Friday, September 21, 2012

# 348 - Letters & Life

At 18 years old, I left America and moved to Germany to follow my husband who was serving in the military. Brave me. I left my home-country, good old U.S. of A., to live in a place I had no knowledge about and a place that spoke a language I didn't understand.

I suddenly became an "Americana."

An 18 year old sure can be brave, especially when they don't know enough to be scared.

Oh, there is a lot of joy to be seen in youthful exuberance and the lack of being worried about time running out or to not feel the depth of each decision with the heaviness that comes with age. As you get older, each decision becomes more critical, simply because there is less time in front of you to correct a wrong mistake, there is less time for folly.

Age brings with it the reality that there is less time for a do-over. When you are young, you feel as if time is on your side and time allows for far and wide concessions. On the other hand, with age comes the freedom of being more confident about your decisions. Life brings experience and a sense of direction that is often craved in youth, but not always within grasp. Age brings a sense of security that can make you like the skin you're living in and help you to appreciate the fact that you weren't born as royalty with all the trappings of a castle. The grand things of youth seem to dim as your inner-sight is increased by experience; things that had been of little importance begin to have magnified meaning. Things such as communication.

Back then, in 1986, as I flew without a companion on an American Airlines DC-10 jetliner to another country, I was still such a kid. Even with the struggles I'd known so far, I wholeheartedly believed in focusing on the beauty and joy in life. In every dirty situation, I searched for the unsullied spot.

A world away, in a quaint European village, I shared a little place on earth with the one person I knew in the midst of strangers. I volunteered for this mysterious life experience. It wasn't what I thought I would ever do in my whole 18 years of life, but I didn't shirk from my commitment to my marriage...a marriage that had started only 28 days after I legally became an adult. The unknown, the intimidating, the unfamiliar, it didn't scare me away...I simply worked harder to understand my new surroundings and to make new friends.

This experience taught me, at a very young age, that saying goodbye to one life and hello to another isn't always easy, but it is possible and can be enjoyable, depending on your outlook. In those days, adapting without the presence of my family and friends had not been easy, especially since there weren't any cell phones and there weren't computers in every household; I think government entities were the only ones really using computers, besides, using a computer meant you better know how to type in code

While living in Germany, calling home from a phone that clicked away with a timer equaled about $6.50 per minute. A five minute conversation cost over $30.00. That was probably a day's pay for us.

I don't know if today's kids can comprehend this level of separation. Today, even if a person isn't directly communicating, they still have the ability to be kept in the loop with one glance at Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or whatever is available for a life-peek.

In those days, as I sat in a weird looking apartment, in a town I could barely spell properly, I had the choice of one radio station on the AM frequency for American news and a bit of scratchy music, this station was the "Armed Forces Network." We also had one "American" television station ran by the same. Otherwise, it was all German and might as well have been Greek.

I remember, the highlights of my television day included Sesame Street, Larry King, and eventually, Married with Children which caused a mini-riot on the military base. Since all forms of communication were still minimalistic, that left few options and little contact with the outside world.

So, from Germany, if I wanted to spend quality time with my loved one, I wrote letters. I even kept what I called a "running letter" which is several pages of notebook paper kept handy, and over a period of days, I would sit and write accounts of our meager happenings in detail. By the time of mailing, I had written just enough to push the limits of normal postage costs for one letter.

Each week, I would make a trip by myself to the post office and stand in line to post my letters. Well, we checked our APO box every day, but it was mainly my job to stand in line to mail letters. After all, I was pretty much the only one doing the communicating with folks back home.

And as I remember all the letters I'd write weekly, I would think of all the people in my life who I wanted to remain connected to through the years I'd be so far away and through the long distance that threatened to create a gaping hole between us. And I had to write separate letters for each person in our lives, these were the glory days of communicating, the days when there were no mass e-mailings to de-personalize your message.

Writing letters gave me hope. It's strange now to realize that our words to each other did not travel through cyberspace, our words literally traveled through different countries, by land, by air, and would arrive in our mail boxes intact. The words themselves took the journey we could not.

Words on paper would bring me love and cheer in the distance between us that equalled thousands of miles. The words of our hundreds of letters didn't care that we were oceans apart or on different continents, the letters made their mindless travels so that they could reach us and spring to life.

I remember getting a letter at the post office box and to never, ever be willing to open it while in public. I had to go home and sit down, prepare myself for what could be inside that envelope. I clung to every letter I received. I carefully read each word, then re-read them again, just as carefully as the first ten times. Anything sent with the letter, such as a newspaper clipping was extremely appreciated.

The best part was to look at the cursive writing of my mother and to pay attention to whether or not her writing was extra large, which meant she was in a hurry to send the letter or to be thrilled to get the pages that had smaller print, which meant she took her time and would share more details that I craved to receive. Of course, my mom was still raising two kids. Her job as a busy mom was far from over.

