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Life Lessons in Love Letters
By: Ellen C. Caldwell

I am pretty sure that I was born with a genetic mutation, or at least it’s one in America: I don’t like sandwiches.  Actually, I hate them.  The last one I ate was in preschool when my mom thought she could get rid of this strange, youthful conviction by making me eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in order to see Sesame Street’s Follow that Bird.  

Something about a sandwich’s texture combination and “mouth feel” (a term I happily learned later in life) always repelled me.  Why do people want to bite through squishy pre-sliced bread to encounter other squishiness like peanut butter and jelly – or worse, crunchy lettuce and processed meat?

As you can imagine, elementary school lunches were hard for me—on a practical level, it was difficult for my parents to figure out what to pack.  On a social level, children make fun of people who do things differently.

My solution was peanut butter on crackers.  (My mom made sure they were whole-wheat.)  I loved this alternative, and preferred to spread the peanut butter during lunch so that the crackers stayed crisp. 

I am one of three children and on lucky occasions, one of us was invited to spend the weekend with our grandparents.  It gave my parents a break, while making the chosen grandchild feel overly loved and indulged.  And these weekends were truly about indulgence.  A standard weekend included dinners at a favorite neighborhood diner, followed by fresh popcorn by the TV, and buttery crepes for breakfast.  It was my grandma who taught me that it was just fine to eat a sundae for dinner and until the end of her life, she and I would still sometimes order them for dinner when we were together.

My grandpa was a bit more strict, though.  He was a hard-working lawyer, born in Oklahoma, but long-since practicing in LA.  His everyday attire was a pressed Brooks Brothers suit – a uniform and choice reinforced by the Mark Twain quote that hung in his garage: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.”  This sentiment has trickled down in my family.  On both emergency and scheduled trips to the hospital, my grandpa, grandma, and father have all been known to show up for surgeries in pressed suits or color-coordinated outfits matching down to the socks – because this is the surefire way to ensure the best care and treatment.  

And it worked.  Where my grandfather went, respect followed.  Something about his delicate balance of charisma, austerity, and stern exterior created a commanding presence.

On one weekend visit when I was about seven, I was the pick of the litter and “Papa” was taking me out – something even more special because of its rarity, as my grandma was usually the one to go on outings.  On this day, Papa brought me to LA’s landmark eatery Philippe’s. Walking in, I was overwhelmed, realizing that sandwiches were my only menu option.  By that point, though, I knew what to do: I followed my grandpa to the counter and simply ordered chips and a drink.  I remember the look of disappointment and confusion as he realized I wouldn’t eat one of the famed French dips and said, “What’s wrong with you, kid?”

When it came to sandwiches, he considered my pickiness frivolous. He could not understand how a child couldn’t like them or how my parents could let my whims be in control.  He had been a Naval officer and believed that parents ought to be able to tell their children what to eat.  Period. 

Later that same year, my grandfather pulled me aside and said he had something for me.  He often had us choose from his right or left first, holding the present behind his back in one hand or the other.  From my grandma, it was often jewelry.  But from my grandpa, these gifts were usually tools of some sort.  

He collected tools like some people collect dolls or rare books – with vigor, dedication, and a child’s excitement.  He loved going through open boxes of tools and nails at outdoor flea markets in order to find the perfect instrument for a specific job or person.  On this day, I was surprised when he opened his palm to reveal a miniature butter knife with a plastic yellow handle, dulled steel blade, and brown sheath.  I remember looking up at him perplexed.  He said, “This is to keep in your lunchbox to spread peanut butter with. Think of me whenever you’re embarrassed that your food and tastes are different from the other kids’.”

I loved this knife.  I managed to keep it throughout elementary school—which was quite a feat.  But I had always been a keeper, or a hoarder, as more pessimistic people might label me. Tuh-may-toe/Tuh-mah-toe. I was a family preserver and it drove my older sister nuts because I always had the foresight to hold onto things.  When she would clean out her room and pack up a box for give-away, I would always look through the cast offs to save the treasures from the sinking ship.  I found and saved our first pair of leg warmers (which have come in handy), a “Back to Back ‘88/’89 Championship” Lakers t-shirt and mug (our brother took over the shirt, I still use the mug), and a miniature Yoda figurine which I am convinced will help me sometime in the future.  All of this is to say that it isn’t surprising that I kept the knife, but I remember that it was quite challenging to move it from lunch box to lunch box, year after year.

During a deep clean of my room, the summer before I went to Ghana for my junior semester abroad, I came across my dear butter knife in my desk drawer amongst some dried out pens.  When I found it, I got that familiar warm feeling in my stomach that often accompanies tears, and I shed a few at this thoughtful gift and decided to write my grandpa a long-overdue thank you note.

This summer correlated with a hard and decisive time in my grandpa’s life: On the same day I flew 7,500 miles across the world to Accra, Ghana, my grandpa went into the hospital for his second open-heart surgery.  His doctors had also found a spot on his lungs.  These were both major concerns, but the doctors were taking things one-step at a time, starting with his heart.

I will gloss over the ins-and-outs of the surgery, partially to spare myself, but also because I was in such a foreign, distant place at this time that I don’t know if I fully tracked the order of events as they occurred.  Essentially, the surgery went well, but the recovery didn’t.  My grandpa suffered from a major stroke that impaired his body and speech.  A blow to anyone, but particularly my most capable, quick-witted grandpa.  Two months later, he died at home with my family surrounding him. 

Early one morning across the globe, I was having a quiet dream wherein Papa had come to visit and I was showing him around my new campus. It was much different than anything I had expected: vast with wonderfully worn red dirt paths, lush greenery, and a main drag of distinct white buildings with red tile roofs. As I showed my grandpa this new world of mine, I remember the feeling of floating above those red dirt paths, feeling total peace and love in the silence that we shared.  Earlier in my life, I had a couple of dreams like this, featuring my deceased maternal grandma and I had come to think of them as “visitation dreams.”  I awoke from this dream to my phone’s ring and knew that Papa had passed away.  

Two years later, I was helping my grandma clean out some of my grandpa’s dresser drawers that had remained as-is.  She was sorting a box mixed with souvenirs, memories, and the mundane: his wallet, an old money clip with his driver’s license, some letters, playbills (he loved a good theatrical production), and other such earthly ephemera.  She quietly handed me a card and I recognized it immediately.  It was my peanut-butter-knife thank you note in which I had spilled my words of love, gratitude, and respect to my grandpa.  

 

Dear Papa, 

A long time ago you had given me a small gift which I cherished with all my heart.  About three or four years ago, I realized that I did not know where I had placed it and I was crushed.  

But recently I unearthed this gift and was delighted to know I still had it.  It is a little knife with a yellow handle which you gave me so that I could spread peanut butter on my crackers (as you probably recall, that was my favorite lunch).

I just wanted to thank you again for this gift you gave me so long ago because in a lot of ways that gift is just one example of your consistent thoughtfulness and kindness to me and everyone else you know.

I love you very much and will miss you lots in the upcoming months!

love, ellen

 

These were the last sentiments I wrote him.  And I am so thankful I did.  When I wrote the card, I had not known about his health problems, or any of the complications and grief that would follow.  I just wrote because I was moved by emotions so urgent that they demanded action.  

I still have this card tucked away, much as my grandpa did.  It only existed in his life for four months, but its message has been strong in my life for thirteen years and counting. 

Now, when I am thankful for someone or anyone in my life, there is no hesitation.  Passionately, immediately, humorously, and unabashedly, I tell people – And this is how I learned to write love letters.

 

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.