Love, youth im­mor­tal­ized in par­ents’ mail

Rome News-Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - By Michelle Wil­son Rome News-Tri­bune cor­re­spon­dent

I just lost my mom. She took her fi­nal breath on Sept. 11 and joined my fa­ther, her hus­band of al­most 51 years on this Earth, in eter­nity. Mom had found hap­pi­ness at last, I am sure, be­cause she never wanted to live life with­out him. She didn’t know how and she didn’t want to learn.

The ar­du­ous task of sort­ing her things has be­gun and I must de­cide what is fea­si­ble or nec­es­sary to keep and what is not. Paint­ings. Dishes. Fur­ni­ture. Books. Cloth­ing. Pho­to­graphs.

Things that have sur­rounded me all of my life.

Hid­den at the bot­tom of her cedar chest in her bed­room I found this odd-look­ing, ecru-col­ored quilted bag. It is filled to the brim with let­ters — neatly bun­dled and tied with cop­per-col­ored rib­bon.

Just more pa­per. It’s easy enough to put the whole bag of them in the trash pile.

“You will want to look through those be­fore you throw them away,” my friend An­thony says as he and

his wife, Mary, help me sort through decades of cloth­ing and news­pa­pers and keep­sakes. “You might find some­thing im­por­tant in there.”

I am sure I won’t need a bag full of old let­ters. Don’t get me wrong. I miss let­ters. Let­ter writ­ing is a lost art. Now peo­ple al­most ex­clu­sively text. Not even en­tire words or com­plete sen­tences. Be­fore tex­ting it was email. Be­fore email it was the phone. And be­fore the phone, there were let­ters. For hun­dreds of years it was the only means to com­mu­ni­cate long dis­tance.

Peo­ple sat down and thought about their words and shared their feel­ings and hopes and dreams and fears and love through de­lib­er­ate, hand­writ­ten notes. They neatly folded the pa­per and tucked it into an en­ve­lope. And some­how, some way, th­ese let­ters man­aged to get to their in­tended re­cip­i­ents. It didn’t mat­ter that it wasn’t in­stan­ta­neous — be­cause the writer had care­fully con­sid­ered the words and taken the time and ef­fort to put them on pa­per. Hav­ing the good for­tune to re­ceive a hand­writ­ten let­ter in the mail felt like get­ting a present on Christ­mas morn­ing. It still does.

Be­fore the night ends, I de­cide to take my friend’s ad­vice. I look at one of the yel­low­ing en­velopes. It was ad­dressed to my mother while she was away at col­lege. The hand­writ­ing seems kind of fa­mil­iar and I re­al­ize it is my fa­ther’s.

Mom and dad met at Merid­ian High School in Merid­ian, Mis­sis­sippi, in the 1950s. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, daddy went to Mill­saps Col­lege in Jack­son. Mom’s fa­ther sent her 150 miles away to an all-girls col­lege. Mom was mis­er­able. She stayed there two long years be­fore my grand­fa­ther fi­nally let her join dad at Mill­saps.

I’d al­ways heard sto­ries how my par­ents were the most hand­some cou­ple. They met in the 10th grade. In col­lege they went steady. The black and white pho­to­graphs I have of them at fra­ter­nity func­tions or at their wed­ding show them smil­ing lov­ingly and ex­pec­tantly at one another. Those feel­ings for each other are frozen in time in those pic­tures hang­ing on my wall.

By the time I came along in this world, there wasn’t a lot of lovey-dovey-ness on dis­play be­tween my par­ents. The years had taken a bit of a toll on mom and dad as a cou­ple.

Daddy wasn’t par­tic­u­larly ro­man­tic. Nei­ther was mom. But they had a sys­tem. And their sys­tem worked for them. For over half a cen­tury they stuck it out through thick and thin and they made a life to­gether un­til daddy died un­ex­pect­edly in 2010. Out of cu­rios­ity, I sit down on the floor of mom’s apart­ment in West Rome and start to read one of dad’s let­ters to her. There en­ve­lope

is post­marked May 14, 1957, but the let­ter it­self has no date on it. It’s just marked “Mon­day Night” at the top of the first page.

“It’s been a gloomy day out­side most of the day, but with the thoughts of you stay­ing with me all the time, ev­ery­thing seems bright,” reads one line of the let­ter.

“As soon as I left you yes­ter­day, I started miss­ing you and it has steadily grown worse,” reads another line.

The next let­ter is post­marked May 15, 1957. The top of the let­ter says “Tues­day night.” It’s like they’re hav­ing a daily con­ver­sa­tion back and forth.

“I don’t get to see you much but you’re al­ways near me in thought and that’s enough,” daddy writes. “No, I take that back. It won’t be enough till I can be with you all the time. That is the only way that any­thing will be com­plete.”

The next let­ter is post­marked May 16 — “Wed­nes­day

night.” And so it goes.

In some let­ters, daddy laments they are hav­ing prob­lems in their re­la­tion­ship. In other let­ters he says that it’s best that they have bro­ken up. She’ll for­get him. The guy who ends up with her will be very lucky. They’ll stay friends.

And then they are back to­gether. Just like that.

Daddy tells mom about his day. He re­counts bas­ket­ball games he and his team­mates have played. Let­ters are post­marked from other states when his col­lege bas­ket­ball team was on the road or he was trav­el­ing for his fra­ter­nity. The cor­re­spon­dences go on and on. There are well over 100 let­ters in the bag. I know that mom wrote him back be­cause he would of­ten re­fer to her let­ters, but I couldn’t find any of them.

I never knew this soft side of my fa­ther. And I never knew this softer side of my mother. They were ob­vi­ously very

deeply in love, as much as two crazy kids in their late teens could be in the 1950s. Life was full of end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties. They would be to­gether for­ever. And life would be per­fect be­cause they had each other. It wasn’t per­fect. It never is. But mom and dad had a com­mit­ment to one another.

Through pain and laugh­ter and mis­steps and hurt feel­ings and good times and ug­li­ness and beauty and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion they made it last.

“Dear­est Rita — I hope that you’ve no­ticed the beau­ti­ful night out tonight. I walked out­side a few min­utes ago and as I looked in the cloud­less sky you were my first thought. It would be the per­fect night to be to­gether — if we only could.”

While look­ing up at our own cloud­less sky tonight, I take com­fort in know­ing that they are in­deed back to­gether at last.

Con­trib­uted photo Don Wil­liamson wrote th­ese let­ters while he was at Mill­saps to Rita Mitchell at Mis­sis­sippi State Col­lege for Women.

Con­trib­uted photo Rita Mitchell and Don Wil­liamson at a Kappa Sigma barn dance at Mill­saps Col­lege in the late 1950s.

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