On a quiet afternoon when everyone else was taking a nap I taught myself to write. I was five years old and tired of waiting for anyone to teach me. I took a pad of paper, a pencil, my mother’s grocery list and began to copy.
Momma was amused when she got up. And she worried that her grocery list was a poor example to follow. But it was the only handwritten thing in the house, I explained, and besides, I had improved on her handwriting. My copy was neater and there was better spacing between words. That was my start.
In elementary school, I learned to write for real. Not only did I learn to make all the letters of the alphabet and arrange them in words, I learned how to use them like a grown-up. I learned how to write a letter and put it in an envelope. I learned where to write the address of the person who is supposed to get the letter and where to put the return address and where to put a stamp so the post office would deliver it. I was so excited.
School was a great place. I looked forward to going there and the neat things we did. We churned milk in a bowl with an electric mixer until it changed to butter; we kept a journal of the weather each day and drew a picture of the kinds of clouds we saw – cirrus, cumulus, cumulonimbus; we watched films with time-elapse photography that showed a plant grow from a seed to a flower in less than a minute. In comparison to school, summer vacation was kind of boring.
I don’t remember much about summer vacations. We stayed at home and didn’t go anywhere. My two younger sisters were around and only my dad went off to work. But I don’t think we did much. I suppose I watched a lot of TV.
One day, deep in the heart of the summer, I got an idea. I wrote a letter to my mother. I told her that I knew how to write a letter, that we learned to do it in school. I told her that it was fun to write a letter and put it in an envelope and write the address on the outside and everything. I told her that I loved her and that I was writing a letter to her because she was a great mother and that she was pretty and that I loved her. I was so excited.
I wrote my letter and I put it in an envelope and addressed it to my mother. I wrote the address in the correct form I learned at school:
Momma Route 1, Box 547 Cantonment, FL 32533
I put my name and address up in the top, left hand corner of the envelope exactly where the return address is supposed to be. I licked a stamp and put it in the top, right hand corner just where it is supposed to be because The Post Office Will Not Deliver Without Postage.
When Momma wasn’t looking, I ran across the front yard to our mailbox and slipped the letter inside. I raised the flag on the mailbox to let the postman know that there was a letter to pick up and I ran back to the house. Then I waited. And I waited and I waited.
It must have been a whole five minutes before I called out, “Momma, I think we’ve got mail. Do you want me to go get it?”
“I haven’t seen the mailman go by yet,” she said. “There’s nothing to pick up.”
“Oh, I think he’s come by. I’ll go check. I don’t mind.” I ran out the front door, scooted the letter out of the mailbox, put the flag back down so the mailman wouldn’t be confused when he came by, and ran back to the house calling, “Momma, you got a letter!”
I presented the letter with solemn excitement to my mother, looking forward to her enjoyment of my work. She took the letter with a puzzled look which quickly became a glare. “You wasted a stamp on this,” she accused me. “Don’t ever do this again!”
Deep in the heart of summer, before I graduated from elementary school, I learned that expressing love leads to humiliation. I don’t think there was a lesson plan for that summer. I don’t know what my mother intended, but I learned to be guarded and measured in matters of affection.
A little context
I told this story to build a bridge between myself and a roomful of tired listeners during a lecture in Guelph, Ontario one afternoon in 1996. I only wrote it down after flying back home. I left it unpublished because I didn’t want to hurt my mother’s feelings if someone found it and showed it to her.
My mother and I became friends over the next few years because I tried hard to make a connection with her. I would call her when driving home from work in traffic. Our relationship became important to both of us through talking 3-4 times a week. We continued to talk regularly for almost 20 years before she died in 2015.
My mother kept her wits about herself until the day she died, but in her 80s, she would sometimes tell me deeply personal things about herself. Things I’m not sure she ever told anyone else. She apologized several times immediately after telling me a few things. Those were times when she was talking to me as a friend and said things she didn’t think a mother should share with her son.
I was grateful for those conversations because they allowed me to understand that my mother did the best she could raising me. Her best damaged me in ways that still cause trouble, but she did her best. And I am doing the best I can now too.