I’ve been carrying a box labeled “Becka’s Things” around with me for ages. I may have told some of you about this box in an earlier post, but to recap: It made its way up to New York City in 1996 shortly after I arrived there, sneakily shipped by my mother along with a care package full of cheese tortellini, pasta sauce, my dad’s seven layer cookies, and a bottle of wine. She’d hoped the last two items would distract me from the extra box that I most decidedly did not request. Nice try, mom.
Eventually, a moratorium on all future shipments of my childhood memories was agreed upon, at least until I had a more permanent place, and the madness stopped with the exception of that one lone box, “Becka’s Things,” that slipped through under a veil of confections and cabernet. Fifteen years down the road that box was full to busting, covered with dust, and starting to show its age when I loaded it into the back of my car and turned south for my mother’s house in Florida, five bedrooms and roomy, peppered here and there with my childhood things, and now sadly missing one astronomer who’d passed away the year before.
Which is all to say that I’ve been thinking a lot of late about “Becka’s Things” and its contents, especially in the last year as I’ve packed and unpacked my belongings during a year of transition and change that’s led me finally here, to Austin, where I’ve set down my boxes for good this time. It was during the next to last unpacking, before the final repacking, that I opened “Becka’s Things” and took out a small stack of letters that Mrs. Johnny Rocket wrote to me many moons ago.
A few initial observations about these letters, before I get into the good stuff, the direct quotes. My mother’s handwriting hasn’t changed a bit and I would recognize it anywhere. I can remember the time I went away to a wilderness camp when I was a Junior in high school. It was pretty much what you’d expect when you hear “wilderness camp:” lots of cold showers in natural spring water with unscented bars of soap. Lots of Kumbayah-ing around campfires and whispered stories across bunks after lights out. All of it culminating in a 24-hour hike alone into the woods with a bag of GORP, a one-person tent, and a compass. Before we left for that solo overnight, one of the counselors placed an envelope in each of our hands. “A note from someone who loves you,” he said to me, folding it in two and pressing it into my sweaty palm. Hours later, as night and its accompanying rustling sounds fell around me and I huddled alone in my small tent, flashlight in hand, I unfolded the envelope, saw my mother’s handwriting, and wept.
But there were no tears with these letters, these treasures I discovered as I rummaged through “Becka’s Things.” Each written on yellow legal paper, meticulously dated and creased where they were folded to fit into an envelope, they were composed and sent to me in my first few months of my freshman year at the college a short two and a half hour drive from my hometown. Each one starts with the important stuff, a detailing of how much money my mother had deposited into my meager bank account (often, when I opened an envelope a deposit slip for a bank that no longer exists would flutter out) and instructions regarding any checks she’d included with her note:
“October 2, 1991
I have enclosed your bank statement. It came to our house even though I called and gave them the change of address (I did! Honest!). Hopefully next month it will come directly to you. Also enclosed is a check for $294.73 – the October food plan payment. Please give it to them asap.”
“October 24, 1991
Enclosed is your bank statement. I guess I have to call again.”
My mother is nothing if not persistent.
After the business, straight on to family. Her letters typically mentioned the latest goings ons with my sister and her husband and two kids, my sweet young nieces who were growing past toddler-hood and into person-hood while I was away. She sometimes mentioned my brother, older than me by 19 months, living at home and attending the local community college, much to my mother’s delight though she liked to pretend otherwise. And, if I was lucky, something about my Grandmother Dorothy, her mother-in-law, who my mother would have loved to have shipped off to college alongside me – that distance of two and a half hours being worlds better than a short drive across town.
Two days after my niece’s third birthday party, this gem arrived:
“November 18, 1991
Everyone had a great time at Beth’s party although I would have had a better time if your grandmother had stayed home. She is driving me nuts. I know she does it for attention, but one of these days she’s going to get more attention than she wants.
I invited her for lunch at noon. She didn’t tell me church wasn’t out until 12:30, if she had I would have made lunch for 1pm. No, instead she does the following: 1) Goes to church and leaves after fifteen minutes (I have to hear how strange she felt leaving early), 2) She gets to our place at 11:30, 3) She then informs me that she always eats at 11:30 (How can she be in church until 12:30 and still eat at 11:30?), 4) If I can’t feed her then (her stomach can’t wait til noon) then she’ll go home and eat and come back if she’s not too tired from all of the driving, 5) So, I cut your Dad off before he could tell her “okay, go home and eat” and I fix her an early lunch, 6) Then I have to listen to her tell everyone the “poor me” story as they arrive. But, you would have been proud of me. I just smiled through it all and kept my mouth shut. I feel better now that I’ve laid it all out, so now I can continue to smile and not tell the old bat what I think.”
About her own mother – who lived on the other side of the country in the California salad bowl of my mom’s childhood — she had nothing but kind words and longing. But, lest you get the wrong impression based on those lines about her mother-in-law, it’s important that you know two things: First, my mother never did tell Dorothy what she really thought, she just kept on smiling. In fact, it was my mother who did the heavy lifting in my grandmother’s last days, the one who eased her passing. And, second, truly, in those last several years, Grandma Dorothy really was an old bat.
Next, her letters usually included small tidbits about her working life – what was happening in and around her office at the university where she managed the funds for the libraries.
“February 11, 1992
I’ve spent all week cutting our budget again and looking at a list of employees for possible lay-offs. It hasn’t been fun and there is still more to do. It’s all very depressing.”
My entire life, my mother worked eight to five and then came home to work some more, putting dinner on the table, helping with homework, and corralling three headstrong kids into baths, and PJs, and beds. Even today, so many years later, I can picture her in her office on the second floor of the main library on campus, a tiny refrigerator at her feet (God, for so long I thought that having your own mini fridge in your office meant you had arrived), bent over spreadsheets, her adding machine close by, jotting words and numbers on the same yellow legal pads she used to compose her letters to me. My mom managed a staff of people with heart and brains and know-how. Kindof the way she managed the rest of us, her family.
Finally, with all of the key points covered – the money, the family details, the work-a-day ups and downs, she’d always close with lines expressing her love for me, reminding me that, in the end, that was the real reason for these letters. That however far I might go – and at the time she never dreamed that it would be as far as New York City, as far as Austin – that I was still hers and I was still close and I was still loved.
“November 18, 1991
“Be good my little love, and let us know when to pick you up for Thanksgiving.”
“November 24, 1991 (three days before my eighteenth birthday)
Dad will pick you up on Wednesday. I can’t wait to have my Baby home for a long weekend. Actually, I guess you won’t be my Baby anymore when you get here, you’ll legally be all grown up.”
The thing about a box full of stuff you’re holding on to? It makes you think a bit about the things you’ve let go of. And the things that have voluntarily left or been taken away. Especially when the stuff you’re holding on to contains little pieces, small bits and reminders, of all of those other now missing things. And then, when you’ve thought about all of those things – the things you’re holding on to, the things that have left, the things that have been taken away – you get down to the real nitty gritty, I’d say: The things that you carry that you can’t or don’t or wouldn’t ever put down. For me, my mother and her letters and the wise and wonderful things she’s taught me over the course of this life, I’ll carry those things with me always. Even if I don’t always do what she says:
“October 2, 1991
So, things are going well here, although we miss you. Be good, study hard, and remain a virgin!”
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, Barbara Kay McKenna Oliver. I. LOVE. YOU.