Thursday, September 24, 2015

Time Travel: Letters from Steeleville

As a homesick middle schooler away at church camp for the first time, Grandma Steele's letters were a lifeline. She spoiled me with multiple letters during that one-week period. Each day after lunch, the camp director would call out the names of campers who had received mail that day. I received at least one every day. Her camp correspondence gave me a camp identity that I was proud of: recipient of high volume mail. It was an embarrassment of riches—the kind of embarrassment in middle school that can be endured, to be sure. 

I lived in the same town as my grandparents, so until this week away at camp, there would have been little reason for her to write me letters. Four years later, my family would move away and more letters would come my way.

I have a box devoted to our correspondence. Those letters from camp are missing and I am holding my breath that I will find them next time I visit my parents' home.

It is this grandma who passed down her love of words to me. Sitting down to read one of her letters was really like being in the same room with her. She wrote the way she spoke. This is a gift now that she is gone.

Another gift that time and perspective have given me is the ability to come to terms with the unusual family dynamics that emanated from this kindred woman. These dynamics were contradictory and confusing for me as a child. Being a daughter-in-law and being a grandchild at Steeleville produced two very different experiences. Twenty years of exploration and excellent counseling have taught me that two opposing perspectives can both contain truth. I was exposed to this lesson early in life and in recent years have come to understand its power. I have gushing experiences and memories of my grandma while others have less positive anecdotes. 

This is okay, as it turns out. Both of these things can exist together. I used to feel bad about it, but turning forty has changed that for me.

My experience with my grandma is my story, so it's the one I'm going to tell.

Of all the things I collected for my time capsule, the three letters my Grandma Steele sent me between my sophomore and junior years of college are the most poignant. They have the strongest time traveling power, too. Stowed away in those letters for me to rediscover again and again is my grandmother's love for me.

She sent money in nearly every letter she mailed. That's not why I love her letters, but one of the unique features of each letter is the fact that she would snip a short piece of masking tape and tape the currency to the inside of the letter or card. I'm not quite sure why she did it. Maybe she was afraid a gust of wind would be present when I opened the letter and the money would blow away. This was one of her quirks, and I love it. The money has long been spent, but those snips of masking tape are firmly in their place.

You don't have to have known her to get a sense of who she was as my grandmother in the letters below.

                                                                 “after a wild, rainy nite! Wednesday Morning
Hi Julie Dear!
A happy surprise in Steeleville's Mailbox. “Wuthering Heights” - Now here's the deal. YEARS ago, I saw that movie!! Sir Lawrence Olivier was the star, and (I think) Merle Oberon was the female lead. That show has “haunted” me for years- it was set in the bleak, moorish, cragy hills of Scotland, and for some reason, every once in a while, my mind has gone back to it. So, you can bet your boots, I'm already reading it. Emily Bronte goes into such detail, so it begins slow. But how delighted I am to have it here for my reading. Thank you. I'll really enjoy!
Can hardly believe it's time for you to be “packing out” for your third year at Graceland. Where did this summer go?...(flip flop) [her phrase for page turn]
What a blessing to be your Grammie at Steeleville
May God Bless

[postmarked May 23, 1995]
Hi Julie Dear!
Well, now, if I could speak French, we'd have a chat! ha. You're bilingual! How about that!
I know it was exciting in Canada, and opened up a whole new “world” for you to think about and enjoy remembering.
I am so delighted over the beautiful, inspiring, and “weepy” Grandma card you chose for me. I read and read it.
I called, but missed you at Graceland before you went on your trip. I knew you were busy, busy, but took a chance of reaching you. My love and prayers went every inch of the way with you.
You and Sarah are your “father's daughters” when it comes to flying!! So glad you both like to fly and are capable doing it “solo.” That means you'll always be able to get where you're going as you venture about.
I know it's good to be home...
We'll keep in touch via AT&T. Call anytime—and hang up, then I'll call you back in a few minutes so we can chat!
Again, Welcome Home! And I'm so proud of all the excellent work and activities you took part in at Graceland this year- and thanks for including me.
Always always what a joy and privilege to be your Grammie at Steeleville
May God Bless

[postmarked January 3, 1996]
She added musical notes next to her return address to signify the happy birthday song to me.
Letter accompanying a card:
Julie Dear,
If this can be the start of a year for you that will hold half of the love, the excitement, the imagination, the joy, and the love of our Dear Lord that YOU continue to give to me and others in your life, then You are in for a wonderful, wonderful year, my dear precious Granddaughter. It's such an honor to be YOUR Grammie at Steeleville
May God Bless

I re-read this letter and reflect on what she would think of how I've spent my 40th year celebrating. She would clap her hands together and gush about all the fun things I've done. We would sit on her green “devan” and talk endlessly about each one. The conversation would be punctuated by stories from her own life and I would drink in every word. Since she wouldn't have access to my blog, I'd print out all of my essays about my activities and she'd read them. She'd pause, point at a particular line or phrase and tell me that she liked how I wrote that or ask me to tell her more about it. Just another one of her ways of communicating her love for me—caring about my words, my craft.

This daydream—it's a balm.

In case it isn't clear already, I miss this woman. Desperately. The idea that I should have to live the rest of my life without her feels like a great injustice to me. She understood me—my quirks and eccentricities—in ways that few in my life have. She reveled in the things that made me different from everyone else and her revelry helped me feel good about myself. It shored me up. She showed her affection for me in hugs, kisses, pats on my arm, and soothing words. She also nurtured me through our shared laughter. Oh my word, did we laugh! Her absence does not get any easier with time, but these letters she sent bring her right back to me. 


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