28 April 2018
Elizabeth found the box that would upend her life in a room at her parents’ home she had not been in for years. The dismantled bunk beds her brothers slept in when they were children were stacked with cardboard boxes and plastic bags. The room had not been touched in the many years since Sam and John Jr left to create their own homes and families.
The ancient blue paint was peeling along a crack by the window. She twisted the rusted catch and pulled hard on the varnished wooden frame to let in some of the crisp spring air. Dust motes blew into a corner.
Her parents stored everything for them here, waiting for the items to be re-claimed by their wandering children. The room smelled of abandonment. It was the storeroom for the bags of fabric for her mother’s sewing projects which were left after she died. Christmas decorations and lights filled one corner. Another was taken over by a toy garage with its collection of small cars.
She recognised a bookcase she left and never removed which now stored their old school reports and science fair projects. JJ’s rock collection sat on a chest of drawers which was filled with their 4-H ribbons from the county fair.
Her father’s death came unexpectedly. For three years after the death of her mother, she came to see him when she could, but travelling back to Indiana from Virginia took time and planning. Her visits were never often enough and then suddenly he was ill – a cancer which spread silently before making itself felt. There wasn’t enough time for all the things she wanted to say or feel before the task of clearing the house.
John and Hazel Williams lived here for all their 68 married years. They had been lucky that the farm came up for sale just as they needed a home. The compact house expanded with their family, adding bedrooms and a large kitchen that in the 1960s felt modern and spacious and fully equipped but which now looked dated and lacking room for all the gadgets Elizabeth had in her own kitchen. She wondered what new owners would do with it: rip out the cupboards for new ones and replace the Formica with granite work surfaces?
It was, Elizabeth acknowledged to herself, still a solid house which had weathered the passing time. She could see the new homes which had sprouted along the road over the past few years. Some had gone for the fashionable double storey entrance on their oversized houses set on bare lots carved from fields. She hated the nakedness of the new lawns. It would take many long years before the trees grew to provide shade, structure and interest. She wondered how many of the residents would still be here when the trees were mature.
She glanced across at the huge hickory tree which still had a rope swing, with a board for a seat, hanging from it, waiting for the grandchildren to continue what their parents had left behind. She would miss its surfeit of nuts that were gathered and dispersed among family and friends. Her mother’s favourite cake had been a moist sponge loaded with hickory nuts with a mellow brown sugar frosting. A tear tingled at the corner of her eye and she blinked it back.
The master bedroom moved downstairs as her parents aged and the upper floor of the farmhouse was given over to guests and storage of the hoarded remains of their family life. Elizabeth found the box buried under old erector kits, shell collections and her glamorous elderly doll with a wardrobe of clothes styled in the 1950s. She stroked the soft embroidered lid and was immediately taken back to 1968 with the first blue sheet of aerogram letter she pulled out.
It had been slit carefully at the sides where the gummed flap had been licked and folded around the sheet of paper to form an envelope. The tiny, ruler straight writing crammed the tissue thin paper with close lines and additions along the margins and even a final thought on the back of the envelope, as if it was not possible to contain all the news inside.
She smiled to herself, remembering the thrill of finding one of these letters amongst the fliers and junk in the mail box. That it had travelled thousands of miles from Singapore just for her was amazing, but that it was written by a boy, who wanted to write to her, had been even more incredible.
A photo slipped out of a fatter envelope as she handled it. This was her first photo of him. He kept asking for a photo of her but she held back, afraid to let him see her podgy frame and ordinary face. In return he sent photos, but never of himself. Instead she saw images from the newspaper or his school newsletter.
This small black and white fading picture was the first glimpse she had had. Elizabeth rubbed it lightly with her finger, remembering the day it arrived.
5 June 1968
She felt the brightness of the sun on her closed eyelids and knew it was late. A hint of summer warmth rolled in through the open window. The clock read 7.48. Then she remembered – summer vacation. No school. No bus to catch and for the first week she was allowed to sleep in: an annual tradition which started when she began school nine years ago. Lizzie dragged the pillow over her head, willing herself to go back to sleep.
