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Torn Page: A Stranger's Letter to my Grandmother

Torn Page: A Stranger's Letter to my Grandmother
Author Collage from Stock Images

Once, in the quietness of a late afternoon, as I awaited my simmering beef stew, I decided to explore the remnants of my grandmother’s life and wonder about the mysteries. With that in mind, I reached up to the highest shelf of a closet and retrieved a small plastic box, of the sort that contains odds and ends on desks and kitchen tables. I had placed it in the darkness, peacefully out of sight, when I moved into my townhouse, knowing that it would one day recapture my attention. And at the arrival of twilight, on that particular occasion, the box of memories came to mind.

My rediscovery yielded several photos and an envelope from the recent past. By the time the artifacts were arrayed before me, there was no turning back from the journey. So, I entered a new path of research prepared to explore its terrain.

As for the photos, the images were at once mundane and jarring; the face of my mother staring in sorrow and discontent from the 1970s; a picture of my great grandmother whose history is largely unknown to me; and the tattered portrait of a great uncle, a mysterious figure who drifted away during the 1920s—only to reappear in San Diego circa 1980. And then, there was the envelope addressed to my grandmother, written in a hand I did not recognize. For its lack of familiarity, as well as the inviting texture of its dog-eared corners, the slightly torn page became my focus.

I placed the pictures back in their box and removed the letter, smiling at the quaint pattern of flowers that adorned it. The stationary was ordinary to a fault, hinting at the pleasant woman who wrote to friends and family on its pages, a rather long time ago. Then, I began to decipher the cursive before me and learned something interesting. Before we move in that direction, however, we need to explore a bit more historical context.

A Strange Place, a Disquieting Atmosphere

Near the end of my grandmother’s life, she had agreed to live with my parents and sell her old house on Glassell Street in Los Angeles. At the time, I was attending the University of California, Santa Barbara, and had little to do with her new phase of life. That joy belonged to my mother, who would often call me in fits of frustration, complaining about the amount of stuff my grandmother had collected over the years, much of which she hoped to retain. In the future, my mother would continue the tradition by leaving furlongs of stuff to me after her death, but I digress.

At the moment I found the letter, and felt the impression of words penned by a stranger, I recalled my childhood home and my grandparents' house, as well, with its sweet, sheltering influence. And the thought of a stranger's narrative unfolding in our former homes--a person who appeared briefly and left without notice--felt endearing and, at once, a bit sad. Beyond the pleasures of remembrance, however, there remains a lesson in this experience for which I am grateful.

The woman reminded me that my relatives were not mine alone; they had lives of excitement in the world of yesterday, impacting all manner of people, none of whom I will ever know. So, who was she?

Author Collage from Stock Images

The letter was written by the most recent owner of my great uncle’s house, an old structure situated on Market Street in San Diego, California. Back in the 1990s, the woman had found my grandmother at my parents’ address and reached out, quite graciously, with her flowered stationary. As the new owner, she was a bit curious; the house was a rather strange place with a disquieting air, and she wondered about my great uncle.

From Louisiana to Europe: Further Digressions

My grandmother and her siblings were born and raised in Louisiana, bayou country, to be exact, shortly after the Civil War. There were eight children, the five brothers being a good bit older, with rather adventurous lives. For now, we will focus on the story of the great uncle mentioned above, an eccentric character who enjoyed taking selfies long before the convenience of iPhones. Interestingly, I found stacks of self-portraits he had taken over decades, for which he posed rakishly, always with a hint of mischief in his eyes.

And the mysteries abound.

The rake in question was, like the house on Market Street, a bit odd, having moved suddenly to France in 1924 and then to Spain shortly thereafter. We eventually learned that he had married twice, his first wife being Spanish and very elegant in the photos we discovered. In time, they divorced—I imagine—and he met his second wife in Norway. Apparently, I have a few Norwegian cousins out there. I also found a letter documenting his return to America.

Engraved by an old typewriter on government letterhead, it thanked him for his service during the Second World War, the nature of which was unspecified but appeared to be administrative, if I remember correctly. So, we can infer that my great uncle spent a number of years back in the United States, estranged from his family, only contacting his siblings during the 1980s. By that time, a few of the brothers had passed away, having been quite mysterious in their own ways. And some of them seemed downright tragic, their sorrows becoming the whispered embarrassment of family secrets. Previous decades were a bit less enlightened in these areas.  

As I recall, one of the brothers experienced some sort of breakdown and committed suicide in Arkansas during the 1950s. His widow gave my grandmother his old wallet for a keepsake, and she carried it in her purse for the remainder of her life. As a child, I would often smell the rich fragrance of the leather as it aged and slowly decayed, always wondering about the inscription it bore, the gold letters naming a man from long ago.

Too Little Information

I thought back on these stories as I considered the drama of my great uncle’s house, feeling intrigued as well as cheated, wishing that someone had kept better records for me to discover. As it stands, I’ve only ever found a few documents, here and there, on rare occasions. That’s how it goes with family history.

So, the letter was something of a portal, a return to the distant past, as old bits of correspondence are, quite beautifully. Really, it was no more than a warm greeting and a request for a bit of historical information. Yet, it somehow conveyed much more. I could tell from the tone that the house was a bit disquieting, and the woman was likely desperate for answers. However, knowing my mother and grandmother as I did, I was certain that they had never written in reply. With that, I found the woman’s email address, after a bit of Google searching, and contacted her myself.

Picture Frames and Questions

The new owner of the house turned out to be a nurse and was quite pleasant, although she did not recall having written the letter. In my email, I included as much information regarding my great uncle and grandmother as possible, and asked about the woman’s experience owning and residing in the house. She said that it was delightfully haunted, with photos appearing upside down in frames, strange noises cropping up periodically, and a troubling stain on a bedroom ceiling resurfacing, constantly, in angry defiance of paint—multiple coats of it. Apparently, my great uncle had converted the structure into a boarding house, installing bathroom sinks in each bedroom. I think that might have been the creepiest part. Anyway, the owner invited me for a tour and a chat, and I cheerfully suggested that we meet for coffee somewhere downtown, instead, as I did not wish to visit the house. As it turned out, we lost touch, and no further information has come to light.

A Shared Authorship  

Hours flew by as I explored the old box of memories; my stew was nearly ruined. I simply sat transfixed, filled with so many conflicting emotions about people who had died long ago, leaving myriad questions and unfinished narratives. My relatives were mine, but only to a point. In truth, they belonged to the world, just as I do, having touched numerous lives before simply disappearing into death, as I will--eventually.

The mysteries we bequeath are precious, lingering to write our stories and keep the generations wondering. They are the torn pages of history that we all share, each family making its own contribution.