By Michael Kelly Blanchard
When I was twelve years old I took a car trip with my father from our home near Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi (our first, and if memory serve, only father/daughter pilgrimage). His mother's place was up for sale after eleven years of renting it out following her passing. During that time the renters had been varied and for the most part disrespectful of its southern charms (a big old plantation of a house). So, it had fallen into considerable disrepair. Dad's family had toyed with the idea of getting rid of it for some time but sentiment and a fuzzy rumor of historical value had always dissuaded them. However, once the Jackson Historical Society placed its origin in the early 1900's, not the hoped for Civil War vintage, and yet another call had come in about rowdy tenants, he broke down and convinced everyone to put it on the market. Most of the valuable furniture had been divided up between his three brothers but the attic and a barn out back still had decades of "stored stuff" to go through before putting it on the block. The lion's share of this would go with the new owner or be burned, but everyone felt one final check would be prudent.
I remember the drive to get there as two days long, probably because we left late the first day and my only lasting memory en route was the crush I developed on a boy I met 'round the motel pool the first night out. Solo times with Dad (as I indicated) were rare events growing up so I had little training in hanging with an adult male. The variety of the species my age or a smidge older, however, was much more familiar and appealing. The reverse of this, of course, was true as well. My father made some stabs at prospecting for adolescent female interests during the first hour on the first day but soon retreated to ball games and National Public Radio. We probably talked more than I can now recall, but the substance and subjects have never come back to me in any recognizable form.
We arrived midafternoon on the second day. It was a Thursday I believe. Dad tried to convince me to stay poolside at the motel while he did the first bit of rummaging, but I'd have none of it. The place was at the end of a straight, pine-lined road that for a mile and a half boasted a dozen driveways on either side. Most of these led to dubiously permanent mobile homes with an occasional bona fide ranch or cape thrown in. They all seemed rather run-down and in that department drew their inspiration from Grandma's house. Its three-floor, basic colonial structure was truly in ruins. I'm almost certain I detected a moan from my father as he pulled into the circle drive in front. The last tenants were more than a month gone but their presence in beer bottles, chips, candy wrappers, and general debris blighted the house from every visual sector. The generous encircling porch which outlined most of what the eye could see was "toothless" at several points and carried many homeless bits of furniture, from cheap plastic out-side/inside chairs to an abandoned bedroom bureau. The windows lining the first floor were intact but barely translucent in blotchy layers of dirt and mold. The second and third story portals weren't so lucky. Not one was spared at least a bullet hole and many were bereft of a single pane. The roof had two crumbling chimneys with several bubbly sections of shingles that suggested a giant lived in the attic and at times had tried to stand up. Behind the structure was a dilapidated, severely listing, once red barn that now dared even swallows to gather. It was to that pizza-like building my father retreated with the mild instructive warning for me to wait on the porch and watch carefully where I placed hands and feet. On the drive down he had told me he was specifically looking for a beloved red bicycle of late 50's vintage that had carried his adolescent bones on many a break-neck adventure. When he did not return after ten minutes, I presumed he found it. I decided not to interrupt such an intimate reunion between a boy and his bike. I found my way through the front door that was partially ajar. As promised, the first two floors were drearily empty giving the eye no relief from the dismal room by room repetition of pealing wallpaper and stained buckling floors. Every last bit of human covering or visual compliment had been pried up, pushed out, or pulled down. Each room on both floors greeted me like Adam in the garden after the apple fest, naked and ashamed. I happily found the second flight of stairs up to the third-floor attic only to discover the door locked and snuggly so. My disappointment as I slumped back down was as much for not discovering the room and its contents first, before my
father, as for what those contents might be. Every child wants to best his parent at something. As I headed for a mostly busted back hall window to call for my dad, I spotted a fuzzy, white "something" under the side lip of a step about eye level. I postponed my "cry for help" and went over and examined it. It was a much becobwebbed skeleton key hanging on a nail. It fit like a charm and a minute later I was in a most fascinating attic.
Even functioning as a storage space, the room showed the influence of the original occupants. Orderliness and refinements. Boxes, crates and footlockers were in one section. Bureaus, dressers, and tables were in another. Chairs, couches, and bedposts still another. All items were covered in now yellowed sheets with identification of each area labeled on strips of masking tape attached to the top of the sheets. The two chimney stems straddled either side of the house-wide room like polar points from around which all the storage grew. The only light in the place was gleaned from a dormered alcove midway between the two brick "bookend" sentries. It immediately caught my eye not just for its luminescence but because of the cozy little armless rocking chair that beckoned in its glow. Seated on this humble throne, I immediately realized its placement was the result of an intentioned act. From its vantage point the view out across my grandmother's backyard and beyond was transporting. This was particularly true if I closed my right eye so that the sagging barn thirty yards back to the right disappeared. Rhododendrons speckled the front part of a sprawling, gone-to-seed lawn. Farther back pine and spruce at varied heights prepared the eye for the final pine forest that gradually dipped down probably to a brook or marsh area (though this could not be empirically verified). Beyond this the land rose again in an expanding fir and broad-leafed formation that eventually feathered the sky on the horizon. "Mother always loved to write," my father said once, "and she was pretty good. Poems mostly. A couple were published. One in the Atlantic Monthly." I had no doubt this was her writing perch and tingled at the thought that years earlier she might have been seated on this very chair. She had been an eccentric, ancestral icon in our family with a mingle of memories that inspired both ridicule and awe. This paradox in remembrances was mostly due to the fact that Grandma, by all reported accounts, was religious. Nothing unusual there, of course, except that no one else on either side as long as anyone could recall was. Now it was always expressed to me in those early years that religion was a fine thing. Helpful to some folks. Practiced by many. Yes, a fine thing...as long as you didn't impose your religious beliefs on someone else or hold up your religious lifestyle as the norm by which others should be judged. Why there is even a religious text for this view that was often observed. "Judge not, lest ye be judged." It was pointed out that some spiritual person, maybe even God, said it. Though never stated implicitly, the refusal to adhere to this "each to his own" philosophy was the central complaint most folks had with Grandma's piety. According to Dad, when it came to her religion, she was in your face like a Sunday morning television preacher and for much the same reason...to save your eternal soul. Though I never witnessed this enthusiasm (she died a few months before I was born) I did detect a certain disdain by older family members who had suffered firsthand from her evangelical fervor. We were, by in large, a family of common-man intellectuals (pretty well read without the paper to prove it) for whom the definitive assessment of life as "saved" or "unsaved" seemed woefully simplistic. As far as I know, there were no atheists in the line, but God was, on the main, too large a topic to know much about or expound on in polite company. The less said about the divine the better. Less chance of appearing hypocritical or worse, smugly arrogant. We were a family keenly identified with a civilized liberal tolerance for whom Grandma's "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" theology was an unmitigated embarrassment. Or so it was reported. As I said, I never met the woman. But if she was ridiculed for her excessive religious beliefs, she also was revered as someone of great heart who could understand as few others the ache of that mysterious "spiritual" organ. It was mostly the women of the family that reported this about her. Without a doubt, one of her biggest fans was my mother. There is a poem my mother had framed and hung for years on the wall on her bedroom. Grandma wrote it after Mom's first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. "Nothing else spoke to my broken heart," she'd say and tears often accompanied the recounting. "Grandma was a little strong on her religion but it never got in the way of her heart. Your dad and uncles may laugh at her "holy roller" talk but they know she lived what she preached."
