Friday, July 20, 2012

Now and Always

Every month the Foundation for Historical Louisiana meets at the Old Governor’s Mansion and hosts a speaker. Last night’s speaker was Christian Garcia, who has just edited and published a book of letters written between his maternal grandparents between 1901 and 1916. His grandfather had been a state legislator and attorney and thus was often away from home working.

His family saved all the letters and Garcia was given them twenty years ago by a family member who hoped he would do something with them. The something he did is a book called Now and Always: A Louisiana Love Story. Garcia’s talk consisted of a short movie followed by readings of some of the letters, and then a summary of things he learned while researching the history of that period and compiling the letters. 

I went home wondering how it would be to have access to extensive correspondence between family members. My grandfather wrote to my grandmother once while he was visiting other family in South America. I know this because I sat next to my grandmother while my aunt translated the letter from Italian for me and my brothers. My grandmother greeted each term of endearment from my grandfather with some Italian words of her own which I didn’t exactly know, but the tenor of which were obvious from her facial expressions and gestures. I’m not sure what she was mad at him about, but it did make a nice change from the times I sat between the two of them while they competed for my attention. I would love to have that letter today.

My dad did save some of the letters my mother wrote to him while he was overseas during WWII. I remember they began with “my dearest darling”, which I thought was funny because who thinks of their parents being in love when they are little. I don’t know what happened to those letters.

I do, however, have a letter my mother wrote to my paternal grandparents in 1943. The letter was written from here in Louisiana, because my father was stationed at Camp Beauregard near Pineville, Louisiana (a few hours north of here) and my mother had rented a room in town to be near him. They had just been married the previous month and her coming to Louisiana to be with him was the only honeymoon they got before he shipped out. My dad had sent me the letter for me to read with the idea I was supposed to send it back but I sort of forgot, for that version of “sort of forgot” that means “didn’t want to”.

The letter begins with my mother explaining why my dad did not write himself.

 . . . [H]e is kept so busy that he can’t even write. Last week they sent him out on the firing range at another camp. He was there for six days. He was supposed to get Wednesday night off and also Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday. But he was out on the range and had no time off. When he came back he had a six day beard. He couldn’t even write to anyone.They gave him yesterday off and we went out. We came back too late last night. He wanted to write, but he asked me to. He will write the next time he gets off. You see, the reason he has very little time is because he has to go to school for an hour or sometimes two each night.

My dad was actually a good correspondent for most of his life. He was the one who wrote to me once I left home, and sent all the news of my brothers, sister, and eventually nieces and nephews. He kept up a long correspondence with a boyhood friend in California. I have only one letter from my mom (my stepmother) announcing my sister’s third pregnancy. So I imagine he actually did feel bad about not being able to write to his parents himself.

I went out to camp on Monday. I was watching him work. He’s good! [that was actually double underlined.] He’s the best officer there. I was allowed to go in his hut. Mrs. Adler (her husband shares a hut with Frank) was with me, so we went in and sewed the patches on their jackets and overcoats. That’s the first work I’ve done for Frank since we were married.

That’s my favorite part of the letter. My poor mama, a new bride living in a rented room while her husband lives in a hut, not even able to cook or clean for him. She must have felt as if her life had been interupted. And I don’t know whether my dad was the best officer there or not, but I had my own experience of her fierce loyalty to anyone she loved a few months before she died. My cousin and I had come home from the candy store with a box each of some kind of taffy. Terry could not find a chocolate in her box and I had two. She accused me of stealing hers, I denied it. My Aunt Nellie ordered me to give Terry one of the chocolate candies and my mother roared, “If my daughter says she didn’t take it, then she didn’t take it.” (Picture double underlines here.)

I moved into another room here. It’s nice and roomy. I have a three piece bedroom set, a nice easy chair, and a small vanity bench that I use as a table. I also have a sink in my room and space for my wardrobe trunk. It’s very pretty. It’s bigger than the other room I had and right off the living room. We can use the living room as often as we want. The people are all very friendly, so I don’t feel lonesome on the five nights Frank isn’t off.

She goes on to ask about other family members, then adds

Tell them we wish they could see the beautiful countryside down here. Oh, yes, down here you don’t need a license to drive and you can get enough gas to go pleasure driving if you know the right folks. Too bad we don’t have a car.

Same old Louisiana (although now you do need a license to drive).

She signs it “Love and kisses, Julia”. I’m pretty sure the name on her birth certificate was “Giulia” because that is how it was spelled on her wedding invitations, but naturally she would have Americanized it as soon as she could spell. 

Ten years later she was dead, of a rare blood disease that turned into blood cancer. My maternal relatives would frequently say, “I guess you don’t remember your mother”, but I do. I remember the time she defended me to my aunt (although looking back , I suspect I did take my cousin’s candy, not out of larceny but out of sheer inattention.) I remember one afternoon I sat with her in the living room while she read a book. Every time she looked up, I smiled at her and she would smile back. I began to worry that she would get tired of smiling back, but she didn’t. She smiled back every time. I remember the time I had an abscessed tooth and Dad let me sleep in their bed the night before my dentist appointment. I couldn’t sleep and kept pinching her back so she would know I was there. The next morning I asked if she knew I had slept in her bed and she said, “Sweetheart, I knew you were there.”

So I kept the letter, because it is her, just the way I remember her, now and always.

My mother and I when I was 3 or 4.

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