told me I'd crossed a line I ought not to have crossed.

You'd thought I was fine on the floor, making the ceramic cat figurines you'd bought me at the dollar store act out elaborate scenarios, rescuing each other from the danger of the bed's steep ledge and the hardwood floor below. But for some reason, I'd decided to pull on the swinging gold handle of the French provincial-style bedside table, open the drawer, and peek inside.

Your reaction set off an alarm in me. I'd stumbled on something. Something bad. "Why not?" I asked, flushing with embarrassment and shame for having done the wrong thing.

"It's my stuff," you said. "Not to play with. Private stuff."

For the moment, that was the end of it. "Sorry," I said, while sheepishly I closed the drawer.

But I remembered what I'd seen in that brief glimpse into your private world. It was letters. And a book. The book, in particular, struck me because it didn't look like something for adults. It had an illustrated cover and storybook title. Softly In Silver Sandals. Why didn't you want me to see it?

I put it out of my mind for a long time. Years went by before I looked again.

_________________________

You were my mother, and you took care of my three siblings and me every day you were alive, but it's fair to say that I was still desperate to know you.

I'm the second of your four children, and though technically I share the "middle child" position with the third, I more embodied the middle child syndrome -- always feeling like I received less of your love, always starved for closeness. You seemed full of secrets, and I wanted to know them.

Dad recognized this about me and would go out of his way to try to pay me the attention I so craved. We'd go on walks together, where he'd let me ask him questions, which he'd answer to the best of his ability. I learned so much about him -- and you -- that way.

For instance, I learned that, when you met Dad, he worked at a 7-Eleven in Atlantic City. He'd gone there to live with his grandfather after he escaped a religious cult, a cult he'd dropped out of college to devote his life to, before growing disillusioned with it. He was 22 and you, at age 17, used to come into his 7-Eleven with your little brother Roy. Dad was the only clerk there who allowed Roy to read the comic books in the store without buying them.

I hadn't known anything about your mother, but I finally found out that she suffered from schizophrenia and drug addiction and was abusive to all three of her children. You took care of my uncles much more than my grandmother did, and you badly needed a way to escape.

You found that escape through marrying my father.

_________________________

I returned to the forbidden drawer in middle school. It was loud and crowded in our small house, with our family of six stuffed into three bedrooms. But somehow, I stole away one afternoon to sneak a peek into the one place I knew you kept some of your secrets.

I remember how nervous I was, my heart racing, my whole body jumping at every creak of the steps. The inside of the drawer smelled pleasantly musty, like old paper and memories. Carefully, I removed the first of the unlabeled envelopes and unfolded the letter inside.

By Ire Photocreative on Unsplash

My father's handwriting hadn't changed, and I recognized it immediately. He'd dated the first letter March of 1978.

I wish I remembered the contents of those letters better. I read them all, as quickly as I could. What I recall about them are as follows:

  1. They were sweet. You and my father had a romance together, once upon a time. It was difficult for me to reconcile that with the relationship I witnessed in person, which seemed rife with conflict.
  2. They were poetic. Dad, a consummate reader, had crafted lovely prose for you. He'd given it serious thought, likely while he waited for you to come back into his 7-Eleven and shine more light into his life.
  3. They were chaste. You two definitely didn't so much as kiss before you were married. But you began planning to marry shortly after you met.

I also learned a couple details about your lives I'd never realized before. Most notably, that you two met, and then five months later, when you turned 18, you wed. Even as a middle schooler, I recognized how remarkable this was, for my parents to have known each other for such a short time before marrying.

The letters also laid out something that neither parent had ever mentioned to us before -- that my older sister, Amanda, had been named after someone Dad learned about in a book he loved, called Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda. He'd written something about how, when you two had your first daughter, he'd like to name her Amanda, after Ananda Moyi Ma, so that joy could permeate the world in her wake.

_________________________

You with Dad and Amanda (my picture)

This last realization struck me hard, because although I knew that my father had gone on spiritual journeys through every religion he could find before we were born, neither of you ever raised us with any sort of faith. It was as if he'd explored all spiritual avenues and discarded them on all our behalves.

It seemed unfair to me that you kept such things a secret. It's not that I wanted to become a yogi, or to meditate or go to a church or synagogue or temple. It was just that my sister had received a name that had once held meaning for Dad and you, yet you'd never told us.

One day, I decided to ask you, "Why did you name Amanda 'Amanda'?" How I longed for you to take me into your confidence, to honor my curiosity, to let me into your inner life.

"We just liked the name," you said.

