Letters from my Father
July 5th, 2016
Your mother and I are very proud of you on this day, as well as unduly impressed with your tenacity and courage in pursuing your dreams of becoming a more fully realized writer at age sixty-one. You are and always have been a dogged and determined girl, but as E.B. White said in your (still?) favorite book, Charlotte’s Web, you were always “one spectacular” writer to us. Mom and I shall look forward to many great stories from you in the future.
With all our love and best wishes,
Mom and Dad
I imagine my father thumbing a piece of his formal stationery from the shiny, ecru Crane’s stationery box on the top of his desk—the paper engraved with his name, Robert Ekko Sollmann, in the center. I imagine him addressing a brief letter to me, his eldest daughter, the middle child, the one he called Gilly—because it was a lovingly silly nickname and all of us had one—on one of my most notable days.
I can envision him sitting at his pine desk in the library of my childhood home, my mother nearby him on the crackled leather sofa, both surrounded by shelves of books on mountaineering, Tibet and Nepal, the Arctic, American antiques—subjects and places they loved. The shelves, interspersed with artifacts from their days of exploring and trekking in those far-away places—treasures and remembrances of a life well lived, journeys taken on paths less traveled. Dad’s desk chair, an antique ladderback with a rush seat that he refinished years ago—I can picture the bow of it from the weight of his tall frame and the extra pounds age can bring (too much ice cream at bedtime, he’d say in self-recrimination), just as I can still hear the straw crackle as he sits down to compose his thoughts, picking up his fine point, black felt-tip between his calloused fingers and, with a slight tremor in his hand, pushing it across the envelope.
To my daughter, upon receiving her master of fine arts degree
And although he never had the chance to write this letter, because he died during my first semester, he would have slipped the envelope with the carefully worded note inside into my hand. But I wouldn’t want to read my father’s note because I’d have known it would bring tears to my eyes as I sat on stage waiting for my name to be called to receive my diploma. His notes and letters always had a profound effect on me.
But on that hot July day, sitting in a hard, plastic chair on the graduation stage, I had no letter in my hand. I looked out into the audience and saw only my husband and daughter. I could only imagine my father smiling back at me, wiggling his eyebrows, trying to make me laugh instead of cry—and my mother smiling, blowing me a kiss, my father’s hand tightly clasped in hers.
He knew how hard I worked to find my way back to writing after so many years away from it, but I often wonder if he knew he was the reason I had trekked so far to reach my own summit.
Spectacular writer or not, my father had believed in me—even when I stopped believing in myself, which was often in my six decades. The years when I thought my writing life was over, I was actually writing to an enthusiastic and encouraging audience of one through our frequent letters. The imaginary note he might have written for my graduation would surely have been tucked into one of his most favorite books from his library shelf. I would have bundled the note in a black camp trunk with the many others I have kept in my cellar for more than two decades.
Dad and I exchanged written correspondence, in part, because phone calls were sometimes difficult for him to hear, especially when Mom took over the extension. He had almost no hearing in one ear, which his family called “the bad ear,” and only 30 percent in the other, which we called “the good ear.” The bad ear was caused by a hunting accident when he was a teenager—a shotgun held too close to his eardrum, scaring up coveys of pheasant on the New Jersey farm where he was raised, and where I was raised until I was twelve.
The farm is a special place where four generations of my family had lived for seven decades. My husband and I bought it from the family estate in 1995 when it went up for sale. It’s where I keep the black camp trunk full of letters, notes, and cards my family has exchanged for my entire life. I think of them as snapshots of another kind—the sender’s voice and intonations are ineradicable on the paper—their handwriting, unique as a fingerprint, brings faces to my mind as clearly as any photograph. At least it did that day I sat down and opened the trunk in the cellar, a day I needed to talk to my father more than any other after he died.
It was fall, right around the second anniversary of his passing, and I was taking a break from working on my memoir, a story about my grief over losing him. I started it after graduation and didn’t think I could go on, the pain so sharp each time I remembered the details of his death—I kept losing the narrative in my missing him. I told myself how cowardly it was, not to be able to push through.
Frustrated and angry, I decided to take a break and organize my office cabinets instead, something I knew I could do well. That’s when I found the box of condolence notes I received from friends and family. I thought I’d put it away in the place I kept all my letters, the black camp trunk in my cellar.