I understood this more than ever because while in Germany, I became a mom myself.


Upon my decision to fly around the world and set up house in a place that had given birth to and embraced Nazism only a few decades previously, I left behind a 14 year old brother and an 11 year old sister. Leaving home was actually easy, except for the part about leaving my siblings. We were all so close. My brother went into a tail-spin after I left with a severe rebellion that I had always felt guilty about causing. The two of us had always supported each other through difficult times, and I felt like I had left him behind to deal with a bunch of crap on his own. Essentially, I did.

I tried to write him and to reach out, but he had such a difficult time. I know he was angry and hurt that I left. My sister seemed to be numb. She'd write me the most precious letters that you could ever receive from an 11 year old sister. I'd always taken such a direct role in caring for my sister, especially because our mother was physically handicapped from Polio, but she no longer needed eagle-eye supervision or diaper changing and she didn't even need as much help with meal preparations.

Regardless, I wanted to know everything that was happening back home. It would take at least 7-12 days to receive a letter at our APO address in Germany and it would take just as long for one of my letters mailed from the base post office to reach Texas. I always mourned the fact that by the time the letter had been received, it was kind of old news. By the time my mom would receive a letter about any of my hardships or heartaches, I knew that it would likely be over. Still, I shared.

Over the first few months in my first home-away-from-home in this foreign land of harsh sounding people and a harsher, freezing environment, I realized that my mother had not been paying close attention to my letters because I had been writing specific questions in my letters to her; she would write me, but not ever answer any of my questions. It bothered me greatly. If we couldn't have a direct conversation, we could attempt to communicate, but this meant that our writing had to be taken to a higher level. I didn't want just plain letter writing, I wanted interactive letter writing.

After reading a letter from my mother, I would sit at the table and write her a letter with her letter next to me for reference, making sure I answered her every question. Finally, I wrote to her and told her how important it was to me that she answer the questions in my letters to her because I write them in the hopes of getting a response. From then onward, my mother did her best to answer my questions and I promised to do the same for her.

It was important to me, so she made it a priority. It went beyond letter etiquette, it proved that our relationship was solid enough to bring value to our scribblings.

So, early on, I learned to write with a focus that was sharp and thoughtful. Maybe that is one of the reasons I love to write and to read. Maybe it's one of the reason I greatly admire people who can convey their feelings and their stories in writing.

These days, it seems that people again are too self-consumed to answer the questions. At least I lived in a time when the questions and answers merited attention.

My age has brought with it an appreciation of what it means to have a pen and paper in hand. I have a strong knowledge in knowing the meaning of being separated from your family...I saw them once in three years. I learned to appreciate and love my family more than ever; I longed to never again have such distance between my mother and me because I happened to love my mom. The older I got, the more we wanted to be together. We became great friends. And all those years of writing to each other taught us more about one another.

These days, I guess so much of my communicating will involving typing and hitting "send." My efforts to communicate with family will involved my fingertips flying across the keyboard instead of my entire body flying to another continent. It sure is easier to contact everyone nowadays, but is the quality of our communication any better?

I'm worried that today is too rushed, too brief, too detached, too shallow, and too convenient. Perhaps a little less convenience would bring back a bit more appreciation and more effort to get to know the ones you love, to stay in contact with them, and less convenience might prod us to ask others more meaningful questions.

At least I have a few boxes of old letters. I tell electronic folder full of emails just isn't the same as having a box of letters from family and friends, with their penmanship marking each least I'm just another step closer to having of piece of them with me always.


Patrice said...

My sister married someone in the Navy and they were stationed in Italy. She was about the same age you were. It was hard. It was interesting to read what it was like for you. My sister didn't say that it was that hard for her, but I bet it was.She was always the one to "keep a stiff upper lip". I think it would be so much easier now with things like Skype.

Like you, I still prefer a letter to hold. I like technology- to a point. There is so much warmth when I think of old fashioned things like letter writing.

Good post! said...

Patrice - it's taken me over 20 years to talk about these things. I guess saying goodbye to the first home I ever had on my own, separate from my parents, had been extremely hard. In those days, when you said goodbye, there was not an expectation to be able to hop back over to Europe for another visit. Goodbye meant goodbye. Besides, our "family" in Germany, our landlords who lived in the apartment over us...I had to go to the hospital to say goodbye to Peter and he died about a month after we both left Germany. Black lung did him in; he'd worked in the coal mines for so long. He sure did bring joy into my life and comfort for my parents to know that we had people there we loved.


Mary Ann said...

My husband was stationed in Germany a little earlier, but he communicated the same way... it WAS a different world then. Thanks for reminding us in such a personal way... and the pictures were great.