It was while sitting in this enigmatic ghost's seat staring across the time-muted landscape of her overgrown kingdom that I spotted the letters. That is to say I noticed a place where someone might hide something if they were so inclined. I've always had plenty of free air miles for flights of romantic fancy. Above the elongated alcove window, which came to a point almost like the church variety, was a rectangular, twelve-inch section of dry wall that had been cut out then nailed back in place. No effort was made to reseal the edges and only one nail held it. It seemed obvious to me that someone intentionally made a cubby and it was no stretch at all to conclude that someone was probably Grandma. I tried gently to pry it open at the edges but discovered the solitary nail held quite firmly. On closer inspection it was clear the patch had been pried off and hammered back a couple times judging from the pressure indentations surrounding the four penny mini-spike. Though solidly reconnected, it could with the right tool be pried off. Then I remembered the little notched screwdriver on the windowsill. I'd seen it when sitting down but without a purpose hadn't given it another thought. With the leverage aid of a five-inch pine dowel that lay next to the tool, I pulled the nail out and caught the piece of plasterboard as it fell back. The square had been attached to a horizontal two-by-four wall joist that connected two vertical ones. It made a little internal shelf upon which four envelopes sat. They were plainly old given their yellowed color and fragile feel, but checking the postmark not as ancient as I might have thought. They were mailed on four consecutive days in mid-January, 1944from Dorset, England. They were addressed to a Vera Talmidge, which I concluded was my grandmother's maiden name. I knew her first name was Vera and heard Talmidge batted around in family genealogy discussions. The return address up in the left-hand corner read, "Corporal P.D.Plaistow, 7th Infantry Division, U.S.Army, Dorset, England".
My mind raced with the intrigue of it all. Our name was Mitchell. My father was
Frank R. Mitchell, III named after his father Frank R. Mitchell, Jr. who married Vera in 1947. Their union produced four boys born from the fall of 1948 to the spring of 1956. I was the firstborn of the next generation, September 23, 1978. My parents put off children for the first six years 'til they were almost thirty. But back to my grandparents. The story goes as Dad tells it that Frank, Jr. met Vera at a YMCA dance in early summer of 1947. The attraction was immediate and fierce and they married in late August the same year. Grandpa Frank was a determined man who went from chief salesman at Davis Chevrolet right after the war through top manager in the late fifties, to eventual owner by 1970. But for a massive and lethal heart attack in 1975, his company would have become the number one dealership in the state, Dad said.
Domestically, Frank and Vera proved the old adage, "opposite's attract", according to my father. My mother hinted that they also produce some hard moments in a marriage and it seems my grandparents had more than their share. Whatever the truth, no one ever mentioned a P.D.Plaistow to me and yet here were four saved letters from the man. An old boyfriend? Or lover? I felt a little ashamed at how badly I wanted to read them. While inspecting their outsides, I concluded whatever made up the contents wasn't very long. Only one folded page filled each envelope. Couldn't be a love letter, I thought. Way too short.
"Margy, look! Look down here." I was surprised my father could see me but then realized I had been leaning up against the window for maximum reading light. He stood outside the sagging barn displaying his old bicycle friend like a Sears salesman. "There's still air in the tires, for god's sake. Isn't she a beauty?" I tried to open the window and to my great surprise found it rose up easily. My father, in the meantime, had mounted the two-wheeler and was tooling in and out of the rhododendron to the left of the barn. He'd grown some since his biking days and looked just a little short of foolish on the thing. I was about to yell something silly to cheer on his ride down memory lane when the chain slipped a gear. He recovered, slowing the bike down by dragging his feet. After a quick evaluation of his wounded mechanical friend, he took off in a beeline for the car hollering up his intentions without even looking. "That sprocket needs to be tightened. Whole thing needs to be oiled and cleaned up. Good thing I brought my toolbox." With that he was out of sight.
I came to the realization that somewhere between yelling for me and heading off for his tools I'd decided to read Grandma's four short letters from Corporal P. D. Plaistow. I checked the dates carefully, presuming there might be some sequential logic to their contents, then pulled out the first letter postmarked January 12, 1944. I noticed immediately that the letter was written in a different color ink than the envelope's address. The letter was a brighter blue while the envelope's navy had through time become almost black. A moment's pondering cleared this up as I supposed Corporal Plaistow had written the letter at "catch as catch can" moments so common to army life. He had probably then addressed and stamped it at a later point. It was clear from the first words that Vera and Corporal Plaistow were more than casual friends.
