Peeking out of the glossy catalogs and bills, the blue and red airmail border is like a cheery flag unfurling in the breeze announcing, “Land ahead.” It’s a letter from my British mum-in-law, and as my heart lifts I’m startled to realize how much I’ve missed the blue tissue airmail packets. I enjoyed reading Jean’s letters every few weeks since I started dating my husband, Richard, in 1989, but the letters stopped abruptly when Richard’s dad died ten years ago. On Jean’s side, grief over Bill’s death and, I imagine, depression made her lose the will to write. For Richard’s part, he realized a weekly phone call would be at least one voice Jean could rely on hearing in the suddenly silent house.
Now envelopes from Jean hold either crisp $20 bills for birthdays or Christmas or newspaper clippings. Still, there is usually a page or two of Jean’s loopy script. I slit the envelope, stuffing the cash in my pocket and skim the page, smiling at the common thread of all her letters, past and present: an update on the weather. “It will be midsummer day in four weeks time,” Jean writes, “I’ve only had a summer blouse on twice so far. Hope it warms up a bit.” Every letter, however truncated, contains descriptions of the fickle Norfolk weather. My husband is a climate scientist, and we once joked that he could easily plot climatic changes in Eastern England simply by using Jean’s mail.
“We’re having lots of weather here,” Jean sometimes wrote, and to my American ears I always heard it as “we’re having life.” And that’s what letters from my mum-in-law were like. They said to me, “We’re having life, the day to day of it, the small and large of it. And that’s enough.” It’s one reason why I liked them and one reason why they always left me slightly dissatisfied, waiting for the next letter. “But this can’t be enough,” I’d think.
Recently, I found a rubber-banded stack of Jean’s letters stuck at the back of a drawer, and I pulled some out to read. “Dad and I went to Southwold. We had what I call a super “ambly” day,” Jean wrote. “We ambled here, and we ambled there!…Then on the way home we stopped at Beccles. Had a wander round. The pubs were open all day and so we sat outside one. Dad had half a bitter, and I had a lager and lime.” As Old Age Pensioners—British for Retirees—Jean and Bill’s keenest pleasure was to go on long walks in the East Anglian countryside, followed by a pub lunch.
In addition to chronicling their latest walks and lunches, the letters told us of the inevitable evens that kept them from walks and lunches. From Bill’s gout to Grandma’s death, family health was the next big topic—“Chris is having problems with her right elbow,” or “Dad’s gout is now gone and we’re hoping that it doesn’t return.” Then we would hear about Richard’s brother and his wife in London and the antics of their children: “Joshua began full time school on Wednesday. He went off in the morning, a little bit nervous, clutching his shoe bag. Ruth fetched him home for lunch, and he thought he wouldn’t bother to go back in the afternoon.” Then, sometimes, the letter broadened out to include what I thought of as local news: from the doings of the old bloke who lives next door who insisted on painting his house even though he was almost totally blind (“He doesn’t know where he’s left off so the house is looking a bit like a patchwork. Poor fellow.”), to local events, often with a clipping enclosed – “We had another tragedy in Norwich last night, as the Assembly House went up in flames.” – and rueful comments on national politics. “What about the Euro elections? Quite a shock for the conservatives, isn’t it.”
Jean’s letters were, in fact, like newspapers – news from a small family hamlet. As with the newspapers, I had put them aside, never to be read again, but as our family’s archivist, I obviously couldn’t bring myself to throw them all away. Then, too, with the advent of email, which ramped up after Richard and I got married, Jean’s became the only letters that we would reliably get. As with reading the newspaper, reading my mum-in-law’s letters had a ritual of its own. As Richard cooked dinner we sipped our dark American tea and I read the letters out loud. I’m a natural mimic so I could get down his mother’s accent, especially the coda of every letter, “and we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves,” but what I still, to this day, can’t do is pronounce the names of the little towns and villages where Jean and Bill took their Sunday walks. Richard piped up to remind me that Costessy is pronounced, “Cossy,” Wymondham is pronounced, “Wyndham, and Stiffkey is pronounced, inscrutably, “Stookey.” I love these and other names that dotted Jean’s letters and the East Anglian bulge on the British map. Now that I have visited Norwich many times, some of the towns come into full bloom in my memory—I can picture the flint houses of Sheringham with their robins-egg-blue doors or see the muddy beach at Brancaster where we watched mussel farmers shovel the black heaps of mussels from one muddy trough to another. However, in the years of the letters’ consistent arrival, most towns were unimaginable pinpoints on a map or towns pictured in lurid color on the yearly Norwich bank calendars Jean sent to Richard each Christmas. I knew that future visits would bring these towns, too, into bloom so the letters were an enticing preview for me. For Richard they seemed to work in reverse, becoming a review of his childhood stomping grounds. When Jean wrote of a pub lunch in Leatheringsett, he reminisced of his “water mill” phase when, as a ten ten year old, his parents took him to every town that boasted an old fashioned mill. I was charmed by these infrequent glimpses into my husband’s childhood, but I also encouraged reminiscence as a kind of healthy homesickness. I feel partly responsible for his making his home here and I don’t want him to lose the connection with where he came from; with Jean now 80 and the only living tie he has to Norwich, the number of visits left are few.
