I never really knew much about my father. He was killed by a drunk driver when I was five. My mother, left with three little children and not much in the way of resources, was devastated.
For years, she was unable to talk about him. No photographs of my dad were displayed in our home. Childish questions about him brought no answers, just tears. Her memories remained raw, too painful to share.
But she kept hundreds of letters he’d written to her, almost daily, during their four-year courtship. The marriage was postpone numerous times. First, they waited for him to regain his health after a near-fatal illness during his premed studies.
Then they waited until he got a a master’s degree and university teaching job, because he wanted to be a good provider. (The family came later. More waiting until, against all odds, he finally got his long-delayed M.D. degree.)
He went on to become the sole physician in Ellettsville, Indiana, where he soon became an integral part of all aspects of community life. He only lived another seven years before the fatal accident, but his impact on the town was huge. I guess you could say he was a big fish in a small Midwestern pond.
As an adult, I was given copies of the glowing obituaries for Rayburn Castle Austin, M.D., written years earlier. It was like reading about someone I’d heard of but didn’t really know.
Then, just before my mother’s death at age 96, she gave the letters to me and my sister, and we divided them up. I stuck mine away in storage, unread, while I moved around the country.
When I finally brought the letters home, I stared at them. Why did my mother keep them all those years? To my knowledge, she never re-read the letter — too painful. So she must have intended for her children to read them. Maybe that was her way of helping us to finally get to know him.
I decided I should read the letters.
My mother stored them in cardboard boxes in her overhead garage space. Unfortunately, mice found them, and a number were destroyed beyond readability; others were left decorated with big holes and mousie teeth marks.
Still, many of them were in surprisingly good condition. But reading them was not easy. My dad wrote with pencil and green ink, which had faded over time. And his handwriting, a typical doctor’s script, was difficult to decipher.
But as I read, a picture of him began to emerge. Some of the letters ache with loneliness and longing for his sweetheart, true love letters. Most are accounts of his everyday life, with all its joys, difficulties, rewards and frustrations.
I saw that by using the words he wrote, I could build up a mind’s-eye model of him, the way a child builds a Starship out of Lego bricks.
So that’s what I did. It’s a picture that will always be unfinished, but now I can fill in a lot more of the white spaces: who my father was, the ways I’m like him, the ways we differ. That means so much to me.
I wish I had truly known him, but I am so grateful for what I’ve learned, and so thankful to my mother for her unexpected gift.
Note: None of her letters to him have survived; perhaps she destroyed them.
Postscript: A month after his death, my dad was given a posthumous Community Service Award by Indiana Governor Henry F. Schricker, who paid tribute to his life of service, and presented a memorial plaque to his young widow, my mother. At the ceremony, held at the Ellettsville Consolidated School, the governor also placed the first shovelful of dirt around a tree planted in my father’s memory.
Until I read about the award as an adult, I never knew that at the school I attended as a child, there was a tree planted for my father. I wonder if it is still there.