“Now that is the wisdom of a man,
To hitch his wagon to a star, and see
His chore done by the gods themselves.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I was contemplating marriage to a woman who did not share my religion:
“You and me and your mother and everyone we know worries too much. Most all problems sort themselves out, for better or for worse, with time. We are subject to a coincidence, or an incident, or a chance encounter, or a misspoken word or phrase. We think we act according to our will, but as Hutchins said, living is doing one thing rather than another.”
“To marry is difficult; more so if you add unnecessary complications. But maybe we’re stirring the froth before we see what the water holds; maybe it’s not worth it to worry. I don’t know.”
When I was drafted into the US Navy, entering as a captain in the medical corps:
“Dear Captain Garriga: When you get to be my age you’ll understand that you get to decide very little about life. A secretary somewhere can pull a card out of a file drawer, and it turns out to be your card instead of someone else’s.”
“We want you to study more; to learn; to do research. It will be a long two years, but I trust in your good luck (remember your luck is always good when you accept your condition and make the best of it).”
On his job as a college professor:
“The worst part of the university is the hate that makes dialogue impossible. The liberals, maybe because they feel weak and persecuted, are even more intransigent than the conservatives. Everyone wants to cling to whatever power they have.”
“I had to type in a hurry; many mistakes; please excuse them. The other mistakes… sometimes they fix themselves.”
On advanced studies and religion:
Your sister and her boyfriend have cooled off. He hasn’t written for days. Your mother is too involved; she takes these things to heart. She has spoken to the priest; I don’t like him and I think that he tries to make my life miserable. She would have been happier with the former boyfriend, but he’s a nonbeliever and they talked her out of him.”
“It’s not good to be idle. We should all study more. I don’t understand why people want to buy so much; things they don’t need. If they would only meditate…”
On taking the time to travel and vacation:
“Take a few days; the money can always be found.”
On being newly married:
“In the beginning it’s all illusion; one wants to be above real life in a more ideal plane. Later on one thinks “If…,” but the truth is, you should never look back; only what’s to come.”
On my chosen career:
“Medicine offers a great future. Useful work; a life of service which is what we educated you for. We will be proud of you; we will closely follow your life and your career. Distance will not be a problem if we communicate and if there is love, which we have lots of.”
On my first daughter at age two:
“The girl is marvelous. Very nice; well balanced; very unusual for children these times. Very affectionate, particularly with me. She looks like you when you were young. She’s very smart (of course). She learns everything and does not miss anything. Has a great memory, which is very important. She always calls me Paco, which I love, even though her mother wants her to call me grandpa. She likes oranges and bananas; she asks for sweets but we don’t give her any. She never has any tantrums, and she talks with amazing clarity. I taught her how to add stamps to my albums (I have thirty). If you want to start a collection let me know.”
There is a lot more, but I had to stop here. With some concern I realized that I don’t remember reading any of these letters. Of course I received them forty years ago, but still, to have no clue about what they said? I saved them; I’m sure that I read them when I received them.
The matter of the stamp collection made me think. My dad was fanatical about his stamps. He had four complete copies of Spanish and UN stamps, which in his fantasies he would leave to us as his inheritance. None of us ever showed an interest in collecting.
Looking back I recall how many times he tried to talk to me about his stamps; how effectively I shut him out. He talked about their beauty; I nodded absentmindedly. He mentioned they’d be a good investment; I knew this was not the case. He told me my children would enjoy having a collection, to teach them about discipline and beauty. I ignored him.
I understand now that it was not about the stamps. He was trying to establish a connection beyond the genes that bound us together. He did the same when he tried to teach me to play bridge (which I stubbornly refused to do, to this day), or when he took me to museums and ancient buildings (I learned to love these when I was in college; a different man who had no emotional connection to me managed to show me the joy you can derive from a wonderful painting).
I never gave him a chance. He was a brilliant and stubborn man; I did not want to be swallowed by what I thought were his superpowers. I learned all of the lessons he tried to teach me on my own, after much stress and grief.
We all do this, to some extent. We have to be ourselves; we have to leave home; we have to struggle and suffer before we get what life is all about. We make the same mistakes with our children that our parents did; they have to learn the same lessons, on their own, all over again.
What I want you to do today: write to your parents. Always keep what they say when they write you back. Speech won’t do: the wind carries their words away. Forty years later sit back on a Sunday morning and read their advice. Cry a bit, then smile and be thankful for the freedom they gave you when the time came for you to go. Say a little prayer.
I can see my dad smile at me as I write…