I have that screen-saver thing on my phone that when you press it, it ripples out from the center of where you pressed, strong at first then weakening before the screen returns to normal. As I fiddled around with it today after my nap, I got to thinking about the events in our lives that set off ripples that are felt in the days, months, years that follow. Strong at first, those ripples weaken over time…but unlike my phone, life doesn’t ever really return to normal. All you’re left with are tiny ripples and wonderings of what if?
A lifetime ago - my brother’s, actually - a little over 35 years ago, one of those events happened in my family. I don’t need to rehash the past so I won’t…but something happened and someone disappeared from the fabric of our family. But people don’t really ever disappear…their importance, their significance lingers on…even if it’s only a memory, faded though it may be.
I don’t know if it was my passion for history or my constant search to find my place in a family in which I didn’t see myself in anyone else…but I’ve always felt a connection to this person whom I only knew from photographs and old family stories. This man – whose name I have heard hundreds of times in my life from the mouths of cousins who remember him…who knew him – this good man raised my mother from the age of 11 until he walked her down the aisle. I was born six years after that but by then…by then, everything was just a ripple.
Half of my lifetime ago, when I was 16, I used that newfangled Internet technology thingie to find him. I knew his name after all…even if I couldn’t spell his last name quite right. Eventually, in my high school computer lab, I found his address on the World Wide Web. And I wrote him a long, rambling letter. And then I waited. [Note – hormonal teenage girls should never try to write heartfelt letters to long-lost relatives. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote but I’m pretty sure it didn’t make a lot of sense. Actually, I could’ve been mistaken for a crackpot.]
One day there was an envelope addressed to me in our mailbox. I opened it to find a note with a single sentence on it. The past must stay in the past. I was stunned…and scared. I tore that note up into a million tiny pieces and threw it away. And I never told anyone about what I had done. The past would stay in the past. But a couple of years later, while my mother and I were in the car and she started talking about trying to find him, my secret, the only secret I have ever kept from my mother, came out in choking sobs. I had ruined her chance to find him…to connect with him again after so many years. I told her about the note; she asked if I had saved it. I told her no. And she was quiet. And oh how I wished I hadn’t torn up that note. I wished I had saved it so I could give it to her. So, she could have one last piece of him. The past was in the past but the ripples were still rippling.
Around Christmas, three years ago – by now, I was living in Maryland – I got a phone call from my mother. Her voice was…different. Excited, nervous, surprised? I didn’t know what it was but I knew something was up. She told me…you got a card from him. And my heart leapt. And so we corresponded occasionally. He has written to me about his childhood in Germany and his dreams of America as a boy and his own love of history. But we don’t write of the past – that past. But it’s there…rippling.
I long to ask him all sorts of questions. Questions about my mother before she became my mother. What was she like as a little girl? Does he remember the trip to the Indian reservation? What did he really think about her following baseball players across the country? Does he remember the blue jumpsuit he made for her? What was he thinking as he walked her down the aisle? Could he have possibly imagined how strong she would become? Does he think about her? Or is she just a lingering memory…a ripple in his own life?
When my inbox pings and I see that I’ve received an email from him, my heart leaps. It is a little piece of the past that I wonder about and ask myself what if? But the past is the past and we cannot change all that has happened even as it ripples still.
But I wish I could tell him - oh, how you are missed. And loved.