Leave More to Those You Love the Most
The only things I value from all my mom and dad left behind are their letters. Everything else is just "stuff." The letters speak to me. The letters make my parents more than a memory. The letters make my parents people. And the letters remind me of who I was as a child and young man.
My older sister is the keeper of the family history. She is eleven years older than me and recently moved to assisted living. In clearing out her condo of thirty-five years, I discovered letters and photographs reminding me of who my parents were.
These were letters written by my dad to my mom while they were dating. Letters to my sister and me while my dad was going through a very difficult time in his life. And other letters to just keep in touch with us as we lived in Miami and they lived in New Jersey.
Reading these letters as a man who has now lived sixty-nine years makes them meaningful. The love letters were written before I was born. The other letters were written while I was in college. My dad, who was the letter writer, died when I was twenty-seven years old.
These letters are now the only way for me to hear my parents’ voices.
They speak to the passion and love my father had for my mother while they were dating. His frustrations with my mom and how she reacted to him and his friends on the last date. The disappointment he had in the way he behaved. But they also recounted the fun they had dancing together. His dream of being married to such a beautiful and kind woman.
Then there are the letters he wrote while going through a very difficult time in his life. He was in county jail for six months. He was convicted of being a small-time bookmaker. Everyone in New York and New Jersey back in the 1960s bet on "the numbers." This was long before state lotteries.
I remember the adults bet on everything while I was growing up. The numbers, college football, pro football, you name it. There were betting slips for every bet imaginable. The people that set the odds and covered the bets were called bookies. The bigger the bet, the bigger the bookie. My father, who worked for thirty-eight years on the railroad, was a bookmaker as his side hustle. It was a way for him to make a little extra money to give his family a better life.
One day I came home from school and I found my mother sitting at the kitchen table in tears. I asked, "What's wrong?"
She said, "Go and look at the front door."
I ran to the front of the house and there, on the floor, was the front door. Apparently, the police raided our house. They found my father and his partner, my uncle, taking bets on the numbers. These were fifty cents to one-dollar bets as this was all they could cover given their finances. The police busted them, ransacked the house for evidence, and took them both to jail. They bonded out and three years later were sentenced to a year in county jail.
I was in college during my dad's time in jail.
It was during that summer that I decided to take a week-long motorcycle ride around the southeast. I took time off from my job and jumped on my 450 Honda and rode north. I rode from Miami to Georgia through Tennesee and across Kentucky. Then down through Arkansas, part of Texas, through Louisiana, Mississippi, and across the Florida panhandle and back to Miami. I covered over 2,000 miles in a week. It was exhausting.
As I remember it, I took this ride because I dreamt of touring on my motorcycle. I found out why I really did it after reading my father's letters. I don't even remember getting letters from him while he was in jail. Yet, here they are. And I am reading these letters fifty years after they were written.
I learned that I was angry at my dad. I was embarrassed that he was in jail. As I write this, I am still embarrassed. But now I better understand why he made the choice to do what he did that landed him in jail. I was going to a private high school in New York City, and he needed to make money to pay for it.
He didn't explain this in his letters. He didn't make any excuses for being in jail. He was serving his time because he broke the law. The theme of his letters was all about reconciliation. He wanted to hear from me, to talk to me. I don't remember any of this.
Here is my dad sitting in a cell with my uncle and a bunch of other guys in county jail and I'm not talking to him. To this day, I don't know why I acted this way toward my father. In fact, I don't remember being angry at him or disappointed in him. I don't remember reconciling with him, but I must have. My memory is simply this. We were always in regular contact with each other. I found out from his letters that this was not true.
And what about my mom during this time?
In the letters to my sister and me, I discovered that she visited him a few times per week. She prepared a treat for him, walked to the bus stop, took the bus, spent time with him, and then returned home. She was all alone with a husband in jail. Was I any comfort to her? I don't remember.
The keepsakes and the photographs are great. The letters are precious. The letters allow me to talk to my father and mother long after they are gone. The letters allows them to live on. The letters bring the truth of what happened. Who they were. Who I am. The real circumstances. The reason for their behavior. The feelings I was wrestling with at the time. The joy and sadness they were experiencing.
And now at sixty-nine I understand exactly what they were going through. When they wrote those letters, I received them as a kid. They were letters from my parents. Now I read them as a man who has a wife, kids, and grandchildren. I am reading them with an eye and mind of understanding the complexities of life. I am reading them with empathy and not judgment.
My oldest son David once said to me,
"I learn more about you from your writing than I ever did from our conversations."
I'll never forget him saying this. After reading my father's letters, I understand.