About This Episode
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Today I am inspired to share with you one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. It came from my sister and she gave it to me this weekend. It wasn’t for a special occasion; then again, just getting together with family in person, albeit socially distant and outside during the coldest month of the year, can be considered a special occasion.
Before I get to that gift, though, and believe me, the gift is quite emotional, I wanted to share two things that happened this past week.
I went back to the first time since last March. A couple weeks ago, I took a walk with my friend John who, like me, is very involved in our parish—St. Leo’s in Stamford. In the early days of the pandemic, he and I worked together to convince our pastor to record a weekend mass and make it available for streaming so that parishioners could maintain some sense of connection with the parish, but to be honest, it’s no replacement for being there in person. That’s not a knock on the production quality, there’s a multi camera setup and the audio is great, but what’s missing is that sense of community.
I knew John started to go back when churches opened up to limited capacity this past summer, but I held off for a number of reasons. While we were walking, I wanted to get a sense from him regarding all the safety measures in place and he told me that all state guidelines are followed very strictly and that in order to enforce capacity restrictions, everyone has to have a reservation. Additionally, every two pews are blocked off, and in each pew there can only 3 people who sit at least six feet apart. Masks must remain on at all times and there is no singing or hymnals.
When I thought about it, there seemed to be more risk going into a crowded grocery or retail store than to Church so I gave it a try. I wasn’t prepared for how emotional an experience it was going to be. I got into the pew a few minutes before the service began and started to cry. I didn’t realize how much I missed going to Mass. While I don’t talk about it a lot, being Catholic is very much a part of my identity and it was a part that I couldn’t celebrate for a while. It felt great to be back and so long as it is safe to do so, I will continue to attend.
Another highlight is that my son came home from college for the weekend. He needed a break so I picked him up Friday and it was great to have him home. On Saturday night, he wanted to watch a movie together and, even though the two of us had seen it, we decided to re-watch a new comedy called Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. If you haven’t seen it, it’s hilarious. However, towards the end of the movie, something not so hilarious happened. Our 14-year-old golden retriever, who always barks when she has to go out, decides to get up, walk into the mud room, and drop a deuce right by the door. It gave new meaning to the term mudroom.
Mind you we didn’t see her in action, but the smell wafted in just as Barb and Star were facing sudden death. It was a disaster and when I walked in to investigate, I faced an almost sudden death of my own. The floor looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. My daughter proclaimed, “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I have kids because I just can’t handle that.”
If she only knew. One day I tallied up by diapers for the day and I had changed 27 (we have triplets in case you didn’t know). The bedroom they shared constantly smelled as if R. Kelley had been in it. Nothing fazes me anymore.
So those are the highs and lows of my weekend; highs, going back to mass, having my son home, and having some laughs over a movie. Lows, cleaning up a pile of poop.
But here’s the high that I really wanted to talk about.
This weekend, since my son was home, he wanted to see his aunt Mia, so his sister and I invited ourselves over to my sister’s house and we got to hang out for a bit. While we were there, she told me that she found some letters I had written to my grandparents back in the 80s.
This was something I used to do; write letters to my grandparents, especially after we moved from Florida to Connecticut back in 1983. Just like I wasn’t prepared for the emotions I experienced when going back to Church after almost a year of being away, I wasn’t ready for how I’d feel after viewing these letters.
Truth be told, in one of the envelopes, there wasn’t a letter. There was just a single dollar bill, which is from a series printed in 1977.
I remember this well—whenever my grandmother would send me a letter in the mail, it was for a special occasion, like my birthday or Christmas and the card would always be accompanied with some cash. One time, when I was very little and still living in Florida, my grandmother got sick and my mother was sending her a get well soon card. She asked me to sign it and, when mom wasn’t looking, I went into her wallet, took a dollar, and put it in the card. The dollar in one of the envelopes my sister gave me was that dollar.
My grandmother kept it in a bureau in the spare bedroom of her apartment and we always laughed about it. It was one of those memories that always put a smile on our faces. Back when this happened, she asked why I did it and I said that I thought it would make her feel better. Hey, it worked.
Now, onto the letters. When re-reading them, I could easily spot a theme; I was always telling my grandparents how much I missed them and that I wished their visits could have lasted longer or I’d tell them that I couldn’t wait to come and visit. Two were written around Halloween; I know this because I wished my grandparents a happy Halloween in both.
Which reminds me, my grandma was a seamstress and one year for halloween I wanted to be Chewbacca. This had to be around 1980 because Empire Strikes Back came out in May of that year and it makes sense that I’d want to be Chewbacca following the release of that movie. Here’s the thing, though—all the Chewbacca costumes were crap so my grandmother took it upon herself to buy some fabric and make me a total body Chewbacca costume. It was a beautiful gesture, and I looked like the real deal, but here’s where it falls apart; it was hot that October in South Florida and I almost had a heat stroke while trick or treating.
