ONE LAST LETTER FOR CHRISTMAS
(A Short Story by Mark Wager)
Atop a small hill in a not so far away place stands an old house. Picture in your mind an English country mansion, not that it is English or a true mansion for that matter, but whatever it is (or was) it stands large and majestic, tall and proud and generous with its brick and stone and timber. The house has a dozen windows facing a large lawn with trees and flowers and stonework. And on the other side are a dozen more windows facing a large courtyard. The courtyard hasn’t seen any use for years. Back in the early days it was a magnificent place full of life and laughter and play. Grand parties and social functions were common. It was, at its core, a gathering place. Oh, how we need our gathering places.
In recent years the house has fallen into a state of disrepair. The windows through which flowed sunlight once (and from every indication flowed life itself) now seem dull and cloudy. The blinds on many rooms are drawn, not opened in years. The setting out front, however, stands in stark contrast to the inside. While the inside of the house has grown dark and worn and aged, the front lawn is a work of perfection. Cleanly cut grass. Rows of beautifully arranged flowers of all colors and sizes. Shrubs neatly manicured and shaped in whimsical, almost playful designs are planted in each corner of the property. It is not uncommon to see Mr. Lynch, the house’s owner, out front working on his landscaping. It seems a bit peculiar as I consider it, that for all the times I’ve seen Mr. Lynch outside, neat and polite, I can’t recall the last time I’ve heard of anyone go inside the house. In fact, as I think back, I can’t think of the last time I’ve heard of anyone even approach the house itself, except for one man.
Each week, at the same time of day, a singular man would stop by the old house. His frame was weathered, like a kite left out in the rain and dried by the sun. His dress and demeanor were as unremarkable as everything else about him. One might think him fully indifferent if not for the look in his eyes which appeared in stark contrast to his otherwise inexpressive face. Intentional. He came intentionally and his routine, and his intentions, were the same every day. Yet, for all his desire and persistence he could never get himself to knock on the front door. Each time was the same. In his hand he carried a small #10 white envelope. It was stamped and addressed, hand-written in pen and in clear print, thoughtful and deliberate. The letter could have been mailed, but as intention seemed to predominate, he held the envelope tightly in his hand and delivered it in anonymous fashion.
The man, as the story was told to me, lived on the other side of town. He had for years. He was, in almost every way, a stranger to the owner, Mr. James Lynch. And still, for years the man made his way across town to Lynch’s house. Weekly at first. Then monthly. But always with the same sense of regularity and intentionality. The journey was easy at first. The route down 4th street was a short walk. Then catching the bus to 17th and Vine to make the change to the “Cross-town Express”. This put him within a 10 minute walk of Lynch’s house. The whole trip took 53 minutes. This gave the man ample time to consider his thoughts and intentions. They were different back then, fueled by anger and frustration and misunderstanding. They say time has a way of healing, but in this case the man’s travel across town seemed only to marinade his emotions. And, by the time he’d reach the house he had once again fully hardened himself. Perhaps that is why he never came to the door. Perhaps that is what began the use of letters. No matter, it began and was what it was.
James Ryan Lynch was 27 years old when the letters began to arrive. He had just married his college sweetheart, Olivia. His grandfather had lived long enough to fulfill his hopes to see him, his only grandson, married. And so it would become his belated wedding present to bequeath to James the big house just weeks after his wedding. James was very close to his grandfather, closer to him than to his own father. James’ father had been one of those hard-working men. Driven. Ambitious. Successful. He had little time for his son, let alone his own father. So, the gap between the two created a natural kinship between James and his grandfather. And while James’ own father was successful in almost every way, his inability to connect with either of them was a failure which he could not unriddle. It wasn’t so much that he missed the relationships themselves. Quite simply, it was the only aspect of his life he could not control. And the thought of it was intolerable.
