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Thursday, February 28, 2013

postcards from the edge

It is my mother’s birthday today. She would’ve been seventy-years-old, I think, or maybe seventy-one.  The fact that I don’t know that for sure; that I don’t have any documents to actually check, is just one of the things that makes me sad and contemplative on a day like today.

What I do have of hers, which is much more meaningful, is her small box of letters. Years ago, five to be exact, a few months after she died, I finally opened the box.  She had told me over the years what these letters meant to her, and I remember walking with her, on a sunny lunchtime break, on the sidewalk outside of her downtown office, as she told me about never having read the letters again, after that fall of ‘63.

Fifty years ago.  Wow, that was fifty years ago, and I am sitting here now, with letters and postcards spread out all over my desk. Fifty-year-old envelopes, papers and words. Two people’s hopes and plans; all innocent, flirty and naïve. I’m trying to sort the letters out, the chronology of them, to figure out the story here.  Where is the first one…and where is the last one? Were they able to see each other during this time? What were their plans? And, when did he actually die? 

He did die, this first love of my mother’s. That’s how this story ends. But first…

She was living with her parents, two sisters and her brother in Cologne, Germany. The effects of the war were still visible and ‘feel-able’, but this generation of twenty-somethings was taking control of the sixties with an energy and excitement that was different; where the fifties had been mostly about recovery.

My mother was twenty as she met and fell in love with this young soldier. She had been visiting her brother over the Christmas holidays in Speyer. It must have ‘funked’ quickly (as they say in German) because the first postcard from him came on January 5th, 1963.

For months he was stationed in Calw, in the Blackforest during his then-mandatory, two year army training. During these months they wrote to each other every three to five days. I imagine them, anticipating each letter, excitedly opening  mailboxes, finding a quiet place to read, eagerly opening the envelope and then, as soon as possible writing back. Back and forth they wrote, getting to know each other and trying to make plans to see each other again. Whimsical cartooned postcards he sent, or photos of the place he was training in; Biarritz, Calw or Schongau, while her letters were always written on the same narrow, cream-coloured stationary.

By June they seem to be pretty much in love.  Flirty, kissy letters, with drawings of arrows through hearts, and heady, hopeful talk of future visits.

He wrote that on the 3rd of August he would come and visit her on his holiday leave.  But, his holidays were denied…she wrote of her disappointment, saying that her brother told her that “as a soldier you can’t count on receiving holidays until you have the leave statement in your hand”.  So, instead she spent her summer days-off swimming and sunning herself by the Rhein (sounds like my summer last year). In another letter the Twist comes on the radio as she’s writing, “und wie wär’s?” (how about it?), she asks him playfully.

On August 24 (which ten years later would become my birthday) she closes her letter with “denk an Speyer”. It seems they were planning on seeing each other in a couple of weeks when she would visit her brother again. Then comes a letter from him on September 24th, pleading that she understands why he had to leave Speyer on that Saturday. Did they see each other? I want to know.

I wish I could ask her. How much would I love to sit across from her at the kitchen table asking her questions about this first love of hers. She never wanted to talk about it when she was alive. She said she was keeping the letters, possibly to look at them again someday or maybe just to throw away. This relationship was a dream, something she never completely let go of. But does anyone really ever let go of their first love, or any loves? Do we need to? Or, like having more than one child does love just grow the more people you love? Past loves don’t take away love from future love, do they? I’m going to say no.

Soldier boy then writes that on the 23rd and 24th of September, he had to parachute freefall from 800m pulling his chute after 3 seconds so it opened at 600 m. Tomorrow it will be 5 seconds – he’s nervous, but hopes it all goes well.

Letter: October 2, 1963, “today, on Tuesday we had to do 3 jumps again, but not like the others (opening our chute after 3 seconds). Today we had to wait for 7 seconds.  You can believe me, the 7 seconds falling through the air, seems longer than an entire day. Tomorrow I have to do 2 more jumps with 7 seconds and then the third one from 1000m pulling the chute at 10 seconds.  You can’t imagine what it’s like jumping out of a plane at 1000 m and waiting 10 seconds until you’re finally allowed to pull the chute. The hardest part is holding your body during the freefall. If you don’t hold it the way you’re trained then you won’t fall calmly through the air. This can be quite dangerous because you can get twisted in your own chute. But, up till now ‘alles hat gut geklappt’ (has worked really well).”

Then he writes, “Wenn es so weiter geht, schaffe ich auch diese Hürde und gehe am 24.10.63 mit bestandenem Lehrgang nach Hause“ (If everything continues the way it’s been going then I will manage this hurdle, and with training finished, will go home on October 24th).  I think he dies the next day.

In this last letter, he mentions how she ended her latest letter, „In love…“. This was the first time he had seen this word from her and he asks how much she means by it.  Then he ends his letter with the same words. I don’t have this last letter of hers. It’s not amongst the others. He had written that he’s lost a lot of weight, is nervous and can’t relax or sleep well. I can’t help but think that he had the letter with him when he jumped. The other letters, the ones I have now, were sent to my mother one week later, by his training unit.

Holding these letters, reading the private thoughts of two people who are no longer alive, feels strange to me. My mother lived an entire, full life after this; moving to Canada with, I would argue, her great love, having two children and doing some pretty interesting things. Maybe she held on to these letters because it had been such a perfect time; it was a perfect memory not destroyed by herself or soldier boy. The love ended before it could fall apart. It was pure and uncomplicated and unspoiled. Or is that just the cynic in me?

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