"What're you doing, Grandma?" I asked, as I heard whirring in the background.
"Shredding paperwork." Whir.
"Oh, that's good. What kind of paperwork?" This is the woman who blacks out her address on catalogs with a sharpie before she sends it over for our family to look at so no one can steal her information. (She also removes the order forms so we can't make purchases from the catalogs, since she's decided we're poor and we can look but not touch.)
"Just letters and stuff." Whir.
And though I assume it's junk mail, I feel compelled to ask her what kind of letters, exactly, she's destroying.
"Oh, family letters, and stuff. Like letters your Grandpa sent when he was in the war." Whir.
"GRANDMA, YOU STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!"
If it were possible for me to Wonka-Vision shrink myself and travel through the phone I would have.
"Please, please, please don't shred those!" I beg her.
"Why?" she responds. With the whirring of the shredder still buzzing in the background.
"Because that's history! That's legacy! Those are family heirlooms!"
"No, they're private." she insists. "No one wants to read them."
"I DO!" I tell her, the sentimental wordsmyth that I am. "I want to read them, Grandma."
"No, you don't." She says.
"Yes, I do!" I insist.
"No, you don't." She insists.
"Grandma! I do!"
"Arly..." my grandmother sounds like she's conspiring with me, "...your grandfather was..." - And I'm convinced she's going to tell me he was a spy or a double agent or an assassin - "...a very horny man." she concludes, giggling.
And that shuts me up. Because my grandmother won't even watch a show if it says, "damn" in it so for her to be so frank about the contents of the letter, makes me blush slightly.
"Ok, well, that is a thing you just told me." Trying to collect myself as I hear the whirring start up again. "But save some of the less scandalous ones, ok?"
"Why?" My grandmother asks.
I scramble to be eloquent and come up with good reasons, but all I can do is think of the photo of my grandparents on their wedding day, so young, so beautiful, so in love. Years afterwards, when my grandmother was concerned I wouldn't ever meet a man and would die alone and lonely, she encouraged me to go to square dancing events. That was where she and my grandfather met, and she figured - if it worked for them...
And then I'm struck with the image of my grandfather, struggling to communicate as ALS ravaged his system, robbed him of his words, the things he loved so much. He was witty and quick to turn a phrase. And he was so, so in love with my grandmother. They were married for over 50 years and none of that love ever faded.
Of course I wanted to read his courtship letters to her! Of course I wanted to read his letters of love! Even if they talked about her in a way that was more blue than she wanted to me to know about.
"Grandma, because...I think that's beautiful that you still have them. Now a days, no one writes love letters. At least not in a way that we'd keep. It's all e-mails and text messages and phone calls."
I can hear her soften in her resolve. She knows I'm a sentimental sap. On my 18th birthday she and my grandfather gave me a beautiful appetizer display set, two tiers of etched glass, with a note attached: "Because we know how much you love to entertain." It was from their wedding set. And I was humbled that they would trust me with it. She knew I loved to entertain, she knows I love to write. I tried to spin that to my advantage.
"Besides," I went on, "I'm a writer and...I'd just like to read something Grandpa wrote to you."
I think this is the part of the conversation where she remembers my tattoo - an Underwood typewriter I had etched into my shoulder on my 25th birthday. The same typewriter my grandfather used, and then my mother, and then me. My grandmother likes this tattoo.
(I thought it was very edgy of her think that tattoos were cool - until she saw the seashell on my wrist. I got that one two years later. Her response to it?
|Taken back before selfies were as ubiquitous as they are now. |
Ignore the giant camera/flash. You get the idea.
"Um, no, Grandma. It's permanent."
She pursed her lips and said, "Oh."
Turns out, it's not all tattoos she likes. But the typewriter. The typewriter she does.)
"Oh, I don't know." Her position on the letter shredding is shifting, and there's no more grinding of paper to be heard in the background. "I'll think about it."
That was the last we talked about it, but I've since learned that Grandma has, in fact, set aside some letters for me. But I'm not going to get them until after she dies. Not sure if that's to spare us the embarrassment of my grandfather's longings, but she's the mother of five kids. Not much to hide there, grandma.
And I couldn't be happier. About the letters. Not the horniness. (That's still a thing she told me that I'm wrapping my brain around.)
