Last week, my grandma gave me a packet of photocopied letters that my grandpa, Gordon, had sent her in the Spring of 1944, seventy years ago. A few months after they met, at the local ice skating rink in ‘43, she moved to Napa to teach junior high school while Gordon stayed in Berkeley to work at Cal Research (now Chevron) and study for his chemistry PhD. They exchanged letters several times a week—discussing movies, roommates, the lab, teaching, the draft—and got married back in Berkeley that August.
My grandma, Barbara, kept all of Gordon’s love letters, fifteen over the course of three months, and though she doesn’t have the ones she sent him, it’s easy to see from Gordon’s responses that she was very melancholy about her situation—away from home, thrown into the classroom with little experience (as most of us are) at age twenty-two.
My grandpa’s tone is witty and coy, writing about a tennis match in which he’d been handily beaten, about needing to improve his ice dancing skills to be able to keep up with her, and keeping up a running joke about hoping she’s not letting life (hiking, reading, grading) interfere with her sewing him a promised pair of socks (“sox”). Throughout every letter he effusively writes how much he misses her and how he longs for Friday to come, when she’ll return for the weekend.Every so often, between the more quotidian remarks, a bit of knowing, sensitive advice leaps off the page—the sort of thing that reminds me that this 26-year-old card of a fellow is the same doting grandpa who’d helped raise me throughout my youth and teen years.
Here, he tells Barbara not to worry too much about the travails of the classroom…
… that, when seen at close proximity, many things assume a much exaggerated significance. That she’ll probably look back on this and laugh, so why not start laughing now? …
I remember once telling my grandpa he was whimsical, a word I’d just learned, and he balked, saying he considered himself a very serious man. Sure, he relished heavy, serious conversations about politics, science and news, but he would also endlessly play the board game Sorry! with my sister and me, melodramatically groaning when we sent his piece home and saying “twevel” instead of “twelve,” just for fun.
There it was, on the page — that bit of whimsy — that ability to take life as it comes, to laugh instead of fret, to be playful even when the war was on, and he was struggling to develop new chemical compounds while getting sprayed with nitric acid, and his sweetheart was far away.
I’m more like my grandmother — easily worried, over-thinking things, letting dread fester. So that bit of advice, that it just isn’t that important (whatever my mind may be conflating “it” to be… a new class to teach, a looming deadline, a spilled cocktail, an awkward exchange with a friend) .. those words rushed over me like cool water. I remembered his knowing blue eyes, his constant smile, his forearms under my ribs as he taught me to swim, and I felt buoyant, weightless, for just a moment.
Why not start laughing now?
He was talking to her; he was talking to me; he was talking to us.