Letters from Gale
At 92 he had the right to say goodnight and take leave of this turbulent world. Those final weeks had stolen so much, I didn’t even recognize him when I went to say goodbye. He couldn’t even acknowledge my presence. Stepfather to my uncle; “Gramps,” to my cousins; I called him Gale because I saw him as a friend. In print, he addressed me sometimes as “Little One,” “Dear Migrant Poet,” and once, because he tired of “the same old salutation,” he called me “Annie, Baby.” That makes me laugh, because his beautiful wife had teased him that he was writing to his girlfriend.
Most of our relationship had been through letters, though our correspondence had dwindled to the yearly Christmas card. Declining health and a broken heart in the years after his wife’s passing had left him struggling to keep in touch. I felt guilty for not writing more often, even knowing I wouldn’t get a reply. He said he just had to take a little time, accepting that
“Slowly, ever slowly, my life is returning to some semblance of normalcy.”
His new normal, all alone, was not a life he wanted but he lived it fully, for as long as he could.
Gale appeared throughout my childhood at family gatherings such as holidays and graduations, sharing his wit and artistic talents, but I didn’t really know him until that first letter in the late 90s. Away at college, I suffered a little homesickness and confusion about my life goals. My mystified advisor saw me switch my major from Biology to English as I dropped my dream of becoming a veterinarian. My struggles to stay afloat in science classes baffled me. Being a good student just wasn’t enough to claim the poster promise that I could do anything I wanted to in life. The only path to carry me was words: stories, essays, and poetry. Words had dared me to dream in the first place. When Gale wrote to me, I saw a new hope.
“I was sitting here reading a little poetry . . . and thought of you, a lonely English major . . . and I decided to write. We sensitive people . . . must stick together.”
Perhaps he missed the role of teacher, desiring to mentor and encourage me to go into that “noble profession,” but when the letters started coming, I was enchanted to reply.
I supposed he imagined quiet little me daydreaming, my days lost in verse. That Anne-of-Green-Gables romantic view of the world. Well, I hovered there, sometimes content to sit for hours and draw while my mind wandered. For Gale and I to know each other in letters, I could be that girl. The starving artist huddled in a cramped room, no heat, pages and pages lying at her feet. No food but words.
Gale drew back the curtain on windows of his life sometimes, mentioning his teaching career but mostly focusing on his current pursuits of gardening, reading, and caring for his dog, Buddy Boy. He didn’t let me glimpse his Navy service during WWII, his split family, or any other trials of his past. I knew the best of him—a faithful volunteer and avid reader who pursued truth and beauty in the news and literature. Perhaps he hid behind his letters, too.
Finding a letter or card from Gale in my mailbox buoyed my heart and kept the fairytale going. No one else I knew had such a unique friendship through the mail. We tried email, but he wrote of his relationship with the computer:
“I suppose in time I will expand my use of the “ever-loving” (sometimes I use less genteel language) machine, but I would have to give up something else that occupies my time. I don’t know what that would be right now.”
Even though his handwriting—so elegant and every way the ideal script for a letter—was a challenge for me to decipher, I much preferred the intimate connection it gave that computer fonts cannot capture. When I think of him I picture his words more than his face. That distinctive handwriting, like the fingerprints of his thoughts, was his voice in ink I could hear with my eyes.
Flipping through cards and letters from family and friends, I could recognize Gale's even before I saw his writing. He once referred to his eclectic letterhead by saying,
“What you are looking at is old stationery with the address covered by stickers provided by charitable organizations, to which I send money. Which proves what I have always supposed about myself: Not only am I cheap, I’m eccentric. I’d worry about such traits if they didn’t make me feel so good.”
I can’t help but smile every time I receive blank notecards in the mail from organizations such as he would support. In that way, the post keeps his memory alive.
I feel the loss of what we shared when I sort through the mail now, tossing most of it into the recycle bin. There exists a near demise of my letter writing. Text messages and email fill the space. I see Gale shaking his head, sad that I’ve reduced my communications to such pithy notes as I can instantly trigger on my smartphone. Yet packed away in my garage is a box of letters reminding me of bygone snail-mail. Those in crayon harbour memories from grade-school friends; many more are cards from my mom. Lots are from my paternal grandmother and my best friends. I’ve considered throwing some out to make space, to try to minimize the disorder of my past keeping company in my present, but I won’t discard them all. I hoard the paper and ink to remember who they were and who I was and that we mattered to each other.
Gale also wrote to my grandmother, which found him even dearer in my heart. I thanked him, but he told me not to, adding that
“one has to be terribly insensitive to not appreciate what she has been through in a very brief time: loss of life-long companion; loss of home . . . and loneliness as a bookmark for whatever time is left. . . . I hope that you, too, will write to her.”
Grandma had been my first pen pal. She wrote to me from my childhood through my college years. I had usually answered her letters as the obligatory thing to do, just as my mother had taught me to write thank-you notes. I never liked to talk to anyone on the phone, so writing letters was less painful. Just coming into adulthood I was starting to really appreciate the letters from Grandma. And when my grandpa died, I realized she needed to reach out to family all the more. Writing to her was no longer an obligation, but too late I saw how I could have had a real relationship with her.
Grandma died just after I returned from a year abroad, and with her gone the letters from Gale became all the more special. I was out of school, working and on my own and realizing I still needed guidance as I navigated the next stage of life. I was suddenly more able to appreciate what an older generation could teach me. In one of Gale’s letters, he tells me he should be writing more, working on his book, especially “considering Andrew Marvell’s admonition: ‘at my back I always hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near’ ” (“To His Coy Mistress”). The chariot that carried away my grandma, and then Gale, will come for me. The chariot waits for everyone.
Gale chose to write to me, though he didn’t have to. A letter from Gale was a knock on my door even when I studied thousands of miles away in France. He “visited” me in and out of country, through work and grad school, in the ups and downs of teaching teenagers. Unable to attend my wedding, he celebrated with me from afar. He penned his warmest congratulations when I had a baby. I cherished the face-to-face time we did have, but since it was rare, I relished his letters all the more.
Thinking about the current state of our world, I have an idea of what his letters would say to me were he still around to share his thoughts. Oh what he would write indeed! But these feelings and opinions I imagine him to advise me on are his and not mine to reveal. So I’ll smile, and sigh and think how much I’d love his counsel; yet, how glad I am that he doesn’t have to witness such upheaval. He would, of course, not sit idle if he could help it, and he would give and give and give because that is who he was.
Though he is gone, the poetry of his life still sends me daydreaming once-in-awhile. In my mind I see him sitting at a desk by the window, the light fading, a feather quill (because it must be) in hand, a yellowed page before him. With flourish and care his hand moves along, pausing to dip the quill in ink, forming passages from Keats to share with that lonely writer far away. A bon mot, a little lift to give her as she toils away in piles of books. When the letter is done, he signs it, folds it and seals it in wax (naturally), and stands up and puts on his hat. He must walk into town, down the dusty road, to mail the letter, where it will travel by coach, many days to reach the girl. And there he goes, fading into the distance, carrying the letter in his coat pocket.