That night, as quietly as I could, I cried in bed. I wondered if you would have been more open with another of your children. I wondered why you kept me at arm's length. I wondered why I had to sneak around, searching for clues about you.

_________________________

The other item of note in that drawer was the book, Softly in Silver Sandles.

picture I took of the cover of the book "Softly In Silver Sandals"

Long out of print, it was the type of book sold in gift shops, written and illustrated by Flavia, who wrote and illustrated many such books and greeting cards. The book itself is sweet and lovely but, no doubt, what caused you to save it had been the handwritten notes Dad wrote to you on almost every page.

For years, I had forgotten the name of this book, but while I was writing this letter to you, it came back to me all at once. I immediately tracked down a used copy online and ordered it.

I'm happy to have a copy in my possession, but ultimately, it feels empty without Dad's cute and funny notes to you on its pages. It's a consolation prize, a far cry from what I really wanted, from what I hoped reading it again would illuminate for me.

I want the original book, the one Dad wrote in. I want the letters he wrote to you, prior to your marriage. I want to read them slowly, without any shame, because you offered them to me to read, of your own free will, because you wanted me to see them.

I want you back, alive, and allowing me to truly get to know you.

__________________________

Mom, a few days ago, it was 19 years since you passed away. Every day since that anniversary, I have officially lived on this Earth without your presence longer than I lived with it.

Unofficially, though, I lived without your presence much longer than that. In a way, I never had it.

Sometimes, I dream that you are still alive, and I am going to visit you. "What a relief!" my dream self always says. "For some reason, I thought you had died, but clearly I was wrong."

But then when I see you at last, you stand silent, refusing to speak. You're there, but still, I can never reach you.

The reason I don't have the letters and the gift book my father gave you is because, two years prior to your death, when I was 18 and leaving for college, you left Dad and moved into an apartment with your new boyfriend. Most likely, you got rid of those personal effects, deeming them inappropriate to bring into your new life. Only, that new life didn't last long.

Had you known cancer would strike you down so soon afterward, you might have kept the things our dad gave you, so my siblings and I could have them once you were gone. But, of course, you didn't know, you had no way of knowing. You were 40 years old, just entering middle-age, and I'll bet it felt like a rebirth, to leave after 22 years of marriage.

And what if I did have them? What if you'd kept that stuff and I could hold them in my hands, rereading them and turning over their brittle, aging pages? Would that really have given me any particular insight into you, and who you were?

Ultimately, I suspect it wouldn't. After all, you didn't write those letters, you didn't pen those love notes on the pages of an illustrated gift book. Dad did. I can mourn losing those items -- and I do -- but in fact, I still have access to their source.

Dad is still with us, thank goodness. It's you I lost. I wouldn't get you back by having any of that stuff.

__________________________

Still, I'm sorry I never told you I read your letters, and I'm sorry if my having read them violated your trust. I did it only because I badly wanted you -- more of you. You had every right to keep parts of yourself to yourself, and maybe, if you'd lived longer, and reached an age where you no longer had to care for young children and could care more for your own needs and desires, you would have finally allowed me to really get to know you.

There is a page of Softly In Silver Sandals that sticks out to me now.

picture I took of Softly In Silver Sandals, copyright 1985 (fair use)

It says:

If while you are a child just one someone loves you uncritically...

...then you will have love to give for the rest of your life.

You didn't get the luxury of a safe childhood from your own mother that I got from you, Mom. I know that you tried your best to give each of your four children the uncritical love that we needed to keep serving us our whole lives, even though your mom hadn't instilled you with those same tools.

You kept your secrets, but I choose to believe that it was only because you weren't ready yet, by the time you passed away, to share them.

I know you did your best with the time you had with me. You were young. I hold nothing against you.

I will never stop loving you. I will never stop missing you.

And, maybe, I will never stop searching for you.

I love you forever, and forever I will be...

Your daughter,

Lissa

Cindy Bay, 1960-2003 (my photo)

Family
14

About the Creator

Lissa Bay

Lissa is a writer and nanny who lives in Oakland, California. She enjoys books, books, playing Disney songs on ukulele for kiddos, books, and hanging out with her deeply world-weary dog, Willow. And, oh yeah, also—get this: books.

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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    Writing reflected the title & theme

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Comments (3)

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  • Mike Singleton - Mikeydred2 years ago

    Sorry I missed this , but a lovely story

  • This was beautifully written and touching

  • Babs Iverson2 years ago

    Outstanding and heartfelt!!!👏💖💕

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