Postmarked 21 December 1956, this letter was laid on Mertyl Johnson’s grave the day of her funeral, 8 January 1957.
I can hardly imagine you lying on your deathbed. 81 years of good things at your back, however many months of catatonic stupor to enjoy. That’s God saying, “Thank you, Mertyl.”
Dad wouldn’t ever say anything, even if he knew. When he came back from France, the old man looked even older—as though his skin had swallowed up the war. No injuries, but I wonder if one or two might have done him good. He’s no hero, but he thinks the wrinkles in his eyes and a concrete stare give him the strength to be one. If ever my father were a man, he ran away before I could count to 10.
I don’t have much more than you, Mammy. Strange to think a 16-year-old kid is as desperate as his dying grandmother. I don’t think I deserve to feel this way, to walk by myself at night fearing my shadow, even in darkness. But when did life care what anyone deserves? You deserve to live to 120—smiling up at your grandchildren, making pumpkin bread, playing Bingo. It never took much to make you smile.
Mom tells me the smile is gone now. There are only the shadows there, the memories of a glisten in your eye. A few of us have come to visit, but nothing stirs you. You just lie there, limp, done with life before life is done with you. And the day darkens as your heart beats slowly, slower. As it gives up.
I went through my closet after class today, Mammy. Sometimes, I hold on to things that mean something to me—that mark a time in my life worth remembering. There’s half a smashed Coke bottle from when I got angry with Dad and ran away from home for three days. I felt like I was living The Grapes of Wrath every time a dust storm slashed me in the face. I felt so guilty I tried to starve myself. Then there’s dog-eared copy of Huck Finn. I remember climbing the tallest oak in the park two blocks from the house and reading that book again and again and again. Until I had it memorized and rain started to wet the pages… or the sun set behind the rooftops. Or both.
There are no happy memories stored away, Grandma. I know it’s only been 16 years, but shouldn’t I have something to hold on to? I remember your cold face staring up with wide eyes at the ceiling of your bedroom. Have you realized that 81 years hasn’t given you very much, that all has really been for not much at all? I think of the knick-knacks that lined your shelves at home. I spent hours looking through when we came to visit for Christmas. None of them meant anything to me, but I used my imagination. I made up stories for each of them. The little toy soldier reminded you of Grandpa in the war, sharp and tall in his crisp, pale green uniform; the black-and-white pictures with gold frames showcased long-lost cousins you played with as a child; the chipped glasses were the same you and your brother drank from in the old house growing up in Kansas.
But maybe they mean things very much worse than what I imagined. Most people would look at my bottle and think a boy was cherishing the first Coke he ever had with his childhood friends. And the book—food for the imagination and escape to a world where anything is possible. But that’s not how it was. And I’m afraid to believe that all you saw in that soldier was resentment for Grandpa leaving; that the picture blurred the pain of cousins who cast you out for marrying a nobody; that the glasses recalled a brother who loved once, and someone who forgot his sister ever was. Sometimes we hold on to all we have; even bad memories are something to hold on to. Aren’t they?
How strange to think 81 and 16 years could hold so much in common. I hope you’re lying there in peace, Mammy. But I don’t think you are. Anymore that when I go through the motions of playing with friends, I am truly happy with life. The only difference is that I am still going through the motions.
When you can finally let go of all that pain, can I come with you? We never really talked, but you always gave me the best slice of homemade pumpkin bread, the widest smile, the softest “I love you” of any grand kid. I think I know you better—I think I love you better—than Mom and Dad. Than God, if he’s even out there. That’s the truth.
81 and 16 don’t have to be so different. I’m ready to leave my Coke bottle, my book, my friends behind. When you go, I’ll go, too. I love you, Mammy. Let’s be happy together, ok? Whatever that means. I think you probably know better than I do after 81 long years of life.
I’ll see you soon, Mammy. Save me a slice of pumpkin bread.