The kids at high school had been crazy during the last week. The seniors had already left, including her brother, John Jr, leaving the school emptier and at the same time noisier as the remaining students seemed to expand into the space left behind. It wasn’t a time for real work. Everyone was thinking of what they would be doing during the long, hot days ahead.
She had heard Eric Hayden and his buddy in the cafeteria at lunch on Friday talking about having a party on the following Friday. He was two years ahead of her but lived down their road and every once in a while would nod at her, acknowledging her existence. The boys were sniggering over their plans for a hayride and who would be coupled up during it.
“I’d like a go at Anna,” Eric had leered. Lizzie was shocked by the mention of her best friend.
“Naw,” the other boy (Lizzie wished she knew his name) countered. “You want to stick with the older ones – they know more.” He laughed at his own joke.
“It’s nothing I can’t teach her,” was the reply and both boys dissolved into more laughter.
Lizzie remembered she was going warn her friend on the bus home, but Johnny had borrowed the family car to pick her up from school. Mom thought he was being extra kind, but Lizzie knew it was just so he could show off his change of status to graduate. He surprised her though by suggesting that they go for a sundae at the drive-in, something he would never have done when he was still at school. He ordered her favourite, hot fudge with whipped cream and a cherry, without even asking. But just as they were settling in to eat, kids from Johnny’s class arrived in three cars and the gang hunched together around the picnic tables leaving her to sit alone in the hot car for more than an hour until he had been ready to leave.
A faint fragrance of bacon mixed with sounds of a distant radio and the clatter of plates from the kitchen. There was a grumble from her stomach which decided it was fully awake. There’d be no more sleep now. She kicked back the light blanket, grabbed last night’s clothes and staggered downstairs.
It was unusually quiet in the kitchen apart from the radio. Sammy (no, he wanted to be called Sam now, she reminded herself) had come back from his first year at college a couple of weeks ago and every morning he took them through another adventure that hadn’t been written in the infrequent letters home. Johnny was always trying to interrupt and if he couldn’t add a sentence, he would burp or grimace so that his presence was felt. Today, neither of them was talking. Her father sat silently munching his cereal and her mother stood over the stove, stirring the eggs.
The news bulletin cut through the silence. “Presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy, has been shot…."
A icy stillness swept through her. How could this happen again? She could remember when JFK had been killed and exactly where she was when she heard the news. Everyone remembered that day.
“He’s been taken to the hospital where doctors have worked through the night to save his life.”
The world was already upset enough. Just two months ago, riots erupted in cities after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. Night after night, televisions filled with riots of angry black crowds fighting police and setting fires. In France, students took to the streets in massive protests and thousands of poor were camping in Washington DC on the mall.
At school, they all argued over what was going wrong. Some kids wondered whether troops should be in Vietnam while others supported fighting to hold back the spread of communism. There were so many arguments with no answers.
“Here we go again,” said her mother, returning to the overcooked eggs and scooping them into a bowl for the table. A curl of smoke rose from the unreliable toaster and she flicked the release to take out the slightly charred bread.
Her father stretched out his thick reddened hand to take a slice of toast and scraped butter across it. His weathered face looked a little older suddenly, a little more tired.
“The back field up by the woods’ ready for mowing,” he said, wiping away the outside world and bringing them back into their own. “Should dry quickly.”
Nothing would stop the yearly cycle of cutting, drying and baling hay. The summer months were measured by how efficiently the crops could be reared and harvested. It meant long days to circumvent capricious weather that could destroy a year’s supply of cattle feed in an afternoon’s hailstorm.
Johnny grabbed a fourth slice of toast before Sam could get it and covered it thickly with homemade strawberry jam from the last jar of the previous season. His 17 year old lanky frame was still growing. The dark spurts of hair above his lips were managed by an untrained razor and occasionally he appeared at the breakfast table with dabs of toilet paper still attached to the micro cuts.
Nearly two years older, Sam considered himself more worldly, having just returned from his first three terms of college. He gave Elizabeth a playful punch and passed her the cereal.
“I’ll take that,” he told his father and they organised the day’s jobs between them.
Lizzie’s mother still stood near the radio, listening for further news. She passed the plates into a sink of soapy water and mindlessly cleared the meal’s debris from the Formica covered table. Lizzie wondered if this was a chance to get away before her chores were handed out but her mother caught her just in time.