My Dear Vera,
What a great joy to get your letters and to recall again and again our time together last autumn. Uncle Sam's made no attempt to deliver while we were in England and waited until we were settled here in Dorset to forward the mail. I hope my lateness in response because of this has not caused you any undue concern. We have been informed that very shortly all outgoing mail will be stopped indefinitely for security reasons. I, therefore, am writing you as many letters as time allows. When you hear nothing from me for a couple days, you'll know the ban is in effect.
Now, dear Vera, to your questions. Four in all weren't there? Oh, how thrilled I am that you've asked them. Though I feel less then adequate to answer, I will do my best. One a day...here goes.
How do I know I know? Well, certainly not just by intellect or historical evidence. Though there are some who would argue there is plenty of proof in both these quarters. I would never trust something so important to my brain alone. No, Vera, I think I know (as best I do) because when I finally asked to know with no stipulations about how that knowledge might come, a truth filled my being that was so full of personality and boundless affection for me and this world that I completely forgot the question. Really, all questions (like how do I know I know). I simply bathed in a Presence that transcended all answers. Oh dear, that sounds rather mystical and mystifying. It's not really, you know. Just real. More so than anything else I can think of in this life. So real to my experience I knew in an instant I was known. And, of course, to be known is to be known by Someone. That's why the question becomes irrelevant because the answer is so preeminent. Poor old Job said it best (paraphrased of course), it's Who you know, not why.
So, my advice to you is that you ask "to know" with no conditions as to how this might be accomplished. Then keep your eyes, ears, heart, and head open. Guard your quiet moments and wait expectantly. You'll soon "know". I'm sure of it.
Well, that's all for today. Mustn't fill more than one page or they'll get suspicious. God be with you.
The next letter was postmarked January 13th, 1944, the next day and had the same discrepancy of ink color between the envelope and the page. I felt less satisfied with my earlier conclusion as to why this was so, but brushed it aside in my haste to read its contents.
I hope you got yesterday's letter. I have no way of knowing as those who make promises in such matters are in no position to be able to keep them. I can only trust that what I've been told is true. The mail will cease its westward flow off this ancient island in about a week. That gives me a few more days and I'm determined to make good use of them.
Your second question asking why contrition must be a condition of belief is, I think, (if you'll pardon me) an incorrect presumption of belief. In my experience, it is quite often just the opposite that is true. A sense of my failing or sin, if you will, and the subsequent remorse and contrition come after those moments when I am most aware of the reality in whom I believe, not before. To demand such feelings as a prerequisite of true belief is, I believe, a colossal case of the "cart before the horse." This is where all the present prattle about repentance as a condition for salvation misses the mark. If I didn't stress this in our talk last fall, I apologize. I need to taste goodness outside me before I can define evil in me. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah leads the way here, I think. His ecstatic utterance following a vision of the Almighty in the temple (Chapter 6) is perhaps the quintessential example of a repentant sinner in all of literature. He says, "Woe is me. I am undone for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips. For I have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts..." One could hardly ask for a keener awareness of failing. But it clearly follows the vision and does not precede it. So my advice to you dear Vera in matters of the "sinner's" conviction is to channel your energies into finding the "sinner's" liberator. Once you do, there will be plenty of time for "breast beating" when necessary. And I suspect it will feel much more natural than dutiful. Again, so sorry not to have made this clear last fall. Please forgive.
Well that's all the page will allow. Till tomorrow, I am your ever faithful and affectionate friend,
With the next letter the thought occurred to me that perhaps the difference in ink colors was more the affect of light or weather exposure. Perhaps, wherever they were stored before the cubby hideaway exposed the envelopes to a different environment than the contents. I didn't know why this would make the envelope ink darker, but then I've never been strong in scientific logic. I wasn't all that convinced of this as a possibility, but as before wanted much more emphatically to read Peter's next message than to solve some peripheral mystery. Besides, I couldn't spot my father or his wounded bike and desperately wanted to get through all the letters before he came up. The third was dated January 14th and even by his greeting seemed to indicate a dramatic metamorphosis of mood from his last one. The contents, which filled up every possible space on the page, bore this out.
Here I am at my post again, just twenty-four hours since I last talked to you (by pen) and yet I feel as if a different person writes you now. If I was barely up to the challenge of your questions before, I am positively overwhelmed by them today. What has happened since yesterday? Well, a fog has come in off the channel and shrouded everything in a gray, creeping mist. It seems as if twilight or dawn has stalled in time like a stuck phonograph. This is not an unusual phenomenon to this area or to my experience. I grew up as I mentioned to you, in Rockport, Maine. We had many a day like this and I should take it in stride. The problem is, of course, it's a visual representation of the "fog" that has drifted in over my soul since last writing. Like the physical kind, while it lasts, all landmarks and foundations of yesterday's faith seem muddled and masked. It's as if their reality and truth were thrown into serious question and the historical landmarks of my personal belief eclipsed and invalidated. This too is a common occurrence to believers and must be endured and waited through just like the physical kind of fog. There is, of course, a physiological explanation for these present "Dorset drearies" as I am sure there are reasons for my spiritual fog. I couldn't care less in either case what they are. I don't suppose it would help much even if I knew. The only point in mentioning it to you is to acknowledge the reality of doubt and discouragement in every believer and to stress the importance of being honest about it. Belief in God is not a retreat from reality, dear Vera. It's an invitation to meet and commune with reality's Author.
