He died when I was only twelve, and in those days, children were protected from death. Only when those children became adolescents, and on to adults, did they deal with death in their own way. I couldn't wait for my time with death; my "childish" mind didn't process such an adult concept with adult courage. I wanted to see my granddaddy: an objective born of innocence and love. So, when my protectors moved to their corners of grief, I moved silently, carefully to my granddaddy's bedroom.
Death must have been cold and silent. At least, I've heard and read it described that way, and so did I believe it resided in Granddaddy's room. Its molecules hung in the cool darkness; its scent hid behind rubbing alcohol and Ivory soap; but its presence was strongest in the faint smell of excrement and sickness.
A sliver of light angling Granddaddy's bed interrupted the darkness, a bane of fearful children (I counted myself as a fearful child. I half-crawled, in slow fear to his beside, ready to run at the slightest appearance of horror--contortions of pain from my Granddaddy or death's molecules seizing me by mistake. I stayed on the balls of my feet like fog.
Yet, seeing my Granddaddy, his body indistinct from the bed linen, moved through me a feeling of helplessness. The ravage of age and prolong sickness had taken away his vitality. No longer did He tickle my sides with curled almost gnarled fingers, fingers once thick with purpose;
fingers that held cigarettes between two fingers and a thumb (European style he once said at my staring), as he sipped a glass of wine in the evenings. He moved with purposeful speed in those days, his towering body still tightly masculine. "Idle hands are sinful hands; remember that boy." I looked at my own hands and remembered.
Nearing the bed, I saw those gnarled fingers and followed them to hands hosting a thousand wrinkles, hands connecting--barely it seemed--to frail arms, so small and so still, as to make me rise from my safe place on the hardwood to peer above the rim of the bed. I saw the rise and fall of his raspy, labored breathing, the type of breathing that kept death nearby.
I wanted to talk to him, talk as we had so many times; and I wanted to tell him to get better so we could play, so he could tickle me. Tickling me would make him laugh, and laughing would make him better. But he didn't stir at my presence.
His stillness confused me: Why sleep when there is so much fun to have?
Wake up and play. And as I thought these things, I was drawn to touch his hand, to feel its padded warmth. Touching for me meant that he would leave his dreams and talk to me, but at my touch, he only murmur a bit, his breathing wrinkled in a light cough, then returned to the raspy breathing.
So, I moved around his bed in the coolness of death, nearing his bureau with its many pictures: some of my daddy standing proudly in the service of our country, his hat cocked to the right, and his smile less cocky. A cameo, smoky-gray at its edges, showed a freshly married couple: one seemingly happy, the other not quite. The wide smile of the groom juxtaposed the dour expression of the bride. Perhaps it was my Granddaddy (He never told me about the picture) before he took on nine children, before his spine curved to Earth, and before his thick black hair streaked to full gray.
Other items of life sat between more pictures. Some pictures showed his sunny smile, while other showed his distraction from work. One such picture showed his standing puffy in overalls with hands on hips, a disobedient lock falling to just above his brow, as he leans on an axe and crosses one muddy boot over the other.
Another showed the couple at work, where the dour bride (undoubtedly Grandmama--I know that frown anywhere) stands stiffly in an apron that hides a pattern-less cotton dress. She frowns either at the Sun or the impertinence of the picture taker. Granddaddy, however, looked large and robust, which was a far cry from the frail body, inflating and deflating in the bed while death waited in the darkest corner.
I looked at other objects on the bureau that held little fascination, until my eyes fell on the ancient machine, an old black typewriter with a wooden base and gold letters proclaiming it a Remington. It sat on the back edge of the bureau, covered in a layer of dust that hinted to its nonuse, its black keys missing arms and legs like amputees. Standing on tiptoes I reached a finger to the machine and knocked over a glass dolphin and its partner, both in mid leap. Save for the stained doily protecting the bureau, my impudence would have been discovered.
Righting the figurines, I moved to the side of the bureau to get a better reach, and after boldly pressing an "L," I heard the hammer squeak a delicate alarm as it stood inches from the roller in the carriage. I tried other keys that mocked me just as efficiently, so I gave up and half turned to ease back to safety.
But on the turn, I noticed several pieces of paper behind the bureau.
Some were curled and folded at odd angles, others lay propped against the wall, and along with these papers were a few envelopes with dried ink smeared to their edges. I picked up the loose papers and all of the envelopes, and then standing with the cache in hand, I was faced with putting them back on the bureau or stuffing them in my shirt, later to glimpse their secrets. And doing the deed of a good son, raised on doses of god-fearing morals, I moved aside the figurines and placed the pile on the doily, but I stopped the good deed when I saw more of the same papers and envelopes under the typewriter.
Some had addressed I didn't recognize, but some I did. Here were several letters with London addresses tied in a faded blue ribbon. I had read about London in school, but I didn't know anyone from there, nor did I think any of my relatives had ever been there. Leaving Granddaddy to the dark coolness of death, the last thing I heard, as I moved to the door was the rasp of his labored breathing. I would never hear it again.
I found my own breathing labored from fear, fear that I would be discovered with Granddaddy's secrets, but when I strained against the sudden burst of light, I noticed that no one moved from their grief. I guessed it was easy to move among adults who didn't suppose children knew of a deathwatch or knew that death waited in the darkest corner.
