Letters From the Attic: A tale of first love, lost love and teenage angst
As I recover from another Thanksgiving filled with family, friends and stuffing myself - pun intended - with too much turkey and pumpkin pie, I thought I’d share a little time capsule that I came across in a packet of old letters recently unearthed from a junk pile in the attic. They helped me to recall another Thanksgiving over 40 years ago when I had no responsibilities and not much interest in Thanksgiving other than the fact that it would bring my hometown girlfriend and I together again for 5 whole days. A lifetime in teenage relationships.
I’m sure that you remember those days when you’d graduated from high school and had perhaps left the hometown and friends for the first time in your life. Way back then, in the ‘Stone Age’ of personal communications – long before anyone had ever heard of the internet – we used to communicate with these funny little things comprised of dark squiggles on flattened out, mashed up remains of trees. Paper and ink – called letters. And unlike today’s minimalist communications consisting of 1 syllable blocks of ‘code’ where ‘r’ stands for ‘are’ and ‘u’ stands for ‘you’ and none of it stands for very much, we used to think romantic, idealist and often ponderous thoughts and would commit them to paper.
Would the average teenager do that today? In fact would anyone do that today?
At any rate, I’ve taken a few snippets of that first Thanksgiving homecoming angst and the traumatic (at least it was at 17) events that took place over the subsequent weeks of the holiday season. In an attempt to faithfully illustrate the thoughts and feeling of the times, I’ve reproduced parts of some of the actual old letters that I found from that period of the early sixties when the entire fabric of society was poised right on the edge of change. Although no one at the time realized just how profound and widespread that change was going to be. And for those of us who remember those times and those who don’t but have only read about them, reading some of the thoughts expressed in these letters will probably provoke a reaction of: “Good grief! Were you really that sappy?”
Was it a unique time in a unique place filled with innocent idealistic dreams? Or was it just a bunch of kids with naive and unrealistic expectations who had to get their fingers burned on the hot stove of life?
I don’t know – you decide. The only thing I do know is that scorched fingers not withstanding, it sure was fun getting there.
By late October of 1964, my high school honey and I had decided that we couldn’t bear even one more weekend of separation. And despite the fact that the Thanksgiving holiday was only a few weeks away, we just had to see one another.
So I managed to bum a ride with a friend who was going past her school.
We went to some ancient Ivy League pub where the campus poets and English majors hung out. It was paneled with oak that had darkened over the years, to a mahogany like patina. And the tabletops were etched with 200 years of carved student names - like something out of Dickens.
I wore a Shetland sweater and her hair was long and flowed softly around her face. Her eyes were green and gold as they looked into mine and we both wanted me to be a year older when I could transfer to nearby Amherst. Right - and Angels were going to fly out of my butt. However at least I looked the part, even though with my grades I was lucky to have gotten into any college anywhere. But that golden afternoon in October, amidst the red and yellow leaves of a perfect New England collegiate fall Saturday, everything was possible. Yes, I would be there soon. I would get into a nearby Ivy League school and we would play folk music together in a North Hampton coffee house and drive a yellow (her favorite color) Sunbeam Alpine, drink Russian tea out of yellow mugs and no doubt if we got married, we would have 2.2 children and dress them in yellow blazers!
We walked down the perfect campus sidewalk, crunching through rust colored leaves that gave off that special fall smell when you swoosh through them and we held hands in that ‘going steady’ way that you never see any more. That peculiar inverted twining of the fingers that said, “Look – we’re in love!”
Her hair smelled of the perfume that she’d worn on our first date back in high school. And for years afterwards, I would give it to every girl I went steady with. A little gift on about the second or third date. “Oh perfume”, they’d squeal. “You’re so sweet!” Yeah, right.
You know they say that smells evoke some of the most powerful memories and it's true. That's why I finally stopped giving it. But then, the perfume mixed with the smell of the leaves and fall and love. You can love many times in your life and thank God do. But there's something about the intensity of 17 year-old-love that's special. It’s pre-cynicism and post puppy love - a deadly combination.
But there were no thoughts and no regrets that day. Not until our eight hour universe came to an end, and I went home.
October 31, 1964
My Dearest Ric
I feel so completely let down after Saturday. I was so rapturously happy for eight hours and I know that this is only a counter reaction. I am as infatuated as when I just met you, but it's different now because I know and love you at the same time that I'm being snowed. I'm didn't realize how much I’d missed you until I saw you standing in the front hall. We had a perfect day which of course could have been much better if it had lasted longer but it will be perfect when I come home and see you again. Please see about tickets for Bob Dylan. I've been studying all day and looking forward only to a week from Friday when we can really be together
I’m smoking much less and I've lost about four pounds already. The only thing that I miss here is you. If we could be at the same college together, I'd be completely happy. Let's work on that. I have to go to class. I want to tell you very much I love you and want to see you soon.