Now, about that One. Let me direct my thoughts in the remaining space. Your question was, I believe: Why a two-thousand-year-old Nazarene with dubious historical credentials? Why, indeed. I'm sure more than a few historians have looked at the paltry collection of verifiable data that undergirds the Author of this varied and global religion and wonders how in the world it has lasted after His death. This is, of course, an excellent question to ask with the answer much the same as the one I'll give your query. As you will no doubt recognize, what I have to say will not be an answer at all but merely an observation. Nothing lasts that doesn't work. In the New Testament's book of Acts, a wise Pharisee named Gamaliel defends the early church this way (paraphrased once again): "If it's not of God, it will dissipate and eventually dissolve like all other movements." Then he says, "But if it is of God, nothing can stop it." Now the same logic can be applied to a spiritual relationship with this religion's Author. He either is or isn't the Son of God and the only way you'll know is by going to the source and asking Him yourself. As with your first question, I recommend that you demand no prerequisite as to how you'll hear or know. Come with your hands wide open and don't expect to be talked into it or out of it by logic or history. Just ask your questions to this lunatic or messiah and wait for His answer. If this One can't make Himself real to you, then you don't want to have a thing to do with the religion that's grown up around Him.
Well, that's all I can fit on the page. Forgive my mood. But then, of course, you will, for you're my dear Vera.
The last letter was dated January 15th. It was by my offhanded observation the shortest, filling only the first side and maybe a third of the back. I was grateful for this as the first floor creaked under the weight of my father's step. He was on his way
I've been informed that the last reliable mail truck leaves in a few minutes. This is much sooner than previously stated, so alas this must be brief. I apologize in advance for my short response to your final question.
I confess, in matters of hell and divine retribution, I am by design (I think) innately disinterested. This is not to say concerns and inquiries about these topics are not interesting for many and, of course, ultimately pertinent to all. It's just for me they seem to take much of the stage in a play that is really about their antithesis. Love and life are the words on the marquee above heaven's gate, not hate and death. Of course, the latter can't be dismissed, especially in these dark times. But if one message were to be distilled from these letters it would be, "Come one, come all."
That said, I do recognize the fact that not everyone wants to "come." Not everyone wants to lose what they know in order to find what God knows. For them hell (or whatever the opposite of heaven might be called) is a more appealing and workable plan; an extension, if you will, of what they've promoted throughout their life on earth. I doubt that estrangement from God is so much the result of divine punishment as it is the consequence of a human will to want it so. Hell is not so much a place you're dragged to, kicking and screaming, as one you arrive at on your own steam by your own design. God will not deprive us of what we ultimately want, even if it's hell. The choice, not just at the hour of our death but throughout our life, is always and ultimately ours. If, however, we are interested in God to the eventual death of our will's right over His, we need never think about hell again.
Oh dear, they're calling for the mail. Must run, Vera. Please write though you'll get nothing from me for a while. When all this business is over we'll talk again and I'll hear face to face what you think of my answers on such important questions. And if I don't return...it won't matter much anyway, will it?
In either case Vera, may God be with you and yours always,
While reading the last letter I was aware of my father's presence near the top of the steps. I thought perhaps he'd found something on the way up that preoccupied his attention for clearly he had stopped and not moved for quite a while. When I looked up he was staring at me through the railing that surrounded the mouth of the landing. His eyes were moist but never seeing this in him I didn't know what it meant. I felt a certain guilt about reading the letters and expressed it by halfheartedly hiding them behind me. I knew instantly this only served to verify my "shame" and opened my mouth to plead for mercy. But before I made a sound my eyes looked again into his face. It was only then I realized he was weeping. For a moment I returned to the idea this was somehow related to my letter eavesdropping, but then reasoned such rare seepage needed something larger for inspiration.
At a loss to know what I should do at the moment and with my mouth already open I spoke. "Are you ok, daddy?" He came out of his grief trance and finished mounting the last few steps to the top. He looked at me again in the softest way then a sad little smile broke from his lips. He opened his mouth to speak but realized his nose was running and pulled his handkerchief out instead. After two sizeable toots that seemed to clear his head as well as his nose he answered my question while uncovering a sheeted chair and bringing it over to the alcove space.
"Last couple months of Mom's life she sat up here a lot. Right where you're sitting." He sat backwards on a medium-backed chair, resting his head on folded arms. "She was mighty sick, lost a lot of weight, no bigger than you are now. That's what cancer does. She had no appetite, couldn't keep anything down anyway. She got so weak that Iris would have to carry her up here. I did it a couple of times near the end. She wasn't a big woman, but that cancer just made her bones."
"Who's Iris?" I was holding my own with his recounting but had this phantom to identify. "Oh, she's the dear local woman who cared for Mom the last six months. Big, tall, black lady with a smile to light the dark. I don't recall how she came on the scene. Uncle Tommy lived nearby and he and Aunt Helen checked in on Mom usually twice a day. But after the cancer came back the second time and there wasn't anything they could do, she started failing pretty fast. We knew we had to find someone for her 'round the clock. Tommy and Helen didn't have any kids then and offered to stay at the house, but she wouldn't hear of it. I guess that's when they found Iris. She was so good to Mom. Was with her at the end."
"Did she come up here to write?" A window had opened in my father's heart I didn't even know existed. I wanted to pry it wider with almost twelve years of stored up questions.
"Well I knew she used to when Daddy was alive. Called it something funny. Poetry something. She and Daddy loved each other but they sure were different. He was always on the phone talking to folks; making deals. She was quiet, more to herself. Said she hated the phone. That's why she'd come up here. Needed a quiet place to write her poems." He laughed to himself. "He respected that. Wasn't his way. Put him in a room alone for more than five minutes and he'd go loony. Had to have folks around or the television or radio on. But he understood she needed her...poetry perch...that's what she called it. Poetry perch!"
He laughed out loud and so did I. Then in a clumsy kind of defense for the exposed earlier emotion he explained himself. "Anyway, when I came up here and saw your little frame in her old rocking chair it reminded me of her last days. Pretty sad memories."
"She didn't live too much longer after your father died, did she?" The question sounded odd to me after I asked it, but Dad didn't miss a beat.
