Janet Sheridan: In my father’s words
June 12, 2014
I started an occasional correspondence with my father after he retired in 1977 and increased it after Mom died. His responses usually began, "Your letter arrived just in time; I needed something to do. You must hate it when I write back so soon. Well, anyway, here goes."
He then would record family news, describe his day or share anecdotes from his life: "So there I was, fresh off a freight train in Amarillo, Texas, 16, and broke. One day I saw an Uncle Sam poster that said, 'I want you.' Being very hungry, I thought he could have me. That's how I ended up in the army."
His letters ended abruptly, sometimes in midsentence as though he'd run out of words. He then signed off as "Father," never bothering with the niceties of sincerely or love. Once, he wrote "Your Father," then added a postscript: "I must have been thinking you'd forget whose father I am."
I had the foresight to save his letters, and last winter, missing him, I reread them and discovered bits and pieces that added up to a story.
Dad frequently reflected on the "stellar qualities" that made his wife "a heck of a woman," such as her intelligence: "the smartest woman I ever knew"; her skills: "She could create anything she put her mind to"; and her appearance: "Your mother left this morning with some friends to go to Salt Lake. She whipped up a fabulous pantsuit to wear. I swear she looked like whistle-bait."
The following statement appeared in a letter he sent for my birthday: "Your mother never had a single one of her nine babies when I had to miss work to be there. Remarkable self control."
He respected Mom's opinions, ideas and most of her suggestions. "I'm getting my pension checks now, and I'm starting to feel like a bloated plutocrat. So I shined my alligator shoes, put on my $20 Hagar slacks with my brown sports shirt, and strolled Main Street with my stomach hanging over my belt ever so slightly. When I came home, your mother told me I had to do something about my belly bulge, so I will. She is my only boss now. I like it when she tells me what to do because she's usually right."
He enjoyed Mom's company: "Your mother and I get along well. I seem to be laughing a lot. She's either really funny or I'm turning silly."
After Mom died, he continued to mention her regularly: "I've thought about moving, but I don't think selling this house would be right. I can look anywhere in it and see something your dear mother made, and when I go to church, all the woodwork by the podium was stained and finished by her. How could I leave all that?"
He'd been alone for 17 years when he commented, "I have good kids and grandkids. Even the ones with nutty haircuts and earrings would do anything for me. I'm living the life of Riley. Your mother being gone is the only fly in my ointment."
Dad believed with all his heart that he and Mom would be reunited when he died, if only he behaved: "I got Christmas cards from two old widows in town, one with a dinner invitation. They are both sturdy women, but I feel no need to call in the reserves. I'm fine by myself, except for trying to figure out how I can quit swearing, which would increase my odds of getting back with your dear mother. I'd appreciate suggestions."
And finally: "I'd like to visit Barbara in Alaska again and go to Norway where my ancestors came from — if I live long enough. And if I don't, I'll be with your mother. So it looks good for me either way."
I wanted to spend time with my dad by rereading his letters, and, in doing so, I discovered a love story written in everyday words.
Sheridan's book, "A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns," is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at http://www.auntbeulah.com on Tuesdays.