Burning My Grandfather’s Love Letters

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

It’s been twenty-eight days and about six hours since my agent sent my manuscript back to the publisher and sent me a reminder: she’s looking forward to reading it as soon as possible, it’s a busy time, hold on. Even though she reminds me, it’s hard for me not to get antsy, because I really, really want her to want this book.

I was sentimentally hopeful that I might get The Call this week while I was in West Virginia, where the story is set. It would be fitting, I thought, because I plan to dedicate the novel to my grandmother, who was born there and who lived most of her ninety-five years there, and who—on Saturday—was buried there next to my grandfather, who preceded her in death by almost half her life.

The night before the burial, my mother showed me something. In addition to my grandmother’s ashes, my mother had brought along a small, flat box wrapped in floral paper.

“What’s that?”

“It’s your granddaddy Mike’s love letters to Mimi,” she said. “She told me once that she didn’t want anyone else ever to read them.”

After my grandmother died and my mother was undertaking the emotional task of sorting through her things, she found the letters. She took them and put them in an aluminum pan, then set it on the driveway and burned them all.

“This way,” she said, “When we bury her, the letters will stay where they belong, between them.”

 

I write fiction because something wonderful happens when my fingers touch a keyboard. There’s a sense of peace, of order. My mind is soothed by confluence of reality and imagination, of mollifying or exacerbating created people’s inner turmoils, of choosing from infinite permutations of word combinations to evoke emotion, to answer questions, to question answers. On the written page, I am better able to make sense of the world. But I also am compelled by the urge to share the product of my labors with other people. I write because I want to write, yes, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also write because I want to be read and to be seen and to be validated not just as a writer but as a human being.

We arrived in West Virginia, and as the hours and days passed and there was no phone call, I started to wonder, what if the publisher doesn’t want my manuscript? How will it affect the way I feel about my work and myself?

I remembered a passage from one of my favorite books, Fahrenheit 451, by the late Ray Bradbury:

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.

It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.

 

When the time came, we buried my grandmother’s ashes along with the ashes of my grandfather’s love letters. As we stood there remembering her, I thought about my grandparents’ love story, how they met young and loved each other with total devotion for all the years they shared. My grandfather died too early, and my grandmother missed him for the rest of her life. I wondered how often she read those letters he’d written, and what comfort she must have gotten from them.

Then I realized, that even though none of us will ever know the words that passed between them, we know the love that did. And it doesn’t matter that we don’t have the letters to read and remember; they were intended for an audience of only one, and even burned and buried, they endure because they touched her.

Perhaps that’s how I need to think of my own writing. The size of the audience isn’t the measure of success, the evidence of validation. Even writing for just one favorite person can be enough. So no matter when I get the call, or what the decision will be, I’ll keep writing—for myself and for that person whose life may be touched by what I have to say.

Rest in peace, Mimi, and thank you for all the lessons you continue to teach me, even now.

Together again, at last.