"Nope. A little over two years is all. It was a shame too 'cause she would have loved her grandchildren." He leaned over and scratched my head. I blushed and looked down which made him self-conscious and he pulled his hand back. "Now up 'til then she was a healthy woman. I don't ever remember her being sick while growing up."
"Do you think it was a broken heart?"
"What?" He genuinely did not know what I meant.
"When my friend Alice's grandfather died last year, they said it was of a broken heart 'cause he missed his wife so much. Do you think that's why maybe Grandma got sick and died?
'Cause she missed your father so much?"
He humored me with a halfhearted "possibly." But I knew he didn't buy it for a minute.
"Daddy's death caught us all off guard. Heck I talked with him the night before. We were going to play some golf that weekend." He was rummaging through the memories looking for something, like he'd done in the leaning barn an hour back. "They found him at work slumped over his desk. Mom was away I think. Some woman's function for the church. She was always doing something for the church."
"She must have been pretty upset to be away when he died."
"I guess." He was talking to me like an equal now. Not a parent to a child. I was drunk with the intimacy of his acceptance. "Some folks are funny that way. I remember her as strong, mighty strong through it all. We were all pretty devastated, but she pulled us together. We got through the funeral somehow." His next direction of thought seemed at the time from out in left field, but I've since seen it as a genesis moment for him and me. "I've not talked too much about Mom's religion with you. You know she was a religious woman. Very direct and adamant about her belief in God. Too much so for the rest of us. Well, your mother didn't mind it. Course she loved Mom so much, there wasn't anything she could do wrong. But my mother sure could be pushy and it turned me off. Daddy didn't take to it much either, though I believe he had a faith. Believed in his own way, you know, not the church-going kind, but very ethical and fair. It just wasn't like Mom's and nothing' she said could change that."
He paused to remember something and almost spoke it but then he thought better of it and changed his direction. "But as irritating as she could be sometimes, I don't know what we would have done without her when Dad died. She was the rock that we all climbed up on. She mothered all four of her boys and their wives that weekend. And she didn't have any of her religious talk either. Just steady and comforting as we all cried our eyes out. I remember thinking afterwards, though I didn't like her style, there sure was something to Mom's faith in bad times. Something that kept her afloat when the rest of us were sinking. And you know the truth is...her style changed a lot after Dad died. She was softer, not so in your face about it. That's what was sad about her leaving just as the grandchildren started arriving. She would have been a wonderful grandmother 'cause she really was a wonderful mom." The last words choked in a muffled sob as water's return glistened his eyes. He turned away and I, embarrassed for him, shot another question into the silence.
"Did you know Grandma's parents?"
He answered after blowing his nose again. "Her mother, a little bit. Her daddy's been dead for years."
"Were her parents religious?"
This puzzled him at first, so the answer was slow in coming. "No, not particularly. Not the way she was, certainly. Fact is I'm not sure there wasn't some talk about her daddy killing himself."
My gasp brought the parent back into my father's mind and he tried to soften the statement. "Well, it was never proven. He lost everything in the '29 crash and died a relatively young man shortly after that. I don't know the details of his death. I don't know if anybody does. A suspicious car accident I think. But to answer perhaps what was behind your original question, I don't believe she got her religious fervor from her parents. Her mom was sweet but not particularly devout. I'm not altogether sure where it came from. Actually, I seem to remember something about a church service where she went up front. Something like that. They were always doing that sort of thing at the church she belonged to, so maybe it was there. We used to go there when I was real small. I remember liking it at first. Some Bible summer camp something or other. Dad didn't like it much though and boys tend to side with their father in such things. He said, 'You sell more cars on Saturday than any other time.' That made Sunday the only day he had off and he wasn't about to spend half of it in church. He'd take us hunting and fishing, camping out. It was great. Poor Mom's church couldn't compete with that."
"Was she mad about that?"
"I don't know. She might have been at first. Hard to say. They kept those kind of disagreements pretty private. The truth is, her religion world was kind of a mystery to all of us. It was so much easier to understand Daddy's view of things. Work hard; play hard; treat people fair and for the most part, they'll treat you fair. Very practical and real while hers seemed impractical. Kind of weird." He struggled for the next words. "And I've got to admit a little...light." That threw me but before I could register a complaint he set about elaborating. "It just never seemed to me that intelligent. Oh, I didn't have trouble with it at first, but the older I got the sillier it seemed."
"No, that's not a good word. Simple maybe. You see Mom was a very complex woman. Well read, college degree. She taught English at the high school for years. Got her Master's somewhere in there. Old English or some such thing...difficult stuff. She was much more schooled than Dad. Yet her religion was so simple, so unintellectual. It didn't seem to fit her. Never made sense to me that someone so bright could leave all that to go forward at an altar call in some Baptist church. I mean people do it all the time, but I never understood how my mother could. How one little moment on a Sunday morning could change her life forever."
We were back to equals again only this time I almost felt older knowing, as I did, something unknown to him about his mother's spiritual journey. "So that's how Grandma got her religion? At some church service?"
"Well, I don't know that for a fact. But I sat through enough of them as a kid to know that's the main thing that goes on. Everything builds up to the preacher's sermon which always ended with...what did she call it...oh yeah, 'an invitation'. "
"Invitation to what?"
"I don't know. I guess an invitation to go up front and meet Jesus."
"Well, 'invite Him into your heart' was the way they put it."
"In your heart?"
"Yeah, inside. It's a kind of knowing I guess. A spiritual thing where you believe in the inside of you. It always seemed kind of strange to me."
"And that's what Grandma did once?"
"I guess, though I don't remember it. Just know it happened to her 'cause that's what you did to be 'saved.' And she sure was saved."
"That's the word they used for becoming a believer. You've seen the signs on the bridges and overpasses, 'Jesus Saves'? That's what they're talking about."
