The Letters

letterDedicated to Geneva Childress, Friend and Helen Hedger, Grandmother

Strange circumstances create strange results. My father was motherless by a car accident in 1951. The shock of Helen Hedger Hendricks’ death left him unable to remember her – small fragments, like a dream, have come to him over the next sixty plus years. I remember when I once pasted a magazine print onto the back of a matting board to frame. My father looked at me in shock and responded, “I think….Mama did that.” I was elated; he was tearful; and I realized immediately: mothers who die without some form of after-life communication to their children hold a huge responsibility in their living years. Thus, the idea of writing a letter a month or more to a child came to me. Write letters; keep them somewhere safe; and let the child know you do it so they will be able to locate them someday. I vowed from the moment that I learned I was to become a mother, that I would write him/her letters. Once named, I would write directly to the named child.

For fifteen years, I have performed the ritual of letter writing to my child. Ironically, my child was my fourth and only pregnancy to make it to full gestation, so he has letters addressed and dated to other siblings, but I explained that to him in his first letter when I learned his name.

His name? Ian. He is fourteen, nearing fifteen years in April.

I write about everything and anything: my thoughts, my experiences, my dreams, my political viewpoints, adventures, misadventures, stupidity, love, and loss – everything a mother should tell her child about life. Oh, well, my son can tell you I tell him everything he needs to know in life every day since I homeschool him, but he does not listen. In my letters, which he does know about and rolls his eyes about – he will have an appreciation for them when the time comes – be it my demise as an old woman or as woman taken too early, such as my grandmother’s death. My father’s lack of maternal memory taught me that children need communication – and love letters to one’s child is similar to what Mary Cassatt gave the world, only in the written word.

Currently, my husband (my son’s stepfather) waits what we call the sitting and waiting. He is sitting by his wonderful and beautiful mother’s bed in a Memphis ICU unit. She is suffering from reactions from chemotherapy. She fought cancer for two years, but this situation is looking very grime. She has two handsome and tall sons who are her world and she adores them. When I married her bachelor forty-four year old son, she grilled me about why I loved him. He was her eldest, her shining star that was the first college graduate in the family, her engineer, and one of her prides and joys. “Why do you love my son?” this tiny woman asked me. I responded, “Have you ever seen him smile?” She nodded, just like her son, not someone prone to smile unless it is really worth smiling about nor does she laugh unless it is funny as a stack of comics. “It is like the sun when the rays hit the flowers: bright and beautiful!” She appreciated my use of the English language, loved my columns, laughed over my novel as I wrote it, and became my friend. In the three and a half years I have been her daughter-in-law, we prefer the term “friend.” She has a daughter-in-law she is closer too and loves like a daughter. I never wanted to be an upstart or get in the way: I am, simply, her friend.

My friend’s eventual removal off respirator could happen this week. I sit in her house with my own son, day after day, waiting as my husband, his brother, the other daughter-in-law, and most of all, the husband watch and wait. In addition, I homeschool. I write. I pray. I call every three hours. I write letters to my son to go into his boxes when we return home. We do not know how long we will be here.

There are no boxes of letters for her boys. And I panic. Did she say everything? Did she cover all the bases about life? Will they know what to do about this and that? Suddenly, I remembered: They are 44 and 48 – and their mother reared them to be the extraordinary men that they have become….Then, I went to  the baby books she often showed me.

Baby books were an older form of parent/child communication and I will say, although she wasn’t as obsessed as I due to my grandmother’s early demise, she did rather well to let her boys know she loved them and they began life wanted, adored, protected, and nurtured.

I do wish for a goodbye letter, and I told my husband since he may not have that option, she can hear him and squeeze his hand. Say the things now, in the present, before the time slips. Fill in every moment with her songs, telling her she did an excellent job rearing her sons, and tell her you love her. She can respond by squeezing his hand: once for yes and twice for no.

As for me, I struggle every day with a teen that “doesn’t get it,” but I hope someday he will. Until then, I have letters that will tell him everything and anything – and for my world and me: that is how I decided to operate. That includes, dear reader, thirteen scrapbooks.

Why would mothers go to such lengths?

Geneva Childress has done a superior job in parenting to the very end, as her sons are in their forties; they are educated, responsible, respected, and loving family men. Helen Hedger Hendricks did not get that option. We mothers have so much to say and do. Consider how you want to communicate to your children in the event of something happening to you. Letter writing? Maybe something modern – such as a blog?

Would you want to be a little boy in a small Kentucky school pulled out of class and learn your mother, a single mother, died in a car crash during her lunch break? He has few memories – blocked by the sheer shock and trauma of the incident. I loved my father enough to prevent a second generation from such a loss – and I firmly believe Helen Hedger Hendricks would approve.

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