Last month I wrote about how hard it is for me to find things to write about. Ever since then, everywhere I go, there’s a little voice saying, “Maybe you’ll find something to write about here.”
Earlier this month, when I was in California, I hit the jackpot. I read some letters that were found in my Dad’s office desk after he died. The letters were from his Dad. They sounded so full of life, like they’d been written just yesterday or last week. They were dated 1927. My Dad was 22. He was a senior at the University of Santa Clara. That was a long time ago.
I never met his Dad, my Grandfather. He’d had a stroke in 1933 and died later that same day. But, here he was, alive, charismatic and vibrant, speaking to me from the past. “Wow”, I thought, “Maybe I can get to know him after all”. I was thrilled and knew I just had to write about this experience.
Then I got cold feet. Normally I’m a pretty private person. I felt a little nervous and scared about the idea. But, then I decided why not? So here’s my story:
Have you ever wondered what your grandparents or great-grandparents, that you never met because they died so long ago, were like? What they cared about? What made them smile? What traits you may have inherited from them?
As I read my Grandfather’s letters, I felt like he was in the room with me, having a drink and chatting. Hearing his voice speak across time, was very special and a little strange.
I knew he’d left Ireland in 1880 because he’d called a strike against the parish priest for breaking the contract regarding the ratio of journeymen to apprentices. He won but no one would hire him after that.
He was a carpenter and he went first to Chicago because he had a sister in a convent there. Then he went out to San Francisco where he founded the Carpenters’ Union, the Building Trades Council and later became mayor.
When I heard the family stories about him, I wondered, what kind of man was he? I knew his wife, my Grandmother. We called her Nana and she was kind of cold. Was he like that too?
Was I surprised! The letters from him to my Dad were warm and caring. He did not seem to follow the conventional wisdom that “Children should be seen and not heard”. He made it clear in many ways that his relationship with his oldest son and other children was very important to hm.
There were letters to my Dad when he was at the University of Santa Clara and trying to get into Harvard. There were letters to my Dad when he was back east in Law School. My Grandfather wrote about what the “family in the west”, as he called them, was doing, things like my Aunt Eileen’s 21st birthday and a planned vacation to Australia. He also told my Dad how much he missed him and looked forward to the next time they’d be together.
I felt a little strange reading these letters. It was almost as if I was spying through time on the two of them, sort of like a kid who sneaks into the living room, hiding behind the drapes so she can hear what the adults are saying. But it was also neat to hear my Grandfather talk in his own voice.
Afterwards, my Grandfather became real to me, not just a character from family stories, and it let me see my father in a different light. Instead of seeing him as the larger than life personality he became, I got a chance to see him as the son he once was.
It was also interesting to see the letters themselves. They were all typed on a manual typewriter and the pages, I guess there were no paper clips in those days, were pinned together with a straight pin, the kind you’d use to shorten a hem today.
I know I would have really liked my Grandfather if we’d had the chance to meet. I could feel his personality and spirit coming through the letters. By the end, I felt I was really getting to know him.
I was also struck by the fact that, of all the many letters my father had received over his lifetime, it was these letters that he chose to keep. I wanted to ask, of all the letters, why did you save these? But I’m glad he did.