A few more sections to go. This one’s a little long. Sorry about that. I really appreciate allowing me to share these with you. While Carlene’s project happened years ago, putting these stories out here is healing all over again.
In Part 4, the letters and email began arriving in earnest. As Carlene’s project progressed, so did my deepening awareness of my unresolved grief.
Here’s Part 5:
With every email and every letter, the 200-pound, 19-year-old me tapped at my window, begging to be let in, but I resisted. The first couple dozen responses were easy to take, and while I visited a few soft spots reading what people wrote, I was in control emotionally and physically, still DASH dieting and heading down the scale. But the girl who was widowed and left a single mother could not be silenced. She had unresolved issues that she demanded the 200-pound, 36-year-old me deal with.
Bruce’s high-school girlfriend, Mary, selected a few letters Bruce had written to her when he went off to college that she thought Carlene would like to have. When I read Mary’s initial email offering to send the letters to Carlene, I remembered a moment from the day of Bruce’s funeral, when the mortuary’s limousine was parked in front of the church and I was sitting in the front seat between the driver and my grandmother waiting for the processional to the cemetery to begin.
Mary’s family lived in a stone house near the church. I saw her leave the church and I watched her walk briskly across the street.
It could be you sitting in this car, I thought as a couple of tears welled.
I wish it was you.
I shifted in the seat to reach for a tissue in my coat pocket and felt the pull of 35 stitches between my legs. (Note: Carlene was 9 pounds when she was born and I was still recovering from her delivery 2 weeks earlier.) I caught the tears with my gloves and I thought about Carlene. I felt grace in the knowledge that she was my daughter. If Mary or anyone else was sitting in that car, Carlene wouldn’t be mine. l would never have known Bruce’s silly humor, freezing feet and balding head. I wouldn’t have warmed baby pigs born at 2 a.m. on a cold winter night or sat in a tractor in a bean field after the sun went down singing “Endless Love” at the top of my lungs.
I also wouldn’t have learned how one simple moment in a car on the way to a burial could feel as real in the present as it did when it happened 17 years earlier. I sent Mary an email thanking her for helping Carlene with her project, and in my mind, thanked her for not being Carlene’s mother.
Shortly after Mary’s envelope of letters arrived, Carlene received a package from Bruce’s high school choir director. Bruce was a talented tenor who won every choral award possible in high school. He toured Europe with America’s Youth In Concert, and was a member of the Statesman’s Chorus at South Dakota State University. When we were alone, he talked about leaving the farm and pursuing a music career. That’s what made Mr. Jones’s gift so difficult to receive and yet the most important piece of Bruce’s past anyone could give Carlene.
“You’re not supposed to have favorites when you’re teaching,” said Mr. Jones in a cassette recording. “But Bruce was one of my all-time favorites and as far as vocal music is concerned, probably my best performer. As far as his personality, Carlene, your dad…was always with a ready smile, very polite, very positive, calm and really quite unflappable. I wish I had some of those characteristics.
“Along with the program from ‘Lil Abner,’ I’m sending a very poor tape of a rehearsal we had for ‘Oklahoma!’ Keep in mind that this was a number of years ago and it was a little hand-held tape recorder and on a stage where there was a lot of activity. Much of the voice is lost, but at least you have an inkling of what Bruce sounded like. Hope you enjoy it.”
Bruce was a senior when he played the lead in “Oklahoma!” and during every performance my 13-year-old butt was planted in the second row with my eyes focused only on him. My heart flip-flopped when he sang the duet, “People Will Say We’re In Love,” and as I listened, I secretly hated the female lead. I couldn’t sing my way out of a bag, but I wanted to be Laurey. I wanted Bruce to sing to me and kiss me. But Bruce never paid any attention to me when he’d come over to our house with my older sister’s friend whom he was dating or when I’d go out of my way to walk past his locker when I wore my junior high cheerleading outfit. I was just Debbie’s little sister. An eighth-grade nobody.
Twenty-two years later, I was his widow and the mother of his child, and I was standing in a living room in western Pennsylvania holding a tape of him singing “The Surrey With The Fringe On The Top.”
All these years I’d kept Bruce’s memory comfortably alive in photographs where he was safely one-dimensional. Dead. The last time I heard his voice, I was sitting on the living room floor changing Carlene’s diaper. He got on his knees and kissed her cheek.
“Goodbye, Carlene. Be a good baby for mommy.” Then Bruce kissed me on the head and said, “See you at noon! Love you!”
Now I was in a different living room and standing next to an almost grown up Carlene. I feared the joy of hearing his voice again wouldn’t be enough to counter the dread of remembering he was dead. Holding the tape was like holding the pull cord to a net filled with grief disguised as confetti. If I played the tape, I’d release the grief and surely it would bury me again.
Then I looked at Carlene, who’d only known her father through the voices of others. Her face was beaming with excitement. She was only 11 days old when he died, much too young to remember what he sounded like. Without me, she might not know which voice was his on the tape. I thought how I’d witnessed so many of her firsts – first step, first day of school, first date, all the things Bruce missed – and decided that despite anything I feared, I couldn’t miss the first time she heard her father’s voice.
I put the cassette in the tape deck and hit play. We stood there staring at it like we were looking into the sky for a shooting star. Just as Mr. Jones said, there was the raucous sound of teenagers laughing and a pit band rehearsing. Then, like fine tuning the radio, I pulled Bruce’s voice out of the chaos. Rather than a net spewing grief, his voice spread into the room like a warm blanket. He was singing in our living room, his voice playful, animated, and for me, familiar. I was relieved that I hadn’t forgotten what he sounded like and I was grateful to Mr. Jones for helping me introduce Carlene to her father in that one, small way.
Carlene listened, wide-eyed, and hung on to every word he spoke and sang.
“I’ve never had the whole package, Mom,” she whispered.
Carlene saw images, heard stories, and handled tangible pieces of physical evidence that her father had been alive once, but in all her life, he’d not been a part of the family. She was a Bouwman. Her grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins were Bouwmans. But Bruce, in his absence from her visits at Christmas or Easter or during school breaks, wasn’t. He was a face in a photo that looked a lot like her, but he was never a living breathing member of the family she’d grown up with. Then Carlene heard his voice, and in it, she heard her grandparents and uncles and cousins. More importantly, she heard herself. Finally, Bruce was more than her father. He was her dad.
In the written portion of her project, Carlene wrote about the tape, “It was by far the best gift I could ever receive! If anything happened to it, I’d be crushed.”