Love Letter to my Mother (& Technology) from Millheim

Dear Mom,

So Kim left around 3pm yesterday and it was good to have her company, to hear her typing away at her own poems while I strung slow sentences of prose together. We had planned to work for a few hours in the morning, then break for lunch at the wonderful Elk Creek Café down the block, then come back for a few more hours of work, but didn’t realize the café doesn’t open until 4pm. A disappointment, but we dined on tasty panini sandwiches at the coffee shop, under the glassy gaze of stuffed and mounted animals that adorned the walls. Normally I think that sort of thing is horrifying and/or tacky as hell, but somehow this felt charming. Maybe I have come under some sort of spell out here in the quiet country.

Anyway, I felt good and hungry right around 4, so decided to take myself out for dinner at the Elk Creek. I’ve done this before—in Paris when I was 18 I ate by myself all the time—and I really like it. It does feel decadent, but not in a guilt-inducing way.  The place was bright with afternoon light, but beautifully cool—the temperature having reached over 90 degrees. I ordered a Blue Heron Ale and waited for the kitchen to open at 5pm.

And then–prepare yourself to be horrified, Mom– I broke out my laptop and plugged into the world for a little bit right there at the table in spite of your recent admonishment that we writers rely too much on technology.

I know, I know. I hear you and part of me agrees, of course. But I’m not willing to chuck my internet connection just yet. Hear me out? I started not very long ago—within the last ten years—as someone who rejected all manner of techie gizmos. I drove a ten year old standard-shift car (Jim’s, remember?) with no a/c that felt quite like piloting a tin can, and watched movies (no cable!) on a 13” television set. I refused to get a cell phone because I wanted to be “unreachable” sometimes. (That desire hasn’t left me, I admit.) I held out smugly for a long while, until the night the tin can broke down on I-80 on one of my return trips from CT.  I did what everyone did before cell phones were around: I put my flashers on, popped my hood and hoped someone who was not a marauding serial killer would stop to help me. Indeed, someone did—a very kind someone who went out of his way to get me safely home—but let me tell you, Mom, how incredibly dark that road is at night. Let me also tell you how psychotically fast those semi-trucks barrel down the right hand lane, creating current that rocks your little red Honda (suddenly I’m remembering your little white Toyota) where it sits on the shoulder so much that it feels like it might blow away and take you with it. I bought my first cell phone the next day at the mall and I’ve never looked back.

And I suppose I could have met Paul on campus, in the library or at a record shop downtown, but considering how big the campus is, how rarely I frequented record stores when they even existed, and how introverted my beloved is, it seems highly improbable.  Like the commercial used to say, worked for us!

Anyway, Mom, I really do hear you. I miss the letters Grandma used to write immensely. I miss her effusive script and her underlining and her extra exclamation points at the end of an excited, “I love you my baby!!” I miss the way it felt to tear the envelope and unfold the paper inside. But I also remember the incredible pressure I felt while she was living to write letters like that back to her. Did you ever feel that way? I wanted to, very badly. I wanted to write lyrical accounts of my days in legible cursive and send them through the mail to arrive in the mailbox Grandpa used to wheel in and out of the garage every night lest it be vandalized while they slept. I wanted to, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I don’t know if I was intimidated by romance and nostalgia—I knew letter-writers like her were not long for the world—and was worried my replies would be sallow and pale compared to her spirited missives. How could my little notes possibly live up to those glowing standards? Or maybe I am just young enough to have been born teetering between the Rotary and Push-Button generations (I just made those things up!) and was keeling already over to one side? I don’t know why, exactly, but I do know that when I tried to “put pen to paper,” I froze. Nearly every time. So I didn’t write anything for a long while and that felt even worse.

Finally, I decided that many thoughtful and loving if word-processed (we’re not even talking about typing anymore) words on a page were better than NO beautiful, looping letters written out in fountain pen. Technology to the rescue once again! I could write and then, as she got older, increase the font size to make it easier for her to read what was happening to me at school, my job, with the kids, whatever. Were they less personal than they might have been had they been written in my own hand? Maybe I worried that they would be at first, but in the end I don’t think so. They helped me stay connected to her until her death in a regular and satisfying way.  I felt huge relief when I realized that and let go of the impulse to wait until I had the perfect: stationary, pen, writing surface, angle of sunlight through the kitchen window before I could reach out. I’m glad I didn’t wait.

There’s a lot more I could say about the relationship between writing/writers and technology here.I actually said quite a bit just the other day.  I could talk about Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell, Richard Hugo’s letter poems, the gorgeous, tender correspondence between James Wright and Leslie Marmon-Silko. I could tell you that I have many times yearned to emulate them in hand-written letters of my own to fellow poets and writers. I’ve even succeeded here and there. But I think it’s fair to say some grad student fifty years hence will not be wearing white cotton archive gloves, leafing through my “papers” at Yale’s Beinecke Library. (Hey writers, can you hear me laughing at myself here?) And yeah, that makes me a little sad.

I could also talk about the way technology sustained me as a writer once I became a mother and my world shrunk to the space between the bathroom, the kitchen, and the nursing chair.  I could, and I just might, at some point.

Honestly, I am a better, far more prolific writer than I ever was before technology. Causation or correlation? Who knows. I’d have, I hope, matured as a writer by this point had the internet never been invented. Oh, but it was. And I’m so glad! Of course there are caveats. All that information readily available means (maybe) more accurate, interesting, intelligent outward-focused writing. Or, maybe it means being completely deluged, drowned by a sea of misinformation and superfluity.

But even still, I love it.

Because of technology, I can finish this (rambling, long-winded, self-indulgent?) piece that I’ve written instead of what I intended to write—a reflection about the meal I ate at Elk Creek and a meditation about the foods I did not share with my father.  Preserved lemons, for instance. (The fruit–ha!–of procrastination or avoidance? Maybe so.)

But this piece is also made of real words that did not exist in this order or reflect these particular ideas before and now decorate and announce their position on the  page screen fairly cogently. How lucky and rare that is. What a gift. Writers, back me up here, will you?

Thanks to technology (because I’d at least have to print it) I could finish this piece that is both lament and manifesto, call it an essay; stick it in an envelope and mail it to a literary journal in the hopes that someone likes it enough to publish and then further hope that anyone I care about might find their way to a bookstore to read it…except most journals aren’t sold in bookstores anymore.

Or, I can finish this piece that is both tongue-in-cheek and serious business and publish it—presto!—as a blog post. As this blog post that might have ended three paragraphs ago had my hand cramped painfully beneath a ball-point pen (you are all welcome to your own judgments about whether or not that would have been a good thing).

Thanks to technology I can write this piece/essay/post and share it with the people I care about right away.

Like you, Mom.

Anyway, it’s another Florida-hot day here in Millheim. I’m thinking about your orchids, hovering alien-like in the trunk of the cabbage palm in your front yard and wondering how my tomatoes are doing at home. I hope we get to see you soon, and not just because I want your expertise in the garden! The kids want to know if Grandma will bring them chocolate chip cookies. I told them they could count on it. They send their love, Mom, and so do I.

Thanks for writing!


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