May 3, 2012
Finding a Box of Family Letters
The dead say little in their letters
they haven't said before.
We find no secrets, and yet
how different every sentence sounds
heard across the years.
My father breaks my heart
simply by being so young and handsome.
He's half my age, with jet-black hair.
Look at him in his navy uniform
grinning beside his dive-bomber.
Come back, Dad! I want to shout.
He says he misses all of us
(though I haven't yet been born).
He writes from places I never knew he saw,
and everyone he mentions now is dead.
There is a large, long photograph
curled like a diploma—a banquet sixty years ago.
My parents sit uncomfortably
among tables of dark-suited strangers.
The mildewed paper reeks of regret.
I wonder what song the band was playing,
just out of frame, as the photographer
arranged your smiles. A waltz? A foxtrot?
Get out there on the floor and dance!
You don't have forever.
What does it cost to send a postcard
to the underworld? I'll buy
a penny stamp from World War II
and mail it downtown at the old post office
just as the courthouse clock strikes twelve.
Surely the ghost of some postal worker
still makes his nightly rounds, his routine
too tedious for him to notice when it ended.
He works so slowly he moves back in time
carrying our dead letters to their lost addresses.
It's silly to get sentimental.
The dead have moved on. So should we.
But isn't it equally simpleminded to miss
the special expertise of the departed
in clarifying our long-term plans?
They never let us forget that the line
between them and us is only temporary.
Get out there and dance! the letters shout
adding, Love always. Can't wait to get home!
And soon we will be. See you there.
It's the birthday of the man who wrote, "A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise": Niccolò Machiavelli (books by this author), born in Florence (1469). He had an early career in politics when Italy wasn't a unified country, but rather a collection of allied city-states. It was an unstable time, and he lost his post when the government was overthrown by the Medici family. He wrote The Prince in 1513 as an instruction manual on obtaining and holding onto power, in hopes that he could impress the powerful Medicis and earn a political position. In his treatise, he wrote that morality was irrelevant when it came to running a state. He didn't advocate evil for its own sake, and believed rulers should stick to the good whenever possible. But he also said they should be willing to perform evil acts when it became necessary to hold onto their power and maintain the security of the state.
Machiavelli's attempt to impress the Medicis backfired, and they may never have even read The Prince until after his death. His name became associated with cutthroat tactics and violence, and he never held another government job.
Today is the birthday of the photojournalist Jacob Riis (books by this author), born in Ribe, Denmark (1849). He moved to New York in 1870. He got a job as a police reporter, working the night shift among the crowded tenements of poor immigrants, and he set out to improve their conditions. When flash photography was invented in 1887, he took photographs of the slums of New York and wrote companion essays to form a book, How the Other Half Lives (1890), and it helped bring about housing reforms.
It's the birthday of Israeli poet and novelist Yehuda Amichai (books by this author), born Ludwig Pfeuffer in Würzburg, Germany, in 1924. He moved to Palestine in 1936 and later became an Israeli citizen. He was one of the first poets to write in colloquial Hebrew. He wrote: "A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment, / to laugh and cry with the same eyes, / with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them, / to make love in war and war in love."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®