Maybe Ursula had it right and body language's the way to go, but the way I seduce and am seduced has always been through words.
We click and clack, we titter and tatter, each word sent through cyberspace, texting and testing the tensile strength of this relationship in the making.
Can their words make me laugh? Are they able to pick up on my jokes? Take a line I've laid and run with it? Are the words automatic, or do we have to think about it? Does my breath catch when I read them? Do I blush, or flush with anticipation?
Turn my hands and fret and worry and hope that the virtual postman comes quickly and that my phone chirps the arrival of a new micro-telegram, telling me whether or not this verbal seduction is working, or welcome, or wise.
Once, I asked a lover to write me a letter on my birthday. I wanted an actual letter, in his own hand, describing the things he loved about me. I wanted something to pull out on rainy days to read. Something that he'd written, for me, for my eyes only.
He said he would, but never delivered. I don't blame him. It makes me a little sad, still, because I didn't ask him for a lot - it was the only gift I ever requested - but I know that words aren't everyone's favorite way of showing love. He was steady in his feelings, but not demonstrative in the way I was. Because, months earlier, I'd done it for him.
For the first birthday we spent together as a couple, I bought a little book and wrote down, on each page one thing I loved about him. There were 64 pages in all - so it worked out to be 2 things for every of the 32 years he'd been alive. After we'd separated, he cleaned out his possessions, but kept that book. His then girlfriend found it, and read it.
Months after the fact, when my ex and I began talking again and remembered why it was we loved each other - though it was abundantly clear we were not going to date again - he told me about the book. I felt a bit betrayed. Those were my words, to him, and I felt sad that someone else had seen my personal, private thoughts. (Also, I take after my grandfather, so there were some, um, NSFW thoughts in there, too.)
As calmly as I could, I asked him what her reaction was.
"She said it showed her how you loved." And I understood, then, her curiosity. And I understood, then, my own.
I have love letters from the time I spent in California. Written on paper. In my then lover's own hand. They're tucked in a box, hidden away. I have virtual pages of g-chats, and Facebook messages, and texts still saved on my phone. It's hard to read those, though. Hard to see the ways we woo'ed when the wooing is still so fresh in my memory.
And so easily rekindled. The people I've loved best are the ones I never run out of words with. Early on in my last relationship my therapist asked what we talked about and I was dumbfounded to come up with a clear answer. She was dumbfounded to find we could sustain hours long conversations, virtually, and still have things to talk about face to face.
When I think about the words I wrote to my loves, I think about my grandmother, smitten with a boy she met at a square dance, hoping he'll come home from war safe and sound, to make good on all the things he's written her. The life and the wife and the...other details. (Even if my grandma would be mad at me for saying it. Again, five kids. Fooling no one.)
September 5th, they would have celebrated 60 years of marriage. Their wedding day was my grandmother's 20th birthday. All those years later, she still has those letters celebrating the time before they were lovers, before they were husband and wife, mother and father, grandparents, home makers, before either had any idea that their relationship would come to an end in the same month it began, when my grandfather's body finally let go, much sooner than his mind wanted to.
I was with them during my grandfather's last hours, in September 2007. And in that time, I was struck by how much love still existed. He died at home, in a hospital bed, near the twin bed my grandmother slept in. For years they'd shared a double bed, and as a kid, I'd climb up on it. Careful not to wrinkle the tucked in bedspread, and put my head on first his pillow, then hers. It brought me comfort to know they slept so closely. In those last months, it brought me comfort to know they could still share the same room, breathe the same air.
Their wedding pictures covered the walls of the new home my aunt and uncle had built, so my grandparents could be close to the care he needed. Close to the hospital, close to family. Close to the love that was built beyond letters, beyond envelopes sent from Korea to Connecticut saying,
"Wait. I love you. Build a life with me. My darling, my dream, my dear. Wait for me. We'll spend a lifetime together."
When I'm nearing 80, I won't need a shredder to eat those words. They're in a cloud, a virtual container. Concepts my grandparents might not understand. Concepts I don't. But letters, of love, that I get. Whether on paper, or screen, the purpose behind those letters can still be seen. The measure's not in the medium, but in what the words mean.