The day of the reading of his grandfather’s will was the day the letters began. It was one of the few times in months James and his father had been in the same room together. When the grandfather’s wishes were expressed, it was a devastating blow. To James was left the house. And to James’ father, he was left only a simple pocket watch. It was a message, about time, about choices, about moments passed and lost in his life’s pursuits. If the gift was intended to bring James’ father back from the edge of the cliff at which he found his relationships — it had the opposite effect. The symbolism was not lost on his father. It enraged him. And it drove him further into himself and further from James. Even harder to bear was that to James, and not his father, his grandfather left the full remainder of his estate. That was the last day James and his father saw each other. And even now, 23 years later, James’ life reeks the fragrance of that day. And for 23 years letter delivery has continued — letters addressed to James Ryan Lynch, Jr. — signed by James Ryan (“J.R.”) Lynch, Sr. — James’ father.
For 23 years letters arrived at the old house. Each time it was the same. A letter was placed in a small black metal opening in the side of a small outcropping of bricks near the entrance of the house. This mail slot fed a chute that delivered the mail to a table in the main foyer. At first the letters were scathing, vicious outbursts from a jilted father. Letter after letter professed the anger and frustration of a man scorned and cheated out of what he thought to be rightfully his. Without question, J.R.’s life also carried with it the residue of that fateful day. The day his Father died was the day his life changed, too. The wealth that came with the future promise of an inheritance had, over the years, provided J.R. with an inflated sense of confidence. The connection in family name had brought a great amount of business his way. But, after the reading of his father’s will, J.R.’s business dried up almost over night. Clients long thought to be his friends simply vanished. And with them all he had vanished, too. The sheer speed at which his life receded only added to the sense of pain and desperation. And so the letters continued. What started as a backlash became an obsession. And what continued as an obsession eventually became a cry for more.
For years, J.R. wrote from a dark place, but circumstances chart a path. Pain motivates. And time does, in fact, have a way of preparing a man’s heart for healing. And so, with his words spent and having said everything that could be said, J.R.’s heart began to shift. He found himself longing for what he had missed out on for some many years. The symbolism of that simple pocket-watch, given to him years before by his father, finally began to have it’s intended effect. James Ryan Lynch, Sr., the proud, powerful, successful, broken, lost, alone man was ready to repent. And now, more than ever, he longed for reconciliation.
Week after week and month after month of delivering letters had taken its toll. When James junior began receiving them it was all he could do to hold himself together. It was one thing to lose his grandfather, but add to that the loss of a father is a catastrophic thing. Fathers just don’t know the effect they have on their sons. And too often, they perpetuate their own past on their sons. Why is this? When, after all, every man feels the effects of his own father’s life upon himself. It’s paradoxical. And James was no exception. He carried the full weight of his father’s disappointment, and it crushed him. Letter after letter saying essentially the same thing, “you are worthless and unwanted“. “You are to blame for my failures.” It was too much to bear. But then, as abruptly as the letters began arriving, they stopped. For 12 years letters arrived with precise regularity. Then, nothing.
Time passed for James, too. He, like his father, found time has a way of stirring old longings and blurring the details of the past. Sometimes toward pain. Sometimes toward bitterness. But sometimes a softening of the harsh edge of details, toward healing. In James’ case, time brought a grace with it, a desire for healing. Even with all the pain and hurt caused by the letters, he found himself missing the connection he once had with his father. His father wasn’t always the ambivalent, dissatisfied man he’d become. Their relationship wasn’t always distant and distracted. Before the wealth and striving and need to prove himself to the world, J.R. was warm and alive and engaged. And, as bizarre and painful as the initial letters were, the last few letters hinted a different tone. A softened tone. And this subtle shift planted a seed of hope. James would have never believed it was a seed of any kind at the time, but now so many years after the letters stopped coming he longed for hope to sprout. But after all that had passed, he had absolutely no idea how to cultivate it.