The next letter, which was also handwritten on looseleaf paper, must have been in March of 1987 because, like the first one, it was addressed to both my Grandmother and Grandfather and in it I wished her a happy birthday (March 11 if memory serves) and a happy St. Patrick’s day and also referenced my paper route, which I only took on in 1987. In it, I was excited that we would have a few more days to spend in Florida with them because we were “traveling in the air.” Why I didn’t simplify and just say “flying” I can’t tell you. What I can tell you, though, is that I was very excited about using the money from my route to buy a new Walkman because my old one broke. And I remember exactly how it broke—I let my twin brother Jimmy borrow it and let’s just say, he wasn’t the most careful person when it came to my things.
The kid used to throw my action figures up into the ceiling fan just to see them disembodied. Now, the original Star Wars action figures made by Kenner fared pretty well. No damage to those babies but whoever made the MASH action figures we had, though, could have done a better job. Poor Father Mulcahy didn’t stand a chance against the blades of the ceiling fan. His head landed in my glass of water. Who am I kidding, back then it was definitely a glass of Coca Cola. In that letter, I also referenced having to get three teeth pulled. Dr. Meehan, if you are reading this, I still have nightmares about you.
The next two letters were written after my grandfather died, as they were only addressed to my grandmother. In them, I tell my grandmother how much I miss her and how empty our house felt without her. These two are different from the first two in that they are typed. We had gotten our first home computer back in 1987 and, given my handwriting was always characterized as being chicken scratch, I decided to start typing everything. In the second of these, I am complaining about how cold it is in Connecticut and liken us to Eskimos. Note, while I tolerate the cold now, I would still prefer to be in Florida during the winter months. My wife doesn’t understand this, but she’s not a native Floridian so I’ll cut her some slack.
The final letter in the stack wasn’t addressed to my Grandmother, but rather to my mother and Father who were living at her apartment back when I was a senior in college. She died my senior year in high school and my parents had started spending more and more time living down south (Dad didn’t like the cold either). I brag about not receiving a grade lower than an A so far that semester and talk about the classes I’d be taking in the spring, including Psychological Tests and Measurements. That class was very special to me because I formed a bond with the professor who taught it, a retired professor named Sam Whitryol. I’d meet him before every class, and carry his bag so he could smoke his pipe on the way to class. He shared a lot of wisdom on those walks and I really treasure that memory (so much so that he inspired a character in my latest novel).
In this letter, I also tell my parents how I had lined up some interviews with graduate schools, as I was planning on getting my Ph.D. after graduating. I did admit, though, that I wasn’t sure I could handle another 5-7 years of school and that I would be broke until I was 27. Now if you’ve been listening to this show for a while, you know that I didn’t pursue that doctoral degree and that I did enter the business world. Which is something I’ve always wrestled with. Even re-reading this letter now makes me realize that I have regrets over not getting my doctorate.
I remember right after I got married, I spoke with that old professor on the phone as he called me after I wrote him a letter just to check in on him and update him on my life. During this call he encouraged me to not give up my dream of becoming a psychologist. He said he knew of people who tried their hat at the business world only to go back and get their degree—it was his way of suggesting that it wasn’t too late for me.
Coming Full Circle
At the end of this letter, and this is where this entire story comes full circle, I wished my parents a Happy Halloween, just like I did to my grandmother in those two letters written at least twenty years prior. And here’s where the circle comes fuller— as a PS, I tell them not to forget to go to church for All Saints day because, “The fires of hell await those who skip church (and those who leave church early because the golf is on).”
My father would call that jab, “Michael being Michael.” You see, my mother would always remind me to go to Church so I couldn’t resist giving her a reminder at the end of my letter and my father would always take us to four o’clock mass and leave after Communion so he could catch a few more holes of whatever tournament was on.
Just to underscore how the chickens have come home to roost, in that letter I also asked for help with my rent and for some spending money. This past weekend I got a text from my daughter Gracie, who is away at college, asking if I could send her a few bucks to go out to dinner with her friends.
Full circle indeed.
I started this off by teasing that my sister had given me one of the greatest gifts I’d ever received and I wasn’t over exaggerating about that. These letters are priceless. It strikes me, though, that letter writing is a lost art. I feel sad that I haven’t written a hard copy letter to my parents in ages and I doubt my own kids ever have. I’d like to change that. I’d love for my kids to one day receive a stack of letters that their grandparents felt important to save and eventually give back to the sender.
So, here’s my parting thought—reaching out and touching someone used to mean picking up the phone and calling them. Today, it means Facetiming them or maybe just sending them a text. How about this—instead of doing that, why not write an old-fashioned letter? Fold it in an envelope, slap a stamp on it, and send it by mail. Sure it will take a lot longer to get to the recipient than an email or text, but some things are worth waiting for.
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