"And you can only do that by walking up in front of the church after a sermon?"
He laughed, realizing how odd it must all seem to me. Then qualified. "No, Margy. It's only if you buy all that stuff that they say in those sort of churches."
"And Grandma did? Went up front after a sermon?"
"I don't really know. I presume so 'cause that's the sort of church she went to. I'm not sure they have any other way to be..." He used his fingers to make quotation mark signs, "saved."
"I think she thought about it first, Dad. Even if she did go up in front, I think she thought a lot about it."
He wasn't tracking, so he casually conceded my conclusion. "Well I'm sure she did, Dear." The return to father of a little girl in the offhandedness of his answer irritated me.
"No, Dad. I know she thought about it a lot and asked questions. Hard questions."
Before his puzzled look had time to evolve to a verbal inquiry as to how I "knew" that about his mother, I grabbed the four letters and handed them over to him. "I probably shouldn't have read them," I said lamely, "but after the first one I had to read the rest." Then noticing that he might start anywhere in the chronological line, I gave him reading instructions. "Start with the one dated January 12th and read in order after that."
He took a long time reading them and his face never lost a wrinkly bewilderment through it all. The silence following the last letter was hard to read. I still wasn't sure how he felt about my looking through his mother's mail in the first place, but I decided to cash in on our earlier bonding and pick up, as it were, where we left off. "Who's Peter Plaistow?"
It was as if he had been asking the same question in his mind. "I'm not sure. This is so very strange. I seem to remember Mom mentioning a boyfriend who died in the war." It was coming back. "And, you know, I think it was a Peter. She never talked much about him. I got the impression that was 'cause bringing him up made Dad uncomfortable." He smiled a little internal grin that said there was more to it than was going public.
I protested. "What?"
"You were thinking something else about it. What was it?"
"Come on, Dad." He shook his head in disbelief.
"I always thought Dad's difficulty with this old dead boyfriend was... 'cause... how... seriously they were involved. Somewhere I got the impression they were a pretty hot item. But if this was the guy, and I think it is 'cause I'm almost certain now his name was Peter, I must have had it all wrong. He clearly was the one who put her on to..."
"Yeah, that must have been where it started."
No one single discovery did more to change the human climate of our home than the finding of those letters. We didn't talk much about them on the ride back, but in the next few months my father and mother talked about little else. It was really a case of my father discovering for the first time who his mother was in the matters that meant most to her. The letters, quite simply, were a missing link between his intellect and hers; a bridge connecting what he understood about her and what he never understood about her. He reveled in the fact that at some point in her life she'd asked the very same sort of questions that had plagued him. And he quickly acknowledged that if he'd had the likes of a Peter Plaistow to answer his at the time he was asking, he might have come to some of his mother's conclusions. After this revelation, my mother sheepishly acknowledged that for some time now she'd already come to those conclusions but was afraid to admit them for fear of ridicule. This cut my father to the quick and inspired even longer and more intensive talks the results of which, put in simple terms, is that for several years now my parents have been members of a local Christian church. It's not quite Grandma's style. More formal and ritualistic. Episcopal, they call it. But their devotion to the basic precepts of the faith that Grandma held so dear are just as strong and sincere. She, indeed, must be smiling wherever she is.
Now it's to that smile that I address my last piece to Grandma's little puzzle. As I mentioned, my parents had come full circle since uncovering the attic letters and were faithful churchgoers. I, on the other hand, by the summer before my junior year in college had not so easily made that legendary leap of faith. I certainly had pondered Grandma's questions, as well as many others besetting a young, expanding intellect. My conclusions, though not a rejection of Christianity's basic concepts, weren't the stuff of a card-carrying loyalist. I had my doubts and found participation in this religion while having so many questions difficult waters to navigate. I chose, like my grandfather, to be somewhere besides the sanctuary on all but Christmas and Easter. It was on a longer variation of my typical weekend (four days instead of two) as I was heading to New Orleans to frolic with friends that I, on a lark, decided to swing by the old homestead. The street on that muggy, late-July morning was remarkably true to my twelve-year-old memories. It was still lined in rundown shacks and sheds. There was easily one third more of them, but the new ones were no less ramshackle. Because of this, I assumed the house would also retain its earlier dishevelment. To my pleasant surprise, it was positively the opposite of what I expected. The front lawn was lushly green, full and trimmed right up to the circle front driveway, which had been freshly packed in white pea stone. The house itself had a new paint job, a soft sunny yellow with white trim, and everything missing on the first trip from porch floorboards to panes of glass were replaced, restored or remodeled. A careful, loving hand had been at work. As I idled the car on the road edge admiring the transformation, a young black woman who had been sitting on the front porch rocker got up and with an intentioned gait strolled over to me.
"You want to see Miss Iris?" I started to explain that I was simply admiring the renovation when she spoke again impervious to my explanation. "She's back in the kitchen giving Maggie her breakfast. She can't feed herself. Miss Iris has to do it. I already had my breakfast. I do it myself. Nothin' to it." She had been looking straight at me and suddenly turned away. When she gazed back trouble shadowed her countenance. "That don't mean I'm better than her. Miss Iris says we're all special in God's eyes. No one's better than anyone else. Just different. That's what Miss Iris says." I agreed then made some gesture to signal my imminent departure. It went unnoticed as she returned to her original question. "You want to see Miss Iris?" In the second I took to think of a different way to phrase my decline of her request, she turned and headed back to the house. "I'll go get her. I'll get Miss Iris. I can feed Maggie. I've done it before. Nothin' to it. I'll go get Miss Iris."
