A FEW weeks ago I was sorting through a box of old papers and came across a group of letters from my late grandfather. Grandpa Bill, who lived in Texas, was a faithful correspondent. The letters, dozens of them, are almost all typewritten on a thin, delicate onionskin paper. Sometimes he wrote to all four of his grandchildren at once, making copies by sticking shiny sheets of carbon paper between each piece of stationery. How old-fashioned it seems today.
The letters were affectionate and newsy and would update us on my grandparents’ health and travels, which rarely took them farther than the Texas hill country, about an hour from their home in Austin. I have only one handwritten epistle from my grandfather, and it begins with this: “Ordinarily I would use a typewriter for legibility if for nothing else, but Grandmother Lawson is asleep and the clatter of the typewriter would disturb her. I don’t like to do that as she needs all the rest she can get.”
Even in mundane descriptions, my Grandpa Bill’s manner of speaking came through on the page. “The weather down here right now is awful,” he wrote one July. “It is Texas-hot. And I’ve heard it said that is hotter than the hinges of hell.” Or this, when he heard I had broken a bone: “I know a lot of sorry old people that I would not care a whit if they broke their arms, but you are certainly not in that class nor one of them.”
I don’t know if he meant to make me laugh with this line of comfort, but he did, because it sounded so much like his irreverent self. Or there was this, after a lengthy description of someone he was worried about: “If I were a religious man I would pray for him. But I’m not.”
When I got married in New York, my grandparents were not well enough to travel to our wedding. But I so wanted my new husband to meet them that not long after returning from our honeymoon, we traveled to Texas to see them. Austin in August, while it might not be quite “the hinges of hell” that my grandfather described, was not for the faint-hearted. It was unbearably humid, yet my husband insisted on wearing a tie and jacket on the plane ride down. He wanted to make a good impression. And sure enough, there was my grandpa at the gate, himself in a suit and tie, but with the addition of a Stetson. He shook my husband’s hand vigorously, announcing, “I like the look of you, boy!”
There were moments on that trip when I thought we would have the shortest marriage on record, and I am referring specifically to those times when my grandfather was driving us around Texas to show us the countryside. He was about 84 then, and his vision and reflexes had deteriorated considerably. Once, when we were careening down the highway, he commented randomly, “I love those red cars,” and after a pause added, “ ’cause you can see them.” After that, either my husband or I would pipe up: “Look, Grandpa! A blue car!” or “Here comes a green one!”
Sometimes my grandfather would veer off the highway completely, bumping his big sedan along the shoulder, all the while swearing about how they just didn’t maintain the roads like they used to. Once he got us on some bumpy dirt road that had multiple warning signs that we were trespassing on private property and to turn back. “I love these old country roads,” he pronounced serenely. “You never see another car on them.”
My grandmother wasn’t well enough (or in retrospect perhaps she was too wise) to accompany us on these car trips, but she did rally for Mexican food at night. We had long talks on their front porch in the evenings. At the end of our visit, my grandfather pulled me aside to tell me he very much approved of my “young man,” even if he was a Washington Redskins fan — although he found that somewhat excusable. “The boy doesn’t know any better,” I remember him saying. “He was raised that way. It’s his people.”
That was the last time I saw my grandfather. My husband and I returned to New York, and we were soon busy with our jobs and then with starting a family.
But the letters back and forth continued. Grandpa Bill was thrilled to hear I was expecting a baby, though nervous. “When it comes to my family, I am a regular worrywart and I am never at ease until I hear everything is well,” he wrote. He was thrilled to hear all went well with the birth and especially delighted that I gave my daughter the middle name of Lawson, which was his surname.
The very last letter I got from him contained a message for her. “Since we do not get to see that beautiful, precious little Jeanie I can assure you we nearly eat pictures of her on sight,” he wrote. “Some of these years after Jeanie is old enough to understand, please assure her she had two great-grandparents who adored her, even as they love and treasure her parents today.”
My grandfather died when my daughter was 2 months old. Because I only recently found the trove of letters, I delivered his message some 23 years later. Both my daughter and I cried. How grateful I am that he and I corresponded before the Internet was invented. Had we written e-mail messages, they would be gone, ephemeral things, lost in cyberspace. Instead, I have these old-fashioned letters — fading and delicate on their thin parchment but oh such a solid piece of my grandfather.