ecently I gave my students a lecture in the history of journalism. I told them it’s important to have a sense of their professional lineage. I’m also partial to history. It was one of my college majors.
But my first real sense of history began at home, where I got my share of familial lore about my ancestors and their feats over the decades, most involving tales of war and migration.
My favorite story was also the forbidden one. It was an old love story of my mother’s that she seemed to both want and didn’t want to talk about, which made it all the more alluring.
Ron was my mother’s boyfriend before she met my father. This fact puzzled me as a child. If my mother and Ron had married, I wondered to myself, would I even be here? Would some form of me exist in another child’s body?
It was a moot point, of course: Ron was dead. He was killed instantly by a land mine in the Vietnam War. The fact haunted my mother throughout her life. It was the reason she never watched war movies and why she deplored violence of any kind.
I didn’t appreciate the weight of what had happened to Ron until I had my own first real heartbreak. Granted, I’d done the breaking, since I was the one who left my Italian boyfriend. But I had little choice. He was so possessive I risked losing myself. Either way, I lost something, and my mind registered this paradigm of loss as death. The summer after my breakup, my mother handed me a box of letters that contained some of her correspondence with Ron. I, too, would survive, she told me.
I remember recoiling at this thought: my breakup was still too raw to think beyond day-to-day survival. I also felt unworthy of the comparison. After all, Ron was dead. My mother had no choice but to move on. I had simply walked away.
It wasn’t until two years ago, during a cleanup of the family home, that I reclaimed those letters.
They transported me back to a bygone era —the 1960s —filled with episodes of TV’s “Gomer Pyle,” Big Mac jeans, and wooden toboggans in Iowa winters.
I reveled in reading about my mother’s first love. “I’ll fry a thousand chickens for you — only if my cooking doesn’t spoil a beautiful relationship. I’m not too swift in the kitchen, but I’m learning,” she wrote. In another, “Can I put your picture under my pillow? Or, would you send me an extra portrait that you drew of yourself?”
Ron was an artist and budding architect. He was also pressured into joining the Marines. His father was a military man. In September 1967, just six months after enlisting, Ron was sent to Con Thien, which one reporter described as, “the human equivalent of a tripwire.”
The land was pockmarked with mines, and the Marines’ main task was clearing and setting them. In his first week, Ron saw three people blown apart.
There was a momentary reprieve. Of it, he wrote, “We just had a hot turkey dinner, a tank truck filled up with river water for showers, and a Catholic priest said Mass, a great night as I sit at the edge of my foxhole. The daily mortar attack should be coming any minute. The sun has just started to set…”
My mother and Ron wrote each other at least once, if not twice a day. On September 13th, my mother’s letter begins: “It’s raining and has been all day. I just read the evening paper. More heavy fighting concerning Con Thien. I’m praying for your safety, Ron, and I have all the faith in the world that you’re alright.”
The letter is as innocent as it is eerie. It ends: “How much longer do you think you will have to stay in Con Thien? Will write tomorrow.”
I can feel the anxiety in my mother’s pen stroke. That was the day Ron died.
The envelope was marked “return to sender,” the package of Dentyne gum still unopened.
Shortly after my mother died, I met Ron’s mother, who was my mother’s lifelong friend. Mrs. Sweet was her name, and on Thanksgiving evening, she ushered me in from the cold with hot coffee and cookies. She lived in the same house where Ron had grown up. His paintings still hung on the walls. She handed me more letters, and I showed her pictures of my mother and Ron.
Mrs. Sweet wanted to know all about me, and my love life. I told her about a long-distance love interest. “Be careful,” she said, in a motherly way. It ended up being sage advice.
I left feeling satisfied that I’d cracked open a window onto my mother’s life. The thick, beautiful snowfall blanketing the streets reminded me of how my mother had described winter in her letters.
The next morning, I jogged to the cemetery. I wanted to find Ron’s grave, but the snow was too deep, so I backtracked to my mother’s. I marveled that from one, you could see the other.