More than East Anglian travelogue or spur to buried memories, Jean’s letters invited a more elegant means of interacting than the usual awkward mother-in-law dialogue. I would add my postscript to Richard’s letter—a postscript that became a letter in itself and an opportunity to present a picture Jean would want to see. I am desperate for my mother-in-law to like me. The relationship between my own mother and her mother-in-law was fraught with tension. I can still see my mother sitting tautly at the kitchen table while my father spoke to his mother, Bessie, on the phone. My mother’s head was cocked with a hunter’s alertness for any hint of a slight, her lips pursed and hands almost involuntarily curled into a fist. So when I wrote to Jean, I tried to ward off injury or insult by presenting my jaunty rambunctious side, not the often worried or melancholic woman I am at home. I saved that for my own mother in teary phone calls. The British dictum of “mustn’t grumble, mustn’t complain,” is anathema to my New York, Jewish complaining self. When Jean would see me, after a year of confronting my perky paper persona, I think she was surprised—and perhaps dismayed—to see my real self, just as given to sudden tears and sullen silences as to enthusiasm. And now that I have so few opportunities to write I find myself channeling my mother while Richard makes or receives the ritual Saturday morning call. I hover nearby while he swats at me as if I was an annoying bug. But sometimes I pick up the phone first, and just as I added my version to Richard’s matter-of-fact letters, I try to curry favor now by gushing enthusiastically about our lives—even when its realities, like a flare up of my chronic illness or one child’s difficulties in school, are putting us through the wringer.
Jean was never compelled to pop a more pleasing self in the mail to us. Her letters were entirely without artifice, presenting a strong-willed no-nonsense woman who worries about her children and grandchildren and who scoffs at whining and over-indulgence. When I met Jean in her letters, I found it easier to laugh off the jibes at our seemingly extravagant lifestyle or her occasional self-righteous rant—“When we were bringing you children up we simply couldn’t afford to go out nights. Being a parent meant sacrifice.” In person I’d not only bristle at such comments but also at what was always left unsaid—never an acknowledgement of my husband’s strides in science or my own writing triumphs. Perhaps because of the face-saving distance, Jean was more likely to put her feelings about her son into a letter than she would express to his face. Upon hearing of Richard’s promotion she wrote, “Oh dear oh dear, I’m just bursting with pride at the thought of my two sons, one a world famous scientist and the other a deputy headmaster.” This, from a woman who won’t compliment her son’s excellent cooking for fear that he’ll get a “swelled head.” One letter in a hundred contained an emotional exclamation like this, buried in a thicket of details about the weather and the laying of new kitchen tiles. And this may be why I so eagerly awaited each letter and came away a little disappointed; I wanted Jean to give some verbal sign of approval of me, her son’s wife and the mother of her American grandchildren.
The pat on the back or bald sign of approval never came, but five years ago when I went through a difficult surgery, Jean came to take care of me and help Richard care for the children for three whole weeks. I knew how much Jean hated the long transatlantic flight, especially now without Bill by her side, and that she disliked being uprooted from the routines that anchored her widowed life: gardening, “keep fit” classes, Thursday lunches with retired teacher friends and Sunday walks with her sister. Still, she came over and immediately slipped into our routines, emptying the dishwasher, entertaining the children, running errands. Her “thereness” for us in our time of need made me touched and grateful, and I said as much in a recent card for her 80th birthday, brought to England by Richard, who surprised her with his presence. A tiny card with a chickadee on the front came back in the mail about a week after Richard’s return from the birthday celebration. In it, she thanked me for what I’d written on my card. “It’s nice to be appreciated,” she wrote, but then, she went on in her characteristic vein, “but I was only doing what any mother would do and thoroughly enjoyed doing it.”
“Ha, ha, not so,” I thought. To be of use and to sacrifice her own needs are things that come as naturally to Jean as bubbly declarations of love come to my own mother. Jean would do anything for her sons’ families whether or not she “thoroughly enjoyed” it, and she would often let slip when she didn’t, as when, during the years of our transatlantic correspondence, she wrote, “I find it so very difficult to write every week or even every fortnight because so little happens and I just can’t think of things to write about, quite apart from the fact that I just hate [underlined three times] writing letters.” She told us many times that she hates writing letters, even to us, and this admission used to offend me. As I writer, I couldn’t imagine a letter being such a chore. Yet I think (or hope) I have finally come to realize that unspoken longing and love are what compelled her to put pen to paper again and again. Before Bill died, telephone calls came at holidays and special occasions only—the way the letters do now. Yet, during every visit it became clear just how much the puckered, tissue-thin letters, full of cordiality and concern, could carry us through the awkwardness that accumulated after years of separation between parents and son and his marriage to a woman they barely knew.
“We are going to Sandringham, out for a walk. My idea of heaven. Much love to you both, Mum and Dad.”