I knew what it was the moment I saw it lying there, precisely folded in half at the back of the loose-leaf notebook. It looked a little out of place. The writing was more careless than the firm, precise style on my mother’s neat genealogy papers. She had been dead for more than seven years, and only now had I found time to review the last pages of her research into our family history.
I had no way of knowing how long the letter had lain untouched in her binder. Perhaps she had placed it there the day she received it. I wondered how often she read it as she pursued her family history research in the library.
I opened the pages, so stiff with age and disuse that they threatened to crack at the fold when I flattened them. As I read the blurred words, the memory flooded back.
My parents were formal, dignified people—Victorian in the best sense of that term—born several years too late to fully belong to their era. For them, love was understood but rarely expressed publicly. They embraced upon meeting and kissed one another good-bye, but that was the only display of affection they indulged.
I never observed them holding hands. They sat at opposite ends of the dining table. Their conversation was always lively but tended toward business, politics, family, and religion. They hardly ever openly discussed their feelings for one another. Perhaps they were in love more deeply than words could express.
“I love you” was felt in our home but went unspoken. I was sure that my parents loved me, though I had no affirmed statement to rely upon. It never occurred to me that I needed one. As they loved me, so I loved them; but raised in their pattern, I was too like them not to have great difficulty expressing my feelings. I could shake my father’s hand or hug my mother as I rushed out of the door, but words of love and affection came hard.
They did all for me: guided, provided, and inspired. They paid for my mission, my college education, my social life. They fed me physically, intellectually, and spiritually. They encouraged me, prayed for me, worried for me, and wept for me. At last, when I was reasonably prepared, they set me free.
By the time I left home to accept a new job and marry a woman whose worth my parents knew better than I, I still had not repaid them for their loving concern for me. Worse, I had not been very grateful for their years of giving, and I had said very little over the years of my love for them.
That realization came suddenly. I was living in Washington, D.C., working in a government job that carried some degree of risk. My parents were far away, growing older, more frail, and ill with heart disease, cataracts, and arthritis. I read each letter from them with a growing dread that they would soon be gone.
The death of a close friend at work brought home the reality of my parents’ mortality. They could die soon, and I feared that they didn’t know of my love for them, because I had never told them. I didn’t know how to tell them. But I couldn’t let them slip into eternity without so much as a “thank you” or an “I love you.”
As I lifted the telephone receiver time after time to call, I could only ask helplessly how they were, pass the time, discuss the weather and family, and then hang up. I hoped they knew what I really meant, but I feared they didn’t.
I wrote the letter after one of those calls. Originally, I set out to write down the things I wanted to say so that during my next call I could read my list, if necessary, to express my affection. As I wrote, the words seemed to flow easily onto the paper. The letter took life of itself. I could imagine my mother and father reading quietly without having to respond verbally to what I had written. That seemed more their way. They would find it easier to be at ease, and for that reason so did I while writing to them. All the things so difficult to say were so simple to write.
It wasn’t an epic letter. It contained only the ordinary feelings of a grown son for parents who had made him much of what he was. I loved them. I appreciated their sacrifices for me, their guidance, their reassurance, their faith to lean on until I found my own. I remembered the good times, bad times, joyful times, hard times. I laughed and cried as I wrote. I finally told them all that I had desired to tell them.
I almost didn’t mail the letter. It seemed silly and sentimental when I reviewed it. They would wonder what was wrong with me. They would worry. I scribbled a postscript in explanation. I told them everything was fine and that I had written because it was hard for me to say the words. I hoped that they would understand. I then stuffed the sheets in a hastily addressed envelope and dropped it in the mail.
My father died four years later. Four years after that, my mother followed him. I had returned home to help each of them through their final days. Their final months were long and painful, but at least I was with them at the end.
They never mentioned the letter, and I never found any occasion to bring it up or to repeat its sentiments. Only my presence and efforts to help them conveyed my feelings. I forgot the letter, and I thought they had too.
But here it was—preserved in the book my mother used three times a week. She had kept it, like a talisman near at hand where she could touch it often. Perhaps she never read it again, but it was with her, a constant companion when I was gone.
I scanned through the words on the pages, knowing that the thoughts they expressed were no easier for me to say now than they had been when I wrote them. One sheet appeared to be missing. From faded memory, I tried to recall its contents. When I remembered, the reason for the page’s absence became clear. It was the page on which I had told my father how much his example had meant to me, how I had valued his strength, understood at least somewhat the terrible struggles of his life, and often followed his counsel, though he might not have always thought so.
I never found that page, but I was sure my father had treasured it. Like my mother, he never told me how much it meant to him. But I knew, just as I know that faith, love, and obedience will unite us again. The eternal bond we share is secure.
I held the letter for a long time, much as my mother and father might have done years before, letting it pull me closer to them in spirit. It had been the work of only an hour or two, but I saw now that its value was beyond price. And I was very glad I had written it.