Friday, November 2, 2012

When Love Letters Can't Tell The Story

"What's in there?" asked Oldest when we loaded my old trunk into the back seat of the car.My mother, had lost the only key, the one she insisted she would keep safe. After living with the trunk locked up for eight years, I finally scraped together the necessary $85 and found the old key maker to get it opened.

"A World War I sword, a box of love letters, a black hat I intended to wear to your grandmother's funeral, and a twenty-five foot gum wrapper chain," I answered.

The boys burst out laughing. "One of these things is not like the other," Oldest sang. They couldn't wait to see the sword, but were curious about the gum wrapper chain, too. The love letters? Not even on their radar map.

But for me it was the box of love letters, written to me by the young man who had stolen my heart when I was sixteen, that had been calling to me. He had been handsome, a great dancer, sexy and a charmer. We exchanged notes in school like crazy, and I kept them all in a shoe box. But after thinking about it for the past few years, I decided to finally get rid of them. It was time.

He was not my parents' idea of the perfect boyfriend at all. He lived with a foster family after he stole a snowmobile. Rumor had it that his parents drank. Suffice to say, they were not in favor of us dating at all. One day when they met up with his probation officer, they arranged it so that when he was sent home, she would make sure we didn't see each other any more. And that's what she did: took me out for a little talk and told me that my boyfriend had agreed to not call or see me again, that it was his idea, and if I didn't agree, she would make things very difficult for him.  My head spun with both the grief of him not wanting to see me again to the idea that if I tried to, his life would be miserable. Naturally I agreed and tried to move on. Yes, I talked to him later after I started dating someone new. He had tried to reach me by phone often but after we finally connected, I was already dating someone else. The disappointment in his voice was palpable. 

The years moved on, and I thought of him often. I resigned myself that he never could have loved me because he always cheated. He came close to my apartment once when I was in college. I could see him from the window, and when he looked up, he saw me. But he never came to say hello. I accepted that it was over, that it had probably been one sided, that it was folly to even bother with it. When I looked him up on Facebook thirty years later, he was living the kind of life I would have hated. According to the comments on his MySpace page, he still cheated. I even met his son, a troubled young man who ultimately spent time in jail for spousal abuse. You know he learned that at home. I'm glad my ex and I didn't end up together. Most of all, I am glad I married the Man Who Puts Up With Me.

One night this last summer I lit a fire in our fire pit, grabbed that box of old love letters and reread the drama that occurred between my sophomore and senior year of high school.  And what a drama it was! Whenever I wasn't in town to hang out with him, he was seeking out some of my girlfriends and charming them, too. Naturally, this created great angst between those of us who actually liked one another. I had no idea who to believe: the boy who professed his undying love to me, or the girls who told me how he had been calling them. Finally I determined the truth from a impartial friend: he was a cheater.

I got the idea that my teenage years were not what I remembered because I found my old high school diary last summer. When I reread it, I discovered that I had an intense focus on going off to college. On those pages, I poured out my heartfelt concerns that while I cared deeply for my boyfriend, the day would come when I would leave. As I reread those pages, I realized that all the years I mourned the sudden loss of that young Romeo, I had lost perspective of what I really felt at the time. I loved him but knew it wasn't permanent. The years that tainted my viewpoint of that love affair as much as the betrayal of the boyfriend.

So there I was, placing each reread note between my old boyfriend and I into the fire. And then I realized that just a week or two earlier, Oldest stood out by our fire pit with a lighter and burned the Dear John letter he had gotten that day from the girl he loved. His inner pain showed on his face from the drama in his life just like the drama had been in my life. Same age, same pain of lost love. Maybe the circumstances were different, but that feeling of loss is the same.

I debated throwing away these love letters and finally decided that some writing was just too personal to share. I didn't want my children to find it and ever wonder if my feelings lingered for my former boyfriend. I never wanted them to doubt my love for my husband. They would have had to judge the young man on his handwriting or spelling, None of that would have given him a complete picture of his charm, the attraction we had toward one another. It was an "aha!" moment when I could understand why Martha Washington burned George's letters to her, something I always felt was a tragic loss. Sometimes personal writing just can't tell the story correctly.

