My Dad's Legacy of Letters

Five years ago today, my Dad passed away. It's hard to explain the significance of the loss of a parent, but let's just say it changed my life in ways I never expected. I'm not heart-sick about it anymore, in the way I was in the immediate aftermath and in the year following. But if I think too long about his absence, I get a pang in my gut that lingers for a little while. I no longer pick up the phone thinking I'll call him about something, like I did in the months after he died. But every once in awhile, I come across a book or a problem or a history-related question and I wish I could run it by him.

I don't have any regrets with regard to our relationship, something I know is a gift and a blessing when one experiences a pretty sudden loss. There's nothing I wish I'd said or done differently. But I do regret (and realize it's completely beyond my control) that Dad never met my kids. He never knew my little sister pregnant or me. Fortunately, he knew my two beautiful nieces, my older sisters' kids, so I'm comforted by the knowledge that he became a grandfather in this life.

Still, there's an empty space in my own children's family tree. They'll never meet "Grandpa Owen," who's warm smile and crinkly eyes gaze out into the room from a wall in our den. And yet, they will, on some level, know him. That's because Dad, in addition to leaving an indelible impression on me, which I'm determined to share with my boys, left behind a collection of artifacts that have helped me understand him better, even since his death.

You see, my Dad wrote a lot of letters. When he wrote letters to me, he had a knack for dropping them in my lap in the most nonchalant ways at the most monumental moments. As I walked on the plane, bound for my study-abroad experience in Australia my junior year of college, Dad handed me a thick envelope, stuffed with page after page of his thoughts on international travel and what awaited me on the other side of the Pacific. 

He'd done the same thing a couple years earlier as he and Mom dropped me off at college. I remember holding back tears as they drove away, headed home to California, my heart thumping, my hands clutching a letter Dad had just handed me. I waited until that night to read it alone, five or six pages of musings and advice on college in Dad's unmistakable handwriting, and sobbed with homesickness. 

The letters weren't always so dramatic (nor was I, I think). One email I received in the midst of a rough Navy move back in 2008 contained just a few sentences, but concluded with the words 

"Nick just wants you to be happy. So... BE HAPPY."

I think I knew before Dad died about his Navy letters, but I didn't start combing through them until more recently. A little background: I had an old Dad. He was forty-nine when I was born; it was his second marriage. So, he was old. When, in second grade, my teacher asked us how old our parents were, I - very confidently - said "fifty-six!" She said "No, not your grandfather." My folks got a kick out of that one.

Anyway, Dad had a whole life before I arrived on the scene, and that life included a stint in the Navy during the Korean War. He flew jets off of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown. During his years in the service, he wrote over seven-hundred letters to his parents. And thanks to my Grandpa Owen's meticulous record-keeping, we have every single one, numbered and in order of their receipt. 

Sidenote: Have you picked up on the fact that there are a lot of "Owens" in this family?

The first of the 700+ series is dated 13 July 1952, 0930. I love that Dad had already adopted the military way of dating a letter! He was surely embracing the culture only a few days into flight school. Dad was twenty-one years old at the time. He goes on about the details of life in Pensacola, when he'll get his uniform, how his psychological tests have gone.

He writes, "the one thing I'm proud to report is that I haven't been the least bit homesick. I've been trying to buck up all the guys who aren't in the best of spirits yet." And then he promises to write again soon.

When I found out about the letters, but before I'd read them, I remember asking Dad if he'd written them because he was homesick. He said no, he wrote them because his parents wanted to hear from him. They missed him. And so Dad wrote to ease their worries, to keep in touch, to reassure them, even though he didn't need to write for himself. He wrote for them, because he loved them.

And so, these letters are a legacy in many ways. The Navy letters give me insight into a very young version of my father, and they remind me that sometimes we ought to reach out because even if we have nothing we need to say, someone else may need a bit of encouragement, love or reassurance.

The letters he gave me, many decades later, are filled with the wisdom of a guy who'd experienced quite a bit, and was willing to pass it on to me whether I wanted to hear it or not. His advice seems to be pretty timeless, so far. So my kids will know Dad, though they'll never meet him, because he took the time to reach out to someone else who needed to hear from him. His tender heart and patience and wisdom fill those envelopes. What a legacy, indeed.