It was on December 19th that James Sr. made what would be his final trip across town to the house. It was 23 years to the day since the arrival of the first letter. It was to be his last ditch effort, his “Hail Mary”. Now years later, the trip would take much longer. J.R. was by then 74 years old and suffered from the usual effects of age. Bad knees and lower back-trouble making even the short route down 4th street difficult. And even though catching the bus to 17th and Vine was simple enough, the cross town express service had long been canceled. It took 6 bus changes and a full one-mile walk to get to the house. The trip would take him almost 2 hours each way. But J.R. knew he had to make the trip. His intentions had changed, no longer fueled by anger and frustration, but by a desire to see rectified these years of misunderstanding, neglect, and silence.
The years of travel across town had done their work. What began as anger settled into hurt, and then, perspective. Being able to go over and over the past in his mind he couldn’t help but begin to see other aspects. Like examining a diamond with its facets and dimensions, each perspective unique and important to the whole, each adding to the brilliance and worth, and each one cut at the hands of someone close. He had come full circle, ending up hoping against all hope that he could make a change. So, he carefully placed the white #10 envelope in his coat pocket and set out.
Once arriving to the old house the routine was as it had always been. He made his way around the perimeter of the large lawn, past the hedges and sculptured cuttings and embellishments. It suddenly dawned on him, he had never noticed these before. There was a hedge sculpted into the shape of an elephant. Remarkable, he thought to himself. Continuing on, he headed to the small black metal opening in the side of a small outcropping of bricks near the entrance of the house. Gently he placed the envelope into the slot, but it would not fit because of its contents. J.R. wrestled with it for a moment and lodged it free, closed the cover, and began his trek home. Except for the problem with the mail slot, it was a routine delivery.
James Jr. arrived home early that day. He wanted to get a few additional decorations up in the front of the house before dark. He made his way down to the basement to retrieve the boxes of decorations and lights. He was just turning to pull the string to extinguish the overhead light when he noticed them. Under the stairwell, in a small cavity behind a loose panel on the far wall, he could make out what looked to be envelopes. ‘Strange‘, he thought to himself. He’d never noticed them before. This wasn’t a place he had ever placed any envelopes, or anything for that matter. He moved closer to inspect, and pulling down on a loose board, they broke free.
He knew in a moment it must be from the old mail slot near the front door. But that slot hadn’t been used in years, not since a neighborhood boy as a strange prank tried to shove a rake down the tube, and a new box was installed across the street. But here they were, letter after letter tumbling out of the gap in the wall. Years of silence pouring out, drenching the floor… letters, hand-delivered for years, now lay in a pile like old memories, like thoughts in someone’s mind, never spoken, never heard, intentions never realized. And then it hit him, the addresses, they were all from his father.
He hesitated. He knew what they would contain. The sheer number of envelopes was astounding, but he couldn’t get himself to open them. He didn’t know what to do. So he grabbed a large trash bag and scooped up the whole pile. Having learned from his father the lessons of both hard work and avoiding dealing with difficult issues of the heart, James carried outside his boxes of decorations and lights, and the large trash bag.
He always loved to make the outside of his house look good, especially at this time of year. Christmas time always seemed to hold an uncommon loneliest for James. And if he couldn’t fix what was going on inside, then he was determined to decorate the outside. He continued his work for two full hours, and in his periphery, continually aware of the presence of the letters. With every move he would catch glimpses of the bag. And finally, after two hours of fleeing his thoughts, he could avoid it no longer. He must confront the bag.
His goal at this point was simply to end his anxiety, his pain, his curiosity. And so he dragged the bag, with its years of letters and pain and memories, grabbed a small gas can from the shed, and proceeded around the back of the house. There in a small circular, grass-less ring was a small burn-pile where he would often burn Autumn leaves. Picking up the bag, he dumped the pile into the deadened space. As each envelope fell, he could feel the weight of each letter. Each letter a passing year — a replay of the other letters, the harsh words, the distance, and the loneliness he felt. It was almost too much to bear. And then, he saw it.
