She couldn’t go home; not yet, anyway; not without an emotional buffer zone. Discovering her grandmother’s letter inside the old dictionary on her shelf at the office, had left her floating between two worlds; the now, and the then at the start of World War I. She remembered the letter vaguely, but hadn’t read it in a long time. She’d glanced at it quickly right after her grandmother died, but either the pain of the moment was too sharp or her curiosity about the past too weak, because she’d put it away for safe keeping in the dictionary left to her as a remembrance of their lessons together. And today, it had dropped in her lap when she was looking up a word in a contract at work.
Now she found herself stopped on her way from the office in front of the beautiful mansion housing the Music Library. Watching people going in and out through massive oak doors, memories of her grandmother rushed back into her head. She’d spent many quiet, happy hours inside the library as a child, so it seemed the perfect place to regroup now. She moved up the marble steps, grateful for their gentle slope that increased her growing sense of calm. The risers were only two inches high, assuring a gradual assent; even the curved edges of each step added to the sense of a smooth, gentle transition to another world. No harsh boundaries here.
Inside the lovely turn-of-the-century landmark, she stopped at the reference room to take stock of its inhabitants before entering. She also felt it only polite to impose her presence on those inside slowly and silently. She recognized the man hunched over his papers by the window. He was always there. A young Asian girl at the big center table, surely a student, was surrounded by books and scores climbing over each other in haphazard order. There was only one empty chair, and an elegant, elderly man with a short, neatly trimmed white goatee, sat in the chair to the left of it. He reminded her of a Castilian voice coach she’d had once; formal without stiffness; classic without stuffiness. Something about him reminded her of her grandmother; an expectation of cultural civility from another time.
She moved to the table, set her bag down quietly under the empty chair, and lowered herself into it with as little disturbance as possible. She eyed the book sitting in front of her, undoubtedly forgotten when her chair’s last tenant moved on. The red hardcover with gilt lettering marked the Deluxe Edition of the Book of 101 Opera Librettos. She knew it well. Her grandmother had given her one on her tenth birthday. It was the first adult book she’d ever owned and was meant to make a point about expanding communication with music. She didn’t use it for reference anymore because she never got to the opera, but it still retained its sentimental value as a bridge to the past.
The stylish man on her left saw her interest in the collection, and smiled approval before returning to his history text. She lifted the heavy cover and found the first page for the opera Carmen quickly. Remembering the book was ordered alphabetically by composer, George Bizet’s lyric drama stood out almost at the front of the roster. Her grandmother had taken great pains to explain Carmen’s commitment to live life on her own terms to a doubtful ten year old granddaughter. Originally convinced the opera was about an evil woman doing bad things, it had taken the little girl a long time to understand. She looked down at the page now and saw Carmen’s familiar aria on love. The words jumped out at her.
“…you wait for it no longer-and there it is. All around you, quickly, quickly, it comes, it goes, then it returns-you think you can hold it, it evades you. You think to evade it, it holds you fast. Love!”
The words prompted her to pull her grandmother’s letter out of her bag. She spread the delicate piece of paper flat. It looked surprisingly fresh, in spite of its age. She took a deep breath and started to read:
England, May 21st, 1914
My Dearest Eleanor; her eyes dropped to the bottom of the page and locked onto the closing and signature. Know that I love you; Andrew.
1914; her grandmother would have been about 18 years old. Odd to think of the woman she’d only known as elderly, suddenly young and the focus of a man’s attention. She stared across the room and saw the little gnome in the window still hunched over his papers. Was he always there just waiting for something? Now he was smaller, condensed over time with all the waiting; and for what? She continued to read.
Sunset here marks another turning point and waste of time. Every day I live without you is another day misspent. Most of the men are going crazy with waiting; waiting to be deployed, waiting to get to France, waiting to join the fighting and waiting to get back home again. I’m not. It’s just not being with you that drives me mad.
She noticed the young student across the table, shuffling aimlessly through the music scores in front of her. They seemed a distraction to keep her busy. It wasn’t working, judging from the anxiety on her face and her far-away look. The war was to be my diversion and excuse. It’s a fraud. There’s nothing in or of this world that could keep my thoughts from you. She wondered if the paragraph of personal longing had upset her grandmother. Undoubtedly. It had upset her too when she’d first read it, but now she felt distant enough to handle the emotion in context with her own memories. No stopping now, so she read on.
How many times have people like us made this same mistake? How many poets, from Shakespeare to Goethe, have told the same tale? The tragedy lies in separating people who are meant to be together. How interesting to find this reference to her grandmother’s favorite poets. The letter’s author had known her well. She looked up across the reference table and imagined Goethe’s Werther agonizing in letters to his lost love. She looked back down at her grandmother’s letter again to finish it.
I know how you hear music with an ear for truth. I wrote this for you in the hopes it might speak to you in a way the rest of my letter can’t. There must have been another page once, possibly a score or the lyrics he’d written, but it was gone now. I carry you with me everywhere I go and always will. If something happens to me in France and we never get another chance, then I’ll reach out for you this way always.
Know that I love you.
She looked up quickly. The final lines of the letter buried their thrust deep in her chest and brought tears to her eyes. She sat at the table in the music library, drowning in memories of a woman she’d known intimately, who’d thought she was right but apparently wasn’t.
Learn from the past, her grandmother had always told her. That had been the motive behind her history lessons and was the message in this letter. That’s why her grandmother had insisted she keep it. Learn the lessons taught by others’ defeats as well as their victories. She sighed and slowly replaced the aged paper in her bag. Where had the time gone? Or had she seen to it there was no time? There was as much time as she chose to have. That’s what her grandmother’s letter was about. The time was hers to do something special with or squander; the same right Carmen had defended to her death. Her choice. No apologies. That was the lesson.
By Sidney S. Stark