Our family is chock-full of wordy people. We soak language up and spit it out in big lots, out loud and on paper. We communicate, chirping like a flock of finches in an elm, scratching or tapping letters into sentences and stories, leaving our verbal footprints around as if we’d landed in black paint before hopping all over the sidewalk.
Many decades ago when I was young and we couldn’t afford long-distance phone calls (which was most of the time), we wrote letters to each other with pens and lined pads or typewriters and onionskin, telling news and repeating gossip, praising and thanking, cooing sympathy, enclosing love. Now it’s email – same thing, just with virtual ink.
Books fill our houses like words fill our heads. I see my granddaughter Simone reading until she is so deep in a story that she breathes as though asleep and dreaming, and I remember being eight, having escaped to a quiet corner, sitting in the yellow spill of a lamp with a book open on my lap, riding the words to green England or rough houses on the prairie, to luncheons and teas, orphanages, slaughterhouses and wars. Through my childhood I read history and mystery and romance, scaring myself stupid with Poe’s poetry and short stories, with the bloodiest murders, sobbing through loves lost and hearts broken and happy endings with the Brontes and Dickens and Wouk. I hunted for a story that paralleled mine, as if that would make what I knew and how we lived seem more normal. I hungered to be average, to be like everyone else, at the same time wanting to fly to a jungle’s canopy or wake up in a featherbed in St. Petersburg. I digress, but feathers, so exotic and luxurious, had been banned from our pillows with the excuse that one brother might be allergic, which left us with lumpy foam in yellowed cotton that smelled faintly like my bike’s tires.
My mother was a typist, fast as lightning. She worked as a legal secretary and a transcriber for court reporters. Her words came from lawsuit lingo and thick reference books, from Black’s Law and Stedman’s Medical and Merriam-Webster. She knew what “interlocutory” meant and “demurrer,” and she taught me all those words and how to spell them. Her handwriting was a Palmer variant and perfect, feminine but without flourishes, before it was distorted by gin. When I saw the cursive template pinned above the blackboard on my first day in third grade, I thought she had written it, those oval a’s and o’s, the mirrored, looping d’s and p’s.
For a guy so good at using his hands and his brain to make and build things – from filling teeth to planing lumber and pounding nails – my dad was no slouch with sentences. He was a grammarian and must have thought carefully before touching the nib down; there were no cross-outs in his angular, right-slanting cursive that marched like an EEG readout across blue Air Mail sheets that he carefully folded into thirds and tucked into matching envelopes with red and blue chevrons along the edges. It just dawned on me: he is the only person I’ve known who always carried a fountain pen and used it without vanity or pretense, a memory I find charming and a little mysterious. He punctuated his letters with “Ha!”
Margery, my stepmother and safe harbour, was our queen of letters, dashing them off on pretty stationery and artsy cards practically every day. She wrote cheery snippets about life in Carmel (or wherever she had randomly moved my father and their household to during her nomad phase), travelogues from Mexico and Norway. Thank-yous went in the mail even before the gift-wrapping went out with the trash; she was an expert at hand-holding from a distance. She drew little figures in the margins and on the envelopes: a Christmas tree, a bobbing cartoon sailboat on scalloped waves, an umbrella on a beach, a terrible turkey. She wrote with both care and abandon, like she lived.
After she died in the fall of 2010, we sold her Carmel house, and it had to be emptied fast. I crammed everything from desks and drawers and storage closets into bins and shipped them south to Casa de Swell where they have stood, stacked three high and three wide, next to the couch in our bedroom for a year and a half, inconveniently blocking part of a window and gathering dust.
For all that time, I meant to sift through the photographs and birthday cards and papers, to separate everything about her life Before Dad to send to her nephew in Kansas, things that needed to be returned to her family, that didn’t belong to us, from before she belonged to us. I made promises to Mike, her nephew, and his wife and broke them, made excuses again and again, something I almost never do and that I disdain in others. I would glance at the thick, heavy bins as I walked quickly past, but I avoided touching them. The truth is that my younger brother’s death, from the false hope of his first surgery (the same week that Marge stopped breathing) until last month when he stopped too, was like a continuously rising tide and my fixed anchor line was running out of slack. The hex on the boxes might have been from a benevolent bolt of lightning, in hindsight.
A few weeks went by Craigless, lightened by Simone’s visit to Camp Nana, and the house was quiet one morning after she had flown north, just a couple weeks ago now. The curse on the bins seemed gone – they just squatted there silently where a chair should have been, and there was an obvious place for me to sit on the couch. I spent the day pulling handfuls of stuff onto my lap and sorting it into piles I mentally labeled Me, Mike and Trash. There was no warning when I lifted a folder and saw, at the very bottom of the ninth and final box, half a lifetime’s worth of letters Marge had saved that Craig had written to her and Dad.
Posted in: casa de swell, human beans, la-la-la-love, my baby brother
Tags: adobe soup, band on the road, candace mann, court reporter, craig mann, death, dr. mann, dying young, family of writers, guitar man, legal terminology, loss, love, margery mann, reading, stepmother, typist, wordy people, writing, writing letters
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