All of this has got me examining perspective more closely. It's amazing how time intensifies or smooths out feelings. One of the girls who my ex had approached constantly spent her senior year torturing me with snide comments about my feelings for that boy. It was the most miserable year of my life. Yet in rereading the letters she had written to me in our junior year, I found a girl who truly didn't want to have conflict, who didn't want me to be hurt, who hated herself and her life. For all the pain she caused me in what should have been a wonderful year, I had missed her truly miserable life. I was too close to the situation to see it for what it was worth.

Now I'm dealing with a teenager who is moody, angry at times, loving at other times, kind to others and pissy at me. He needs me and hates me all at the same time. Nothing I say is right, and I don't like that at all. It's like living with a grizzly bear.No amount of intellectualizing it makes it easy. I know that all I need to do is survive because he'll figure out later how smart I am. In the meantime, it is painful to deal with his attitude. I wonder how I will look back on this time. Will it be with the feeling of how horrible it was, or in some other way? I don't know. Funny how my love life 35 years ago give me lessons even today. It just goes to show how there is value in all aspects of experience.

The Drug Talk

"Hey," I whispered to The Man Who Puts Up With Me. "Got a favor to ask."

He groaned, and I knew what he was thinking.Something to fix, something that needs doing. Something that would take all day. He's my number one fix it guy, even though he doesn't get much done around here because he's gone so much, and when he is home, he's tired and just wants to relax or mess around with the family.  "What?" he asked warily.

"I think you should have the drug talk with our Youngest," I said. "He thinks you're the best, and looks up to you."

"Got it," His thumb went up. This was an easy task, something he wouldn't find work at all.

For those of you who don't have children or who engage in recreational drugs, it might come as a wonder as to why parents take the time to speak occasionally of how not to do drugs, how to look cool at parties while dumping the beer down the sink, how to say "no" in 100 different ways. Early on in our marriage, we decided it was much easier to encourage the kids to live without drugs rather than dealing with rehab, or an early death, or a lifetime of unnecessary struggle.

Now don't get me wrong. We weren't saints as kids, something we've admitted to our children. My parents never said a word to me about drugs until I was way past 17 and by then it was way too late. And although I like a beer now and then, I've come to understand that my body no longer tolerates the stuff. Most of all, I've admitted to myself that the kids who grew up in our extended family where booze was always present versus the nephews and nieces who never saw it in their homes now live very different lives. In short, I like the ones who never had the stuff around and they are far more wealthy and successful. So it doesn't matter that I probably never drew a sober breath my freshman year of college. I can just see how much those people who remained sober just did better all the way around compared to me.

I expect the boys to drink and maybe even try something they shouldn't in their life. But I don't want them to have my blessing if they get stoned. I probably will be that nagging voice in the back of their head.

All that said, The Man Who Puts Up With Me took Youngest and the dog on a walk. And this is somewhat how the conversation went:

Man: So if you get sad or depressed, and someone offers you drugs, what will you do?

Youngest: Can I still play my music?

Man: Of course!

Youngest: (putting up his thumb) Then we're all good. No problem.

Man: (stumbling to overcome his surprise) Okay. supposed you are ticked off at Mom and Dad and you storm out of the house. You know someone who has drugs available. What do you do?

Youngest:  Can I still play my music?

Man:  Uh, sure!

Youngest: Then we're good!

Man: (Fumbling for ideas) Uh...well, how about if you are at a party and kids are pressuring you to drink.

Youngest:  Is there music there?

And so the conversation went on.  Apparently music is the ultimate drug repellent.

And besides making me laugh, I thought about it for a long time afterward.  Music is his life, and now gives him a moral compass. This gift for the desire to play the piano, guitar and percussion spills over in a way too mysterious for for us to comprehend.  What keeps him grounded is less about my husband and I but more of notes on a page, tuned instruments and all of us singing.

It makes me think about caroling this year, how maybe it's important in a way that I don't realize. That conversation makes that drive to boy's choir practice worth more than the time I spend on the road. The time I spend in the audience during his concerts, listening to him practice, asking strangers if he can practice on the piano in the entryway (think hospital) and sitting through hours of recitals may be a price of keeping our kid out of bigger trouble. It's a price I am willing to pay for sure. It was a surprise, but a pleasant one.