I stole away to the abandoned house I was forbidden to play in. It was my secret haven away from the adult world I was to be no part of. And when I did steal away, it was during times like these--at deathwatches, maternal discussions, or fraternal talks of sinning with women. This place was for a child left to his own devices, a child finding fact and fiction in the shadows with forbidden material written in adult voices and with pictures shot with adult vision. Indeed, what I now held in my hands, the brittle paper hosting adult words, sang in adult love.
[No Date, No Envelope]
I wonder will you return this letter, since it is the fourth one I have written. Now, I understand you have serious business over there, protecting us, and all, but I don't see any reason why you can't let me know if you share my grief of our interrupted love. Is it selfish of me to want to hear of your love? Should I be a good friend and pine for you in silence?
Forgive me, my love. I missed you more than I can write the words to express it. I will wait for you until they return you to my arms.
The letter didn't end with the customary closing. The words clung to the brittle paper, glued there in tender sadness. Although, I didn't understand some of the words, somehow I felt the sadness in the totality of them and the summing of a heart aching in loneliness.
I turned to the envelope that first caught my curiosity. I could only read the last line: Lassiter Common, BT 242 GX6, ENGLAND. I took two short papers from the small envelope and read the scrawl that I presumed was my granddaddy's writing:
You been on my mind through all this, and I sorely miss you. I don't think its possible to miss anyone as much as I miss you. Please don't worry so. I don't think I'll be here long, cause we moving everyday.
I'm some kind of tired, I can tell you! We walk all day, sleep a little, then walk some more. But I would walk until I drop to keep you safe.
Not much to tell, right now. We move into one of the little towns, set up a camp, and watch for Germans. I ain't seen one yet, so don't be bothering with worrying over me. God ain't ready for me to go, I guess.
Well, at least I got a good appetite. As soon as we get the word, I jump on my rations and eat like an old mutt in the street. I can hear you saying how sinful I look falling on the food that way. Hell, sometimes I forget to say grace, I'm so hungry. Now, don't you send no fussing back about that. (Ha!)
Keep me in your prayers.
Over the next two days, I read of a war that waged between nations through the writing of man who only saw his service as obligation to God and Mel. Honor and country, based on his words, "never amounted to a hill of beans." Amos saw the need to keep the savagery and carnage (I later came to understand was a part of World War II) away from Mel, so most of his letter described his daily routine with a few lines of loneliness and hints of his feelings for Mel. Perhaps, the letters were censored for anti-American rhetoric, or, perhaps, there was the slightest chance that spies were transmitting strategies for American demise.
Whatever the reason, and whatever love and affection Amos had for Mel, that reason was never made clear in his letters--a stark contrast to the outpouring of longing from Mel, as attested in the following:
September 12, 1944
I am aware that what you write to me may be read by others (you explained this before), but I have not read a single word of your longing for me or for the prayers you are saying along with me to help guide you back to my arms. I long for the day that we can resume our lives. Oh, I so wish that you were here. Things would be so much better for us.
I must express my love here and now. I have gone so long without your warm touch, and I ache every night when I feel the place where you use to lie. Oh, my love, when will you come back to me? When will I lay with you to listen to night sounds? I play over in my mind when you hold me in your strong arms and ease your love into me. I can feel the heat of it, the hardness of it, and I can remember how my body melts and molds around it. I need to feel this again. I need to feel my see my soul glow against a dim world. Oh, Amos, It brings me to tears when I look at your pictures, when I look at the eyes that captured me. Now I know how a heart feels when it breaks.
I so wish I could send this to you, but I know what trouble it will cause for you. Until then, my love, I will hold this letter for you when we can read it together.
Your Loving Mel
Although there were a number of letters like this one, it was the last letter that I read. It was fitting--serendipitous, perhaps--that I should read it, since it verified what at my young age I desperately wanted to believe: a man could love another man with impressive depth.
And a man could express that love in words reserved for "emotional women" and still keep his masculinity in tact. The words, written with the freedom of one in love, filled me with hope that I would some day have someone who loved me as much.
Reading my granddaddy's secrets gave me the strength to handle what for me were awkward attractions and snatches of lust that permeated my soul.
Yet, I gleaned from these letters that man-to-man love is genuine, and burns intensely. Equally, the letters showed clearly the pain of separation, of longing, and of heartache expressed when two hearts are kept from union.
I hid the letters under a loose floorboard in the abandoned house and went back to read them when it was safe. Years passed; I went off to the service during a shaky break in wars; and, later moved to Seattle with a partner I now have spent more than ten years with. We have two schnauzers, lots of plants, a mortgage that weighs a ton; and my lover is more successful as an accountant than I am as an author.
"I'm telling you," he says for the um-teenth time, "you'd be much more `pro-lif-ic' (His enunciation is meant to incite; I meet it with silent resolve) if you got rid of that piece of shit and got a computer."
I say nothing, but continue squeezing oil into the Remington's innards.
"It brings me luck," I say, not convincingly enough that he let's the conversation die.
"And what luck would that be?"
I flinch at the direct hit.
He comes to me, embraces me from behind, and nuzzles my neck (He knows I melt at this maneuver). "I won't go on about it," he says affectionately.
"I just see you struggling with that thing so much you miss deadlines," he reminds between nibbles. "You're running all over town trying to find parts for a Remington they don't make anymore."
I slowly ease from his embrace and let fly a volley, "I thought you said you wouldn't go on about it."
He moves away wordlessly. Later, we'll have a silent dinner, while in my head I'll write a letter. Later, I'll type it on the Remington.
Oh, it'll go with the others in a box I have marked LETTERS NEVER SENT.