All my love
November wore on, along with our patience. What was it the ‘immortal bard’ said about parting being “such sweet sorrow?” Don’t you believe it.
She came to see me.
November 12, 1964
Dear Boy with whom I am in love,
Your picture is looking at me, actually sneering but an inviting sneer. If I didn't know you and love you so much, I'd think from the picture that you were cruel, but I'd still want to know you.
Didn’t we have a wonderful weekend! It passed so quickly. I slept all the way back in the car and when I got here I didn't want to be here, I wanted so badly to be with you. Remember the painting that you gave me? It's hanging here too. Everything I think of is related to you in some way. Sunday when we owned world was the best I think. Appropriately, it's raining now and I'm in a reflective subdued moved like when I was quiet Sunday afternoon. I'm not really depressed, I just want to be let alone and think about you.
Did anyone say anything about our appearance at the dance.
O’ West wind, when wilt thou blow
this small rain down on me
if my love were in my arms
and I in my bed again
O’ boy I love, where are you and your milk white steed to come and take me away…. please come.
Take care of yourself
I love you so, Jennifer
Then it was time. She came home for Thanksgiving and we went into Harvard Square and pretended to be the people that we wanted to be again.
And of course what freshman first semester of college would have been complete without a casually condescending ‘drop-by’ the high school dance to cast pitting smiles over the ‘Greasers’ and ‘Rahs’. The shallow, callow youths who were still entranced by the Twist, The Shimmy and The Boog-a-loo.
We knew better. The big world was changing. Our little world was changing. We were changing – we just didn’t know it then.
And then, like all of our dream factory time together, it was over and she was gone … again.
I miss you so. My English teacher told me today that my last paper was the best in the class, so good in fact that it rated a C +. I was sort of amazed. Maybe one has to be a genius to get a decent grade in this class. Oh well, I'll become a happy housewife. Guess whom I have in mind? But I won't be a housewife, I'm always going to be Your lover even if I'm not married to you. You know what I mean don't you. I was so worried when you growled at me over the phone last night. I didn't think you could be that cold and hard just because my letter was one day late. Are you really that way to other people? I did really want to see your play I'm going to come both nights and come back stage during the intermission and leave with you after the performance. It will be almost as good as carrying it your guitar case. Maybe I’m just not cut out for the scholarly life, it comes so hard. But I'm not going to let this school beat me. I'm intelligent and I'm going to prove. If I could only take courses I enjoy instead of the things like calculus and French.
that's all for now my darling, except to say
I love you,
Can you imagine today’s woman in college being concerned about a ‘growling’ (and probably pompous) boyfriend or graduating to become a “happy housewife?” But then the early '60s were really more like the '50s. And the standards and morays were really far more like those of the late 19th century, then what we think of today as being the liberated woman of the 20th and 21st century. We now think of the 60’s as the beginning of Women's liberation and the freedom of the sexual revolution of the late 60’s. But please remember, that in 1964, two of the biggest female stars and box office draws were Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe!
One of the few things that I did take an interest in that year as the fall turned towards Thanksgiving, was the play. In a conscious or subconscious empathy with my long distance love who was also minoring in Theatre Arts, I got a lead part in the fall play. It was Pygmalion and I played Alfred P. Doolittle - the only part I was interested in because it was a very heavy character part. So while I practiced my cockney, my love practiced her calculus and confessed she was happier with the arts than the sciences. A pattern of so many of our 60’s generation.
By the way, what have you done with that English or philosophy degree? Would you like to know what I've done with mine in and history and psychology? Yup, about that much.
The holiday clock ticked down to Christmas while we, with all the accumulated wisdom of our 17 years, pontificated and analyzed all that was wrong with society and how we were going to change things.
But what we couldn’t see, immersed as we were in our own little of our own little 1960’s sitcom, was that the times – both the world’s and our own - were already …”a-changing”.
And the next letter was a small tear in the fabric. She said she needed to stay at school and study rather than see me next weekend. I began to suspect that there was someone else. Another man? Boy? I mean after all, who in 1964 would give up cuddling and kissing for studying?
