Love letters

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“Grace got run over. We’re really sad. It’s different than when you have to let a runt pig die, Grandpa. We loved her and she was part of the family.”

These were the words I wrote to my Grandpa Pete about our beloved Dalmatian.

I scribbled his address on the envelope and walked it to the mailbox myself. I knew my mom probably already told him over the phone, but I wanted to make sure I could tell him personally.

It was important. Grandpa Pete always told me he loved to read my writing — he even went as far as to say he thought I had some sort of ability that would form my future.

“Tell me what you’re up to, tell me what’s happening,” he’d say. “I love to see what you’re thinking and how you put it down on paper.”

So I did — my fan base of one would allegedly anxiously await my weekly installment about the fascinating life of a second grader. Like clockwork, I delivered and he’d reciprocate. Those letters were filled with love.

The idea that he took time to drop me a line was amazing. This hard-working hog farmer in the hills southeast of Elgin had a lot to do — how was it he had time to write?

But he did. And so did I.

“What do you dream of being when you grow up?” he’d ask.

I was too young to have dreams, I told him. I was just a kid, among a thousand Catholic cousins, taking care of siblings, helping the folks on the farm.

Nope, no dreams — except to grow up looking like Brooke Shields — so he promptly formed a goal for me.

“I think you are going to be a writer someday,” Grandpa Pete said.

“A writer that looks like Brooke Shields, if that’s what you want” — followed by a smiley face because he obviously knew the Brooke Shields part wasn’t going to happen.

Those letters were filled with love.

So I ran with Grandpa Pete’s dreams for me. He was sensitive in a way I’d never seen other men in my life — he seemed to know me. So because Grandpa Pete thought I should be a writer — I decided to pursue his prediction.

I took more time and care each time I composed our correspondence — I wanted to dazzle him, after all.

“The kids are making me insane,” I wrote about my siblings, using the word “insane” for the first time.

“I need some privacy,” I wrote, with the assistance of a dictionary as far as “privacy” went.

I was so pleased with myself, using new big words, as I stuck the letter in the mailbox. “He’s going to be blown away,” I thought, as the mailman drove off with my vocabulary bonanza.

My latest love letter had been delivered and I awaited his response.

A week came, another went by and there was no letter from Grandpa Pete. At first I was hurt, but then I felt confused as I heard hushed conversations between my parents late at night.

They used words beyond my increasing vocabulary, words like “cancer” and “sick” and “surgery.” I heard my mom cry in the bathroom before she told me to get my dad from the milk barn because she had to be with Grandpa Pete at the hospital.

I heard him tell Mom all would be fine “because Pete’s only 50-some years old and he’s tough.”

I got to work on a letter, telling Grandpa I didn’t know what was wrong but if he felt better, he should write. I missed my love letter.

A short time later, I got my beloved envelope. “I’m home now, Melanie, and everything will be fine,” he wrote.

“I’m sick and the doctors say I’ll have to take medicine for a while. It just makes me not feel good when I take it. Make sure you keep writing your letters — they always make me feel better.”

That’s all I needed to hear. If I could make Grandpa Pete feel better, I was going to pull out all the stops.

If one page was a love letter before, a three-pager would surely extend enough love to help him get through the new word I’d learned — “chemotherapy.”

The love letters continued.

They were pretty one-sided, but I wrote on. I told him about cleaning chickens, Dad getting beat up by our Holstein bull and that my sister, Maria, was now “house trained.”

I told him I was reading the “Little House on the Prairie” books — he did write back to tell me I’d be the next Laura Ingalls Wilder as he was always a master of unfounded flattery.

I told him about hating the chore of watering trees and he told me I’d appreciate the shade when I was older.

There were a lot of love letters.

When I eventually got to see him physically, it was hard to believe this was the person on the other side of our correspondence.

He could only lie on the couch, he looked thin and strange. I didn’t like it.

But when his letters arrived — the love was exactly the same, he was the same. As long as the love letters continued, he was the same strong, wonderful Grandpa Pete cheering me on.

Eventually, a time came when there were more hushed conversations and worried looks on my folks’ faces became consistent. And there was the day the parents made a panicked, rushed trip to the hospital.

“Can you write something for Grandpa Pete?” Mom asked me as she got ready to leave. “He really enjoys it.”

I don’t recall what I wrote, but I remember her crying as she read it, before putting it in her purse.

The love letters stopped, at least being two-way. I wrote letters to Grandpa Pete for a few months after he died — I’d keep them in a box by my bed instead of putting them in the mail.

After all, that postage would have been incredibly expensive, my mom would joke while trying to smile through the pain of losing her father.

Just because the love letters didn’t come back doesn’t mean they weren’t received. I liked to imagine Grandpa Pete enjoying what I wrote . . . and I still do.

I wonder what he’d think about my profession, if I’m even remotely fulfilling what he’d envisioned for me.

It was all about the words back then and I guess it still is today.

So Grandpa Pete, I’m an adult now, writing daily . . . unfortunately that whole Brooke Shields thing didn’t work out. But it’s still pretty cool that I get to do what you taught me to love. What I write now, well, it’s a little more complicated than our letters back in the day. Anyway, because of you, I realize that encouraging a kid can truly affect who he or she grows up to be . . . even through something as simple as a love letter.

 

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