I Didn’t Know My Father Until I Read His Love Letters to My Mother

If I had to count, I’d say my father spoke 20 paragraphs to me in his lifetime. Communication was not his strong suit. When I was 22, he died at the age of 59, which once seemed old. But now that I’m 54, I realize he died young, with so much left unsaid.

When he had a few drinks in him, he talked a little more and could be funny. But most of the time, Daddy kept his “trap shut” — one of his few expressions, usually aimed at my mother.

Gregarious and fun, she’s the one who always filled in the blanks that Daddy left. Now 88, she loved to dance and write when she was a teenager — qualities I was sure attracted my taciturn dad.

We knew Daddy loved us, but not by his words: He worked in a frozen food warehouse in Jersey City, N.J., at a job he probably hated (though he never talked about it) to feed his family with his working man’s paycheck — and with the lobster and steaks that would “fall off the back” of the delivery trucks.

Whenever I climbed into bed with my parents, he scratched my back. If I got a good report card, he’d peel a $20 bill off the roll he kept in his warehouse uniform pocket. The only time I saw his handwriting was when he signed those report cards.

Because we never had an adult conversation, I wondered, as I grew older, what made him tick. He was the youngest boy in a family of nine and was nicknamed Babe, which was stitched in yellow script on the bright blue bowling shirts I inherited from him. He didn’t read books but devoured three newspapers a day, though he never spoke of current events.

Then I discovered the valentines.

One recent afternoon my mother casually mentioned letters he’d written her when he was in the Marine Corps before they were married.

Love letters? She pulled a pillow case from her hope chest; inside was a tattered red cardboard box filled with 15 letters, three valentines and a crushed Whitman’s Sampler whose chocolates she’d polished off over 70 years ago.

They were the first valentines she’d ever received.

I took the yellowed letters and cards home and read through them carefully, as if attempting to crack the code to a long-ago encrypted military transmission. I was shocked by the verbose and expressive teenager I found.

Right in front of me was my parents’ courtship in black, white, red and pink. I ran my fingers over the satin hearts and luxuriated in my father’s long sentences and lovely handwriting, which I recognized from those signed report cards. But mostly I marveled at the dynamics of their relationship. This narrative contradicted everything I thought I knew.

The first letter, dated Feb. 8, 1947, is a one-page note typed on onionskin. Daddy complains about the bitter below-zero days outside his barracks in Scotia, N.Y. “I haven’t got anything to say except that I love you,” he writes.

A few weeks later, he brags about getting a new stripe and becoming a corporal, but swears my mother to secrecy, since he wants to surprise his friends back home. Then, near the end, he asks, “Do you love me?”

I’m not sure what my mother was saying in response, since he didn’t save her letters. But when I asked, she said she loved him, but loved her freedom more. She was only 16 and wasn’t ready to commit. He was a bit older, but a baby himself at 19.

Months go by and in November, he writes what “might be the last letter.” It’s a Saturday night and he’s obviously in emotional pain. “To tell you the truth I don’t think you want to write to me,” he tells her, and adds, “It’s just a good thing I found out now how you feel about me instead of going too far and still better yet that it’s before the prom … P.S.: I did have a swell time going out with you.”

Four days later he writes again and, in the meantime — finally! — my mother has written back. “Dear Irene,” he says, “I received your letter today and was shocked to hear from you. I figured it was a letter from my bill collector but when I opened it I knew better.” He apologizes for the desperate tone of the last missive, then tells her the Marine Corps Ball was a success. But “it would have been better if you were there.”

Three days before Christmas his tone has changed. My mother, a raven-haired Italian beauty before raven-haired Italian beauties were the rage, has given him a photo of herself.

“Hello, Baby,” he writes. “When I came in this morning I put your picture in my locker and as I open the door there you are looking right at me. The fellows saw your picture and asked who you were. They couldn’t get over you in that picture so I had to get a cop and chase them away. … You look so real at times I want to kiss you but I’d rather wait till I come home.” He thanks her for the present, a slim silver Dunhill lighter that she bought on time at a jewelry store. “Every time I light a cigarette, I always think of you.”

I know from old photos that my handsome dad took her to the prom in his dress uniform, but it seems that she was still holding back her affections. Weeks later, he says: “I’m pretty sure I know what those three words are that you have in your mind, suppose you tell me what they are.”

Some sort of fight followed, because by February, he’s asking her forgiveness. It’s snowing, a whole year has passed since that first letter, and he tells her about an old church burning down near Schenectady. “The fire was so great you could see it from miles away.” It’s the perfect metaphor for what’s happening to their courtship and he plays it for all it’s worth.

“Whatever I said to make you feel bad, please forgive me. I still love you. In fact I love you more now than I did before.” He signs off by asking desperately, “Do you love me? Why?”

It’s the “why?” that really killed me. My father, so strong and silent all the time, was this sensitive, insecure soul inside his Marine blues and later, that warehouse uniform. Now that I knew him better, I missed and grieved for him even more. I wanted him here to draw him out and laugh with. And cry with. I dried my eyes and read on.

In April, he’s counting the days — 135 — until he comes home for good. In May, he tells her about a car accident. “One of the guys is still unconscious and we don’t know if he’s going to pull through.”

The near death experience has rattled him. “You’re in my mind so much I can’t think of anything else. … I want you to believe me because I love you and you probably know that by now. … But I’m not sure whether you love me. The reason I say that is because of the last letter. I don’t have to repeat it because you’re the one who wrote the letter.”

God knows what my mother had written.

“What can I say?” she told me. “I surrendered.”

One final letter talks about how he’s coming home and how she needs to “get the tube ready.” I hesitated to ask what that meant, but it was all very innocent. He meant the lipstick tube, because they’re going to kiss so much. The letter is intricately folded into a tight rectangle and I can just picture my young father taking the time to fold it and fold it again and again, placing it in a small envelope and sending it off to the love of his life.

Written on the front are the words “I still love you” in all caps.

I still love you, too, I want to write back.

Helene Stapinski is a journalist and the author of “Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family and Forgiveness in Southern Italy.”

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