December 16th, 1964
Hi there. It's 12:15, and I'm just getting started. Ricky, I'm so stupid. I can't believe it. I always regarded myself as a prodigy, however that image was just a little false. I can't see you before Christmas. I'm going to call to and tell you before you get this. Last night I told you that I could and I stayed up until 3:00 a.m. and work all day to day but I just can't get everything done. I have a play Thursday and a major English paper of the semester is due on Monday and. I have to get a “B” on it and I will have to write it this weekend. I know you'll be hurt, but I can't help it. I have to do well here and please don't make it a million times worse by telling me that you will die if you don’t see me. I want to see you too, very, very badly. But I just can't leave. If I have to worry about you (which I do most of the time) as well as myself I’ll go out of my mind. I get close to that sometimes too.
So Saturday is just another day with classis and studying. I don't know if all this is going to do me any good but I've got to beat this place and prove something to myself and my parents if it kills me. Please my love, try to understand.
I love you so much,
She wrote about the pressures of final exams and blue books, while I was sitting in Algebra II for the second time and failing it again. Sounds like a setup for a bad comedy routine doesn't it. “Hey, I failed Algebra II - twice!
Well, I did - twice. And of course sitting next to my ner-do- well Buddy, Charlie, didn't help matters.
Upon getting our test papers, we immediately wrote F's on them. Then neatly folded them into paper airplanes that would have done an origami aficionado proud, and sailed them up to the professor’s desk. He said it was the most satisfying pair of F’s that he'd ever given.
On the other hand, as much as I was blowing off my Freshman year grades, I was sweating out finals, as it had penetrated even my rebellious brain, that they were my only hope of remaining into college - any college - and avoid having my ass (and other even more important parts) shot off in Vietnam.
Jennifer knew this only too well and she wrote " I really worry that you'll get into some kind of mess when your in one of your black moods " Mess was really an understatement. Like the rolling Stones sang, “It's not easy facing up when your whole world is black."
And so things limped along. Our letters were becoming stale. Our relationship was becoming stale. Our love was becoming stale.
Letters that had been every day, slowed to one or two a week, then one or two a month. We were losing each other. What else was there to say - or do?
Despite what the poets say, everything that has a beginning must also have an end. Hey, that's the first law of the universe... eventual entropy. Still, and I always believed in going out with style. What is it they say? " It's better to burn out, then fade away."
So I wrote her. It was good she said. My best. My farewell Opus
And she wrote me back.
January 24, 1965
My Dear Ric,
Your last letter was one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. I felt as if I were there watching you be so alone in the world. I feel as alone as you now, but that's necessary. We once wanted to hide together from the world and we made it for a while and had so much good and were surprisingly decent people. Yes without You I'm just a big prep and a pseudo something. And without me I know you feel you are not good or complete either.
You know how much I want you to be OK. We don't love the same way, we can't… but we do care what happens to one another. We are with a lot of other people now and it's bad in many ways, but good in some also, because somehow we have to be able to live in this world without letting it ruin us as I'm afraid it has started to.
I'll see you soon and then we’ll talk at all out.
my love and concern,
Her letter was good too. She spoke of our wanting to hide from the world together. We didn't so much hide from the world as chose to make it irrelevant. She said we still cared about what happened to one another and we did - for all the difference it made. She closed with " we have to be able to live in this world without letting it ruin us as I'm afraid it has started to." In many ways it succeeded, because ‘first love’ was already running through our fingers like the sand on last year's summer beach.
The last words she ever wrote me were " I’ll see you soon and then we'll talk it all out."
But it was already the end. The talking likewise ended for good on a night wet with ice pellets and a dismal freezing rain.
As we finally, for the first and last time, and ran out of things to say to one another, I stood close to her and inhaled the sweet scent of her perfume and Terrytons and asked her the one, now dreaded, questioned.
You see, almost a year before, I had read her an old medieval tale about a brave knight and a beautiful princess who was able to capture the fabled unicorn because they could only be caught by a "virgin, pure". So our secret code phrase while parted, was always, " hey, are you still catching unicorns? ". I have to admit that on occasion I had lied, but she'd never had. And she didn't this time either. So when I asked her, already knowing and dreading the answer, she looked up at me, her eyelashes wet with cold rain or tears, and in a very, very small voice said…
" No ".
It was over.
Ric Wasley – Author/Musician
· Shadow of Innocence - Kunati - April 2007
· Acid Test - 2004
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Ric Wasley has spent almost forty years wandering through corporate board rooms and honky-tonk bars. He now divides his time between writing mystery novels and observing the really ‘juicy parts’ of the human condition.