She was weeding in the vegetable garden under a warming sun, when she saw the US Mail truck pull up at the end of their lane by the mailbox. She had posted her last letter to her pen pal nearly three weeks ago. He could have written back. If he had, she wanted that letter before Johnny got it. Once, her brother sliced open an aerogramme and tried to read the cramped foreign writing. The angular letters were very different to the curvy American letters and Johnny gave up. She did not want him to try again.
Lizzie rushed through the last row of beans, hurriedly grabbing at the invading plants. A few flowering beans came out as well and she tried to ease these back into the row before they were seen.
The mailbox was crammed with a free farming newspaper wrapped around advertising fliers and bills with a core of handwritten envelopes. Even without the foreign stamps, she knew immediately the letter was Henry’s. The address was written in purple with a variety of coloured pens used to add messages like ‘STAY COOL’ and ‘SWAK’. It would be instant fodder for her brother’s teasing and she folded it into the pocket of her shorts to save for later.
The news hung over lunch. Dad, Sam and Johnny returned from the fields hot and sweat covered. The temperature was still rising and a scalding afternoon was ahead of them.
Dad took a long drink of iced water and then bowed his head to pray for the meal to be blessed, just like every meal she had ever known. Lifting their heads, Sam and John Jr both reached for the fried chicken but a stern look from their mother made them pass the dish to let John Senior have the first selection.
Kennedy was still critical in the hospital. A Palestinian man had been arrested: Sirhan Sirhan. Five others were injured.
“How does this keep happening?” her father asked after a few mouthfuls of mashed potatoes and green beans frozen from last year’s harvest. “You’d think there’d be better protection after King was killed and JFK.”
“And we haven’t even closed those cases yet,” Sam put in, pumped with political studies from college. “King’s killer hasn’t been found yet. And look at JFK. The Warren Commission said Oswald shot him all by himself, but then he’s killed, but his killer gets a new trial and dies before that. That all sounds really peculiar and you can see why some think it was a conspiracy.”
“This isn’t even connected to the negroes or the war!” Her father sighed.
“I think they want to be called ‘blacks’ now,” Johnny threw in to show some political acumen.
“What are you?” Sam asked, “A black panther?”
“Foreigners,” her father spewed, “they’re always trying to change the way we live. Why don’t they just leave us alone?”
The letter with the alien stamps burned in Lizzie’s pocket.
“Maybe because we don’t leave them alone,” Sam tried to argue. “Kennedy backed Israel in the Six Day War. This guy comes from Palestine, which Israel took over.”
“It’s not right, he comes over here to murder.”
“John,” her mother inserted in the debate, “ you didn’t want Kennedy running for president anyway!”
Republican roots ran deep through the Midwest. Having just received backing from the California primary the night before, Robert Kennedy would have been the biggest Democratic challenger in the election in November.
“Yep,” her dad said, loading a piece of cherry pie onto his plate, “they’ll have a hard time finding someone strong enough to win now.”
Later, after clearing the table, Lizzie got a chance to pull out the letter when her mother sat down in the shade to finish her latest borrowing from the library bookmobile which visited their small town every two weeks.
31 May 1968
Hope you’re having a great summer. My friends and I thought your trick on the science teacher was really FAB. Did anyone get in trouble? We tried hiding our teacher’s lesson plans so we wouldn’t have to do them. Turned out he had a copy anyway and the WHOLE class got detention!!! Course, the kids who weren’t part of it weren’t that happy about that.
Are you out of school yet? We have to keep on working right up until July and then we have end of year exams. I can tell you NO ONE likes those!! I am studying round the clock.
What are you doing for the summer? My parents have come up with some really cool plans – they’re moving us to England! Yeah, it was a surprise to my sister and me as well. Dad grew up there, but I’ve never been. My dad’s got a new job back there and so we’re all going.
I have never been there, so it’s going to be realllllly interesting. The land of the Beatles, Procol Harum, the Rolling Stones. I am SOOOOO excited. But also, I can admit, a little nervous about the whole move to another country, after all I’ve never been there. At least my school is based on the English system, so I won’t have any problems fitting into that. But what do you think English kids are like?
