‘Save the letter,’ I say reflexively. It is an early September afternoon, the nondescript end-of-summer zone in which the air and the very season appear so mild as to be nonexistent. Soon the California weather will tilt one way or another, but for now there is this, a blandness in which the 60-year-old letter my neighbor has found seems washed out. But not quite. Even in this most benign sunlight, there is no missing the darkness. ‘My Dear Wife,’ the note begins. What follows? A surprising, even mildly shocking, revelation concerning the biography of my late landlord Tom.
An estate sale. That is what we are calling it. The stuff must go, that is the simple truth on a practical level. Furniture, candles, towels, spatulas, pictures, radios, electric fans. Junk. Personal possessions, the background to a life. Which is why it seems slightly blasphemous, this spreading out of Tom’s household goods, the pricing of them, their sale. People have come in droves. Do Americans need cheap stuff in this economic downturn? Who would want a flimsy so-called Danish modern chest of drawers? What would Tom think of all this?
That he had a mother fixation seems obvious. Tom had preserved his mom’s apartment like a museum, a toothbrush in the bathroom ready for use, nail clippers on the counter. Everything very neat. Her telephone, silent for 15 years, still connected, regular payments going to AT&T. A waste, unless one is a stickler for authenticity. As for Tom’s father, the story must have been very similar, perhaps a bit sadder. For this man died early, 1960. The circumstances are unclear, but the sentiments are not. A framed picture of his smiling, handsome father has a small note from Tom stuck in the corner: I miss you, Dad.
From which I had erroneously concluded that the senior McMasters disappeared from Tom’s life in the blink of a…heart attack, say. But, no, there is this letter. My Dear Wife. Let us stop arguing, the letter says, and learn to live apart. Don’t keep coming to see me, it says in one line. Have Tom drive you, the father adds. Suggesting that Tom’s mother was already, what? Ailing or infirm in her 50s?
With Tom about 30. Very much out of the nest, into his own life and past caring what happened to his birth family. Ready for a family of his own, of course. And here the trail, if there is one, runs out. Maybe there is no trail. In fact, this letter and its poignancy speak to my story. And Tom’s? Speculations about his narrative also come from my own. So why do I want to save this letter?
And what does ‘saving’ look like? I suppose it means keeping such correspondence in a file. And who will discard this file? Jane? Hanging onto things can’t be done. Honoring them, that is another matter. And all that can be said of these letters is this: I want to read them. There is no piecing together Tom’s story, not really. But look at what he has saved. This must be said for Tom. The photos retrieved from the two apartments, Tom’s and his mother’s, capture life’s upbeat moments. The formal embrace. A woman in 60s bathing attire. Smiles and poses and thumbs up. But Tom was a person who saved evidence of the sad moments. A quietly tortured note from some woman, perhaps one of his three wives. She yearns to be close to him, despite…some circumstance in the way. Hard to say what is going on here, what is thwarting love. But Tom has saved this note. He has not run from the past.
He succumbed to it. This is also true. And this seems to be the balance. Not forgetting, and not giving up. Which is to say, learning. And since no one learns perfectly, what is there to do but honor the effort? By not getting stuck in my own past. By contributing funds from the estate sale to the local secondary school charity, appropriately named Foundation for the Future. By saving these few bits of paper. For what? For how long? For as long as it takes to let them go.