I would have escaped then and there letting the poor woman suffer the momentary confusion of my absence on her return, but as I put the car into drive, my brain's rather slow moving search engine returned with the back, warehouse memory concerning the name Iris. It wasn't too hard to find, filed as it was in the section reserved for Grandma's house. Sure, that was the name of the person who cared for Dad's mom right at the end. A "tall, black lady" he said, just like the woman who presently stood out on the front porch with a puzzled look on her face. It couldn't possibly be the same one. But it would be easy enough to find out. I turned off the car and walked up to the porch. Her confusion was replaced by a greeting. It was clearly a more familiar state as all facial lines found familiar grooves around a broad gracious smile. She was perhaps in her mid-fifties, the whiteness of her hair suggested it, but such a timeless redemption beamed from her large, naturally moist, brown eyes that all speculations about age ultimately seemed comically irrelevant.
"I'm Iris Whitney. Camille said you wanted to see me. How may I help you?"
I was surprised how Camille's jumping the gun on my behalf irritated me and I started a curt defense. "Well actually, the young lady didn't give me time to explain..."
A hoot roared from Iris and if possible her grin grew even larger. "That's 'cause she wanted to feed Maggie and I wouldn't let her. She was out here on the front porch pouting about it when you pulled up." She laughed again and beckoned me to come up on the porch. "She loves feeding Maggie. Makes such a mess I can't let her do it but once or twice a week. Here, come with me back to the kitchen so I can keep an eye on those two. We can talk there as well as anyplace."
She had the screen door open but saw with my furrowed brows more explanation was in order. "No. You don't understand. I didn't intend to see anyone or even stop. I just wanted to look at the old place as I was passing through. I really can't stop." I recognized fear welling up in me and was ashamed to discover its probable origin was the discomfort I felt around the mentally retarded. Camille was hard enough, but Maggie had to be fed. What sort of bizarre departure from human convention would I find with her? Nope, it was time to leave. Who cares whether it was the same lady or not. Probably just coincidence with the name.
Iris shut the screen door and took a few steps towards me. There was a puzzling earnestness to her stare that imbued my presence with a strange sort of dignity. "Why'd you want to look at the place? You ain't never lived here, have ya?"
"No, but my grandma did. Long time ago."
A gasp escaped from Iris. And as if to keep any others from leaving, both hands rose to her mouth. "Oh my Jesus! You're Vera's grandchild." She looked hard into my face searching for a common clue that had stayed through the generations. She found it and gasped again. "Well Lord, of course you are. Just look at those eyes. You've got her eyes for sure. Those sad, poet eyes. I would have known after a while even if you hadn't told me. Why sure, you're Miss Vera's grandchild. Ain't no doubt about it."
Soft as mud by now in her enveloping affirmation, I wanted to return the favor. "And you're the 'Iris' who cared for her at the end of her life. Daddy said you were the most wonderful woman." The compliment didn't do what hers did for me, but then she didn't seem to need it.
"Now which of the brothers is your daddy? You Tommy's daughter? What was his dear wife's name?"
"That'd be my Aunt Helen. No, I'm Frank's daughter. He's the oldest son. I was born the same year Grandma died. The first grandchild." I hung out my interfamily credentials like medals on a lapel until a twinge of pretension pricked me. "There's lots of grandchildren now, of course."
"So, you're the one she was waiting for? Lord, she wanted to see you so bad. I asked the Lord if He might spare her 'til you came, but He had a different plan. She knew it. Even laughed about it. I'd be fixin' her up for the day and she'd say, 'Iris, you mind carryin' this old grandma of a Moses up to her Sinai? I know I ain't goin' into the Promised Land, but I love to look over there.'"
"So she did sit up there in her poetry perch?"
"That's it. That's what she called it. Yes, she'd be up there first thing any morning she'd have the strength. Why, that's where she..."
I couldn't tell whether she stopped her sentence intentionally or was interrupted by Maggie's scream, but we didn't pick up the conversation about Grandma again for another hour. Apparently Maggie was a little less thrilled by Camille's feeding her than Camille was in doing it. There was a minor catastrophe, which I helped Iris resolve by spending some one-on-one with Camille. By late morning I had learned all about the six special residents who now inhabited my grandmother's house. Four were at work while Maggie and Camille stayed with Iris throughout the day. Shalom House, they called it. It was a fully registered and accredited group home sponsored by the state of Mississippi.
"Your grandma gave me the idea," Iris said as we rocked on the front porch. I was almost certain the armless rocker I sat in was the one from the alcove in the attic. Camille slowly circled the house as we spoke, her internal conver- sation occasionally interrupted by a favorite tune. Maggie, a severely handicapped teenager of fifteen, sat by us, her arms, legs, and head strapped into a wheelchair. She couldn't speak but cooed and sighed her approval of the day as it made its sultry way into the p.m. "She gave me her blessing one morning just like in the Bible. 'Iris,' she said, I was carrying her up to her rocker. 'Iris, may you always carry those who can't carry themselves, like me.' She was just saying it as a kind of wish, but I knew in my spirit it was a blessing and a call from the Lord through her to me. She was a holy woman, your grandmother." The reverence in the air was palpable. I felt tongue tied and small, hearing about goodness from someone so good. We rocked some, then more out of a false obligation to say something I added, "My dad always said she was religious." It sounded hollow so I tried to qualify. "For a long time I don't think he meant that as a compliment." Iris nodded. "He felt her style of religion was too pushy. Said it turned everybody in the family off."
She nodded again and added, "She was one of the strongest women of God that I've ever known."
It wasn't the response I'd expected. I had concern she wasn't getting my point. "Yes, though I guess that strength wasn't always appreciated or desired."
"Is it a believin' family now?" This unexpected question caused me to hesitate in my response. The delay gave her time to qualify. "'Cause I remember it was a mighty big burden on Vera's heart that they weren't."
For some reason it irritated me to give an affirming answer. She just didn't seem capable of hearing the flaws in my grandmother's character and that annoyed me. "I can't speak for my uncle's family but my mother, father and sisters do go to church regularly."
"Good. That'd please Vera."
"Well, from what my father said, I don't think it's the type of church she would have liked." For the life of me I couldn't figure out why I was being so contrary. She didn't take the bait but headed off in another direction.
