I was 11 years old when my father went to prison for shooting a man.
While there, he wrote a letter to me after my sister and I had visited him. I held on to that letter for decades as a treasured possession. The weeks after Dad died, I searched for it, but it was lost.
Then came last New Year’s Eve, and while I was sorting through boxes, I found it.
In this letter, I see a side of my father that I had no chance to learn about during the awful days of my childhood: He wrote well.
Maybe he had dreams of being a writer.
For, as he sat in a demeaning jail cell, my father had written a lovely and loving letter to me.
The sentiment is cheerful for the most part, yet I read much more into it when I think of his state of mind at that time. My father wrote this while serving time as a person who put a bullet into the head of another human being.
He came home early from work one evening and saw a man running away from his home. He called out, “Junior! Junior, where you going?” thinking it was his eldest son. The man did not stop.
When he got inside the house, he saw his wife — my mother — dressed in pearls and heels, with his youngest children nearby, aware of it all.
My mother yelled out the door for her man to come back.
He did not.
My father’s reaction was violent and, like all the other times, we children could only watch in fear.
A year later, my mother went to my father’s apartment to get his signature on legal documents as they finalized their divorce. He — the one who had run away on that night of discovery and who she had allowed to move in with us — waited in the car. Their meeting was taking too long for his liking, so he left the car and went to my father’s door.
Dad told me that he shot in self-defense.
June 22, 1972
By the time you receive this letter you will have graduated to the 7th grade. No need for me to ask whether you graduated or not because I know you’ve always gotten very good grades and even though I couldn’t be there to see you in person my thoughts were there and I want to say that I’m very proud of you. Just think — five more years and you’ll be graduating from high school. I realize it’s a little early yet, but have you given any thought to what you’d like to be when you do graduate? Whatever it may be, I know you’ll make it, if you continue like you are now. I know Sandra’s really going to miss you for awhile, but I’m sure she’ll get used to it. Correct me if I’m wrong: Brent must be in the 9th; Norman, the 8th, and to round it out– you’re in the 7th. How about you three occupying every grade at La Cumbre (smile).
I received your letter sometime ago and I’m sorry I didn’t answer before now. I’ve attempted to write lots of times but I’d always end by tearing up the pages. I’ve been so despondent lately that I could never find the right words to say to you. I want you to know that I think about you and the others all the time and that I love you very much, even though it’s been such a long time. I also want to say that I was very happy to see you all the other day when you came down. I hardly recognized you at first because you seemed to have grown so fast since I last saw you. What have they been feeding you (smile).
When are you going on your camping trip to Lake Cachuma? (You have all the fun.) I hope you have a good time. You mention your coming back on Brent’s birthday. When is it, by the way? Mine was on the 19th, right after Father’s Day. I know you forgot about them both, or didn’t have any money. When you get a job, I want you to make up for it (smile).
What did you get for graduation? I know you realize I couldn’t get you anything but I’ll make it up to you later, OK? And what about this pen pal you have? Is it a boy or girl and where are they located? It must be very interesting corresponding in such a way. The new park they’re making — is it right by where the sandbox used to be? It’ll be very convenient for everyone.
If I get out before your vacation is over, I’d like very much to take you and Sandra to L.A. with me for about a week. Would you like that? If so, I’ll contact your mother about it later. Let me know.
We’re only allowed to write two pages per letter on one side only, so I have to close and see if I have enough patience left to answer Sandra’s letter. Be a sweet girl and tell everyone hello for me and to write.
With lots of love,
~ Dad ~
P.S. Send me a photo of you so I can show everyone just how beautiful my other daughter is. I already have one of Sandra. [Note from Darla: These sentences were written across the top of the second page; he squeezed more room out of the two-page allowance by writing in the area above the lines.]
The man survived my father’s gunshot and increased his active hatred toward me and my siblings — physical and emotional abuse that haunt us all to this day.
My mother died in 1999, and my father in 2003. My mother’s last words to her children were denial and curses; my father’s were pleas for forgiveness.
I believe that my father is in heaven today, finally at peace.
The letter he wrote to me while he served his time was his attempt to soften the blow. I didn’t feel that comfort when I read it in 1972 — in fact I despised him for what he did because it took him even farther from me. But in later years, while he was still away from me and working out his demons, comfort is exactly what that letter became.
I wonder about the stories he wrote that I will never see.