This past Sunday I was one of six participants in a Women Writing Letters event sponsored by Gailey Road Productions. Every time I read with them or just go to hear the stories, I’m always impressed with what memories are triggered by the letter writing process. There seems to be something that gets inspired just by starting a writing project with the word, “Dear….” I come from a letter writing family — or, at least, some of its members. My mother wrote to dozens of people on a regular basis and saved all the letters that people sent to her — including mine from my years in Europe which formed the basis for Mediterranean Journey.
On Sunday, three of the women reading were in their early 20s so 18 was not so very long ago but their stories were full of pain and joy and discovery. They were remarkable, as were the women in their 50s who wrote of boyfriends and college and starting jobs. I was definitely the senior member of the panel but, you know, when writing this letter I was back being my 18-year-old-self.
Dear Annie Eyerman,
Oh, it’s nice to see you, girl. I’m looking at that picture of you in the sweet, summery yellow-and-white-gingham dress — you still have your Cape Cod tan. You wore it that Saturday morning when the guy came into the office and said he was from The Lantern, and wanted to take your picture. You laughed and, I think, probably blushed a little. You were also just a little bit scared of him. Was it because there was no one else around or because he was flirting with you? I think the latter. You had a hard time recognizing flirting because you never believed any guy could think of you that way. It’s really too bad, that you hadn’t had more experience with flirting and dating and necking and crushes and broken hearts during high school. That would have made your life working at the university a lot more fun. But you didn’t. And that was that!
You gave the guy with the camera one of your flip, what Mom would have called “smart-alecky,” replies.You just couldn’t believe that some nice, young guy with a camera would really think you were cute enough to take a picture of. You told him his camera was going to break if he took a picture, BUT you still let him do it. I liked that about your spirit. You cocked your head back and laughed when he put the camera to his eye and ordered you to say, “Go Buckeyes.” But then you didn’t even ask him what his name was or what he was studying. Normal, girl meets boy on college campus kind of talk. You let him leave before he could ask you to go out on a date or have a Coke or walk down by Mirror Lake that summer afternoon.
But I understand because you just didn’t know how to have those kinds of conversations, did you? And why should you have? You went through those awful four years at St. Francis de Sales High School where you might as well have been invisible for all any of those boys ever noticed. Did anyone ever say, “Hey, Ann, want to go to the sock hop on Saturday?” No. OR, Or, at the sock-hop, come over and ask you to dance a slow dance? Not-a-one — you can’t really count Frankie D. who came over and said, “Well, there’s no one else to ask so I might as well dance with you.” Not exactly confidence building material when it comes to boys and flirting and feeling good about yourself.
But, you know what Annie, even if you didn’t have a lot of confidence in your looks or your smarts or anything else, you still had spunk. There you were, your little 18-year-old, naïve, poorly educated, wrong-side-of-Cleveland-Avenue self bunged smack dab in the middle of all those over-educated, egotistical, French speaking, older academics and you, you Annie, didn’t drown or run away or go mute or quit. Bravo, girl, bravo.
It wasn’t easy though was it? You were constantly having to be on High Alert when they’d come into that big open room to get their mail. You didn’t have any place to hide, no door to close, no shelter from their storm. You, were an open target to anything they wanted to throw your way whether some sharp, clever quip or a question they knew you couldn’t answer or just totally ignoring you like you weren’t sitting right there in front of them. I know, most of the time you didn’t have a clue what those guys were talking about anyway.
That’s why you got to be real, real good at listening, observing and honing those little sarcastic barbs of yours so you could hide your fear from them and hope they didn’t see through it. That was hard work, my friend. But the real sad part is that the better you got at the banter and the longer you sat at that old wooden desk, the easier it was to forget that you were just 18 years old, Annie.
You were still a girl not a woman. 18 — not 22 or 25 or 30 like the guys you went out to lunch with every day at Pomerean Hall. You thought they took you and Susie along because they liked your company — and they probably did. Why wouldn’t they? You two weren’t like the graduate students they were dating. You were pure — not in the sense of your virginity which you certainly were pure-pure-pure — but that you were fresh, naive, sweet, pliable. And because of that, they tried to change who you were.
Remember when you got all excited at lunch because you were going to the football game on Saturday. You were chattering on about your favorite players and how you loved the marching band and just being in the stadium was so great. Then one of them said in that — “I am older and definitely wiser” — voice, “Annie, there are big things and small things and Ohio State football is not a big thing.” It made you sad and embarrassed, didn’t it?
So after that, you tried to hide that 18-year-old self deeper inside. But that got harder for you when they started asking you out on real dates. It was one thing being their lunch mascot but another sitting in a dark movie theater and not knowing what to do about that arm around your shoulders.
Oh, sweet Annie, you were caught somewhere in between being a girl and being a woman and not comfortable in either place. You were good with your womanly disguise. You had older sisters who were already “out there in the world” working and dating and going to movies and dances at the Valley Dale on Saturday nights. You picked up clues from them and borrowed their grown-up dresses and high heeled shoes. But that was only your facade. Inside, your heart was still full of swooning teen-age put-your-head-on-my-shoulder dreams of romance.
Oh, it’s too bad that your first falling-in-love wasn’t with someone else other than Ned. Like maybe that nice 20 year old student who took you out to a bar where they played country western music and you drank beers from long-necked bottles and you understood everything the guy was talking about. But that’s not how it played out for you. You wore that beating heart of yours on your sleeve for Ned a very, very long time until it finally slipped off one day and you were free.
You, Annie, were a pretty remarkable 18-year old. Maybe that’s truly what all those guys saw but couldn’t appreciate without changing you. I am so thankful to you for somehow holding on to who you were through it all. You know, well you don’t, but I’m going to tell you, everything good that would get me through the rest of my life started then because of you. You started to trust that you were intelligent. You started to write and take classes. You started honing your good, albeit sometimes sarcastic, sense of humor. And, you started to like yourself just a little. And even though you hid all this deep in your heart where it couldn’t be stolen, it was all still there and ready for excavation when the time was right. Thank you, Annie, for my life.
With much affection,