He spotted the envelope. It was partially covered by the stack of plain white “No. 10” size envelopes. This envelope was different, goldenrod, thicker than all the rest. It contained something more than paper. The thought of what it might hold nagged at him. It cried out to be opened. James couldn’t will himself to reach out for it. He stood for what must have been minutes. Then, with trembling hands, he found the strength to reach down and picked it up. Making his way to the rear steps, with sweaty palms, James tore through the end of the thick envelope. And, turning it upside down he allowed the contents to fall into his still trembling hands. What he saw he couldn’t believe. He recognized it in an instant. It was a watch. A simple, beautiful, pocket-watch. The very same watch given to James’ father, J.R., on the last day he saw him.
The thick envelope also contained a letter. It was as brief as any J.R. had previously written but contained more heart, more honesty, more hope than ever before. It read only, “I have learned. I have suffered. I am sorry for all I’ve done. I am sorry for all I’ve missed. I was wrong. Please forgive me. Love, Dad”.
It was as if the weight of the countless letters became the weight of the years themselves — and they fell on him all at once. He collapsed under it and utterly fell apart. His response actually caught him off guard. But how could anyone prepare themselves for such a discovery. Laying there, unable to process all that was going through his mind and heart, he sobbed. He sobbed for the past, for the loss of all the years, for his lost marriage, for the estrangement from his own son. For the first time in years he allowed himself to feel. And he sobbed for the accumulation of all of it. When he had spent everything he had inside, released the pain of every moment of the last 23 years, he sat up still holding the pocket-watch in his hands. He knew what it meant. It was all his father had left of his father. It meant everything. It was the punctuation to the words in this final letter. It was time to forgive. It was time to reach out.
And that is the story, as it was told to me. Every detail, every word true. I believe it and I can attest to its validity, but I can understand if you’re skeptical. We all experience pain and disappointment. Most of us have received less than we deserved from our own fathers. Many of us have given far less to our own sons than they deserved. And so many of us have yet to accept the invitation to walk the unfamiliar paths of healing, understanding, and forgiveness in the direction of our own fathers. And so, it can feel hopeless, crazy even, to hold out hope for restoration. It doesn’t feel real, or probable, or possible. Where do we even start, right? But, we must. Start. The lives of others depend on it.
The decisions made by J.R. and James changed the lives of those around them. Their decisions changed my life. Their brave decisions to grieve, to forgive, and to reach out changed my life. You see, my name is James Ryan Lynch, III. J.R. is my grandfather. And like my father before me, I have been given a chance to know my Grandfather and find restoration with my Dad.
That was one year ago to the day. Now, the big house is full of life again. The day after my Dad found the pocket-watch he went and found Grampa-J.R.. He’d been living in a small duplex across town. Funny thing is, for the last few years it was only one block from my Dad’s office. I guess sometimes we’re not as far from each other as we might think. Of course, it’s taken some time, but they’ve worked on their issues with that classic Lynch determination. And what they learned drew me in, too. I wish I could put into words what this means to me. My Grandfather has made good on every word of his last letter. Not that he is perfect, but better than that, he tries, in tangible and genuine ways, he tries. He offers himself. And he is once again becoming the man I heard about — alive and engaged and free. And on my father, his choices had a cascading effect. In much the same way as J.R. and my father, my father and I have found hope to make our peace, and to rebuild our lives together. And as for that special pocket-watch — they had it encased in glass. It now sits atop the large mantle for all to see — an enduring reminder of all my great-grandfather meant it to symbolize — Time with each other is precious. Treat it as the gift it is.
Well, I’ve got to get going. There is much to do if we want to have Granddad moved in by Christmas. Oh, did I forget to mention it? J.R. is moving back into the big house. My father wants to make the most of his time. It feels so good to have family living in the old house again. I’m guessing the yard won’t get as much attention anymore, but that’s ok with me. It’s inside where life is to be lived.