I want to let my hair grow longer, like you see them there, but Dad isn’t very happy about that. I am looking at all the pictures of the Beatles FANS now just to see what they are doing.
Sorry to keep going on, but it has been such a SHOCK! Just as soon as my exams are done, I have to help pack everything up and put it into a shipping container. That’s going to take weeks to get there, so we will have to live out of our suitcases for a long time. It’s hard to decide what to keep. My Mum says I have to clear out the rubbish. Don’t worry, I have your letters safely stored away.
Anyway, there is another bit of BIG news. We may fly to England through the USA. If we do that, don’t be surprised if I knock on your door! I would love to see your farm and where you live and meet your friends. What’s the closest big airport to Indiana? Maybe we can go through there.
Until then, stay groovy. Watch out for the boys.
28 April 2018
Elizabeth pulled off her reading glasses and smoothed out the paper. The lettering was cramped and difficult to read in a fading light. It was hard to follow the writing without the glasses, unlike when it first arrived fifty years before.
She tried to recall what they had done to the science teacher, but it was lost among the events from her youth that were trampled into oblivion. It must have been some minor infraction: surely she would have remembered it otherwise, like the time Jerry Farr cut off a large piece of phosphorus and threw it onto a bowl of water. The explosive flames nearly caught the whole room on fire. No one forgot that. Someone always mentioned it at their occasional class reunions. But that was their last year at school and this letter arrived three years before, just at the end of their freshman year.
The fear she had felt reading that letter stayed with her. She had desperately wanted this photo and, at the same time, was afraid to receive it. They had been pen pals for more than two years and she carefully avoided sending a photo of herself during that time. She was full of little excuses about a film needing to be developed, or photos not turning out or she just ignored it all together. With every letter, she had hoped to get a photo but Henry was as ready with excuses as she was. This photo broke the stalemate and meant she had to send one back.
She was glad that was 50 years ago. Today, she would have no excuse in hiding - with instant messages and digital photos there is no delay. The alternative then and now was to send a fake photo, but she was too honest for that. She had to own up to who she was.
She remembered pouring over this small, slightly blurry polaroid for hours, trying to pick out a clearer image. It was a photo of four of lads – the members of his band. The one on the right hand side was HIM. He was standing in profile, but she could see he was tall, fashionably thin with dark hair just edging over his ears. Of course, he was the apex of cool with his own teen rock band. He was everything she could have hoped for when she was 14, if she had been a golden Californian beach babe and not a podgy, boring farm girl from Indiana.
Elizabeth pushed back a white strand of hair with her brown speckled hand. School had been a social nightmare. Miniskirts were making their way inland from the trendier cities on the coasts and fashion dictated slim, long haired figures with shapely legs if you wanted to be stylish. Paisley was in, along with bright, clashing colours.
She looked down at the swollen feet and thick legs. They hadn’t improved with age, but that no longer mattered. In 1968, it was the end of the world. She could never be in the ‘pretty’ cluster of girls in her year. They were destined to be voted most attractive and become cheerleaders or homecoming queen. She wasn’t one of their sort of people.
But, when one of Henry’s letter collages fell open when she dropped her book one day, homecoming queen-to-be Sally scooped it up. The graphic lettering and photos jumped off the page and she started reading it. Word spread and soon the others in her circle wanted to know about the mysterious ‘Boy from the East’ as he became to be known. She was in touching distance of popular and it was close enough.
“Mom,” Elizabeth heard a call from downstairs, “I’ve got the dishes packed. Dad’ll be back soon to load up. Where do you want the kitchen boxes?”
She slid the photo back into the envelope and returned the letter to the box. Memories could wait but the realtor was due in two days to value the farm and they wanted to clear as much as possible before then.
“Kiera, just wait for your father. You can’t lift them in your condition,” she shouted down the stairs. The pregnancy had been an easy one, but felt increasingly long. Elizabeth was excited to meet her first grandchild and she was glad there were only a few weeks left.
She put the box on her personal ‘keep’ pile and sighed as she looked back at the room. The window grated when she pushed it down before closing the door.
A car crunched along the gravel drive. Richard was back. He wanted to go to a diner for supper but Kiera was asking for Italian. She suddenly felt hungry.