"And what about you?"
"What do you mean?" I knew perfectly well what she meant but hoped to buy some seconds with my question.
She didn't skip a beat. "Do you believe in Jesus as the home for your heart?"
Impossible, impossible! How could anyone answer a question like that? It's not that simple, that easy to access. It occurred to me how like my father in his early days I was.
She met my difficulty to answer with a statement. "That was her prayer for you, for all your family, but especially for you."
"What do you mean 'especially for me'? She didn't even know me." I knew she probably had a good reason for her statement, but runaway irritation had captured my patience.
"That was her point, child. Because you had the least knowledge of who she was. Vera knew she'd turned her family off to the things of God and it grieved her somethin' terrible. She said she'd mellowed a lot since her husband died, but the seeds of mistrust had already been sown. She felt she'd probably never change your father and uncle's foul view of God with the little time she had left. So she focused most of her prayers on the one member of the family she hadn't met." She laughed a big, round belly hoot then put her arm on my shoulder and looked straight into my eyes. I looked away at first, but she didn't speak. When I finally looked up into those languid brown pools, she continued. "Oh my, what a joy she had near the end. Prayin' for you, singin' to you, inviting you into the family that she was getting ready to leave." She puzzled for a moment, "What I seem to remember is that your parents knew you was a girl. Do you know what I'm talkin' about? 'Cause Vera prayed for her granddaughter. I remember that for a fact. So either the Lord told her or she knew it somehow."
I'd heard the story since old enough to remember. After her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, my mother had numerous ultrasounds through the crucial period of my development ostensibly to "keep an eye on things." Though under strict orders not to reveal the sex of the fetus, gradually the pronoun "she" replaced "it" in the attending technician's terminology and my parents gleefully prepared for a daughter.
"Yes, she spent her last days prayin' for you. Even the dyin' need something to do."
"She probably was remembering a lot too?" I offered with a hiddin motive to my question. "Don't folks reminisce a lot when they're getting ready to die?"
"That they do and she did some. But most of her dwindling energy she put to..."
"Did she talk about life when she was a young woman? Before she was married?"
Iris gave the question considerable thought. So much so, I grew impatient and pointed it in a specific direction. "Did she ever talk about an old boyfriend who wrote her from England during World War II?" Iris's countenance slowly started to change from quizzical to wonderment or fear. I couldn't tell which but I knew I should elaborate. "He was part of the D-Day Invasion. His name was Corporal Peter Plaistow. We found out later he was killed on the Omaha Beach. Did she ever talk about him?"
"You found the letters." She spoke in a whispered awe.
"Yeah, years ago. My father says they're the most important things Grandma ever left him."
Puzzlement replaced wonder on Iris's face. "Now why is that, darlin'?"
"Well I really don't know that much about it. He says he never understood Grandma's religion until he read those letters. It must have done something 'cause they never went to church before then and since then they go all the time."
"Oh my Lord Jesus," she whispered
"I just wondered if she ever talked about Peter. The letters were mostly about religious things, but you could tell they were more than friends."
"So you say those letters helped your daddy understand faith a little better?"
There was something to her question I couldn't put my finger on, but I gave up trying and answered it on face value. "Yes. I guess my mother already believed, but my dad always says those letters were his bridge to God. Whatever that means"
Iris stared out to the road in a serene trance then spoke in a whisper through time and space into eternity. "Well Vera, it worked! Not like you thought. Not like you thought, but it sure worked. Praise God, it did!"
I knew she would tell me and decided to wait silently. After a moment or two Maggie chortled a high long squeal that seemed neither the result of frustration nor fear but more the product of delight. "You feel it too, huh Maggie? The Lord's pleasure when His secret is revealed?" Maggie squealed again and Iris matched it with her infectious high laugh. "Well child, I do remember letters Vera found while going through some old boxes. They were from a soldier boy in England. Don't remember his name. She was mighty excited to find them."
"Had she once been in love with him?" I asked feeling the double-edged pleasure/pain of the bittersweet rise in my heart.
"Don't know for certain. Don't recall she said much about him. If anything, I think she was a little embarrassed by them. Least that's the impression I got 'cause she emptied all the envelopes out and threw away all the letters."
"Oh, no..." I quickly countered. "That must have been someone else 'cause there were letters in each of these envelopes."
Iris smiled. "'Course there were, child. Those were the letters Vera wrote to you and when she was done she had me cut open that hole in the wall and stash them away in there like they was 'specially hid." The facts connected, but the concept did not compute in my brain. "She'd been wantin' to leave somethin' to ya... a gift from her to you. But she worried if she left a note with your daddy tellin' you about her belief in Jesus, he might not deliver it knowin' how he felt at the time. Or if he did, slant it so you couldn't see it for what it was."
"You mean Peter Plaistow..."
"Supplied the envelopes, darlin', and the postmark in history. God rest his soul. Vera wrote the letters."
"But there were questions. He was answering questions of hers."
"I don't know what she wrote. She was mighty pleased with herself though when she was done. But she wrote 'em. No one else. I stashed them in that little hideaway myself."
"But how'd she know I'd find them there?"
"She didn't. Just knew if she was a little girl exploring her grandma's attic, she'd be drawn to that little window and rocker. 'Everything else I'll leave to the Holy Spirit,' she said. And good God, she was right."
"I think it's time Maggie had lunch." Camille said as she walked up on the porch and stood in front of us. "Maggie looks hungry. Time for lunch, Maggie. I can feed Maggie. Nothin' to it. Time for lunch, Maggie."
"Well, I was kinda hopin' my old friend Vera's granddaughter might feed Maggie." She looked at me as I smiled a "yes." "You fed Maggie this mornin'. We've got to give other people a chance."
"I'll show ya how. Can I show her how, Miss Iris? I'll show ya how. Nothin' to it."