Taking the cardboard box filled with notes too sad to reread, I switched on the light at the bottom of the cellar steps and breathed in the moldy dampness. Locating the camp trunk in a dark corner of the room, I pulled it to the floor and flicked up the brass latches, raising the lid. Inside were the reams of opened envelopes, birthday cards, postcards from my parents’ and siblings’ travels all over the world, weekly letters sent on pale-blue airmail stationery (Par Avion) to and from England during my year abroad studying art history and English literature in London.
I saw, and then remembered, that the correspondence in the trunk wasn’t always in letter form and wasn’t always mailed. I knelt over the trunk to look inside for more and found several notes—some funny, some congratulatory, some that made me blush with childlike humiliation.
One particular note I remember was slipped under my bedroom door on a day I sat sulking on my bed after being sent to my room, too old at thirteen or fourteen for such punishment.
Don’t ever speak to your mother like that again. She may forgive you, but I shall not.
His tone would have been stern and I hated the thought of him freezing me out. He did it well. I remembered that what I said to my mother was not unlike the words I said to myself moments earlier, while working at my desk upstairs: You are being stupid.
Some of the pieces of paper were notes written inside birthday cards, left in front of my breakfast plate before school: We are so very proud of you, our most spirited child. A long series of X’s and O’s would follow, one for each year and two big ones to grow on.
Some words were inscribed in notes placed inside books he gave me: This is a favorite of mine, and I thought you would also find it interesting, Happy birthday!
Some pieces of saved paper had been pinned to a family bulletin board in the kitchen where we left messages and reminders. Those having to do with finance were penned in red marker so we were sure to see them, with two small drawings and a few simple words: a happy face drawn above Here’s your allowance, a sad face drawn above Here’s your Amex bill.
A letter I reopened sitting on the cool cement floor that afternoon, because I still longed my father’s advice and support, shook me to my core. When I opened the envelope and pulled out the neatly tri-folded stationery, I saw him so clearly in my mind’s eye simply through his handwriting. In the way he formed his letters on the page, I saw his big, sturdy, sun-spotted hands, his blue eyes that always looked directly into mine when we talked, and I heard his voice, often formal and direct, but always soft and kind.
He must have known I was searching for reinforcement that day from a serious bout of self-doubt. He must have been watching as I struggled with my inability to continue working on the memoir, fighting against my impulsivity to hurry the process, frustrated by lack of grammar and spelling skills that added hours of extra time to a process I wasn’t even sure I knew enough about to move forward with. He must have known, or at least I wanted to believe he did.
The letter I found that day while kneeling over the trunk in the cellar was written to me and mailed to college and meant as meaningful direction from a parent who believed his child needed to accept her disability and write despite it. There was no acknowledgment of dyslexia when I was young, although my mother had it, too, and no money for tutors in my house even if they had recognized it as a learning problem and not just laziness. Fortunately, I had a father who was smart, patient, and diligent with his children’s learning. He believed in persistence. I needed to slow myself down, he often said. Go over my spelling again and again with the Webster’s dictionary he bought for me. Check and re-check my work. Proofread it again and again. I would always have to run the extra mile.
“Sorry Gilly, it’s just the way it is for you if want to be the kind of writer you tell me you want to be,” I hear him say, when I was a sophomore in college, his stationery, still crisp at the folds, in my hands. I have saved this particular letter all these years, as a reminder he had my back then and now.
You must learn to write more carefully, and I do know how hard this is for you. I don’t know why, but your mother is very much the same way. I write all her notes and letters for her as you know, but I can’t do that for you, nor would you want me to. I do believe you can overcome this, because you are such a good reader, unlike Mom, so there is half the battle. And because you want to. Another third of the battle!
As you grow up into the world, you are going to have to write many more letters—and not just to me. Important letters to important people. I well know you want to be a writer—a good writer; therefore, you must learn to write correctly. All of the good content you write is countered by the atrocious errors, which even your younger sister does not make, i.e., hear for here, there for their, to for too. If you don’t know, then find out. Buy a dictionary. Didn’t Mom and I give you a Webster’s for your high school graduation? If you do know and are sloppy, then get un-sloppy! I cannot emphasize how important I think this is. Please do something about it—and I don’t mean stop writing, because your ability for expressing yourself on paper will exceed the mistakes once you stop making them. There is simply no excuse for lazy errors. Read it backward if you have to, find a friend to help you proof your work. The content of your writing is ruined by these careless errors. I know you can do this. You are a talented and smart girl. Do the work. Fight the last third of your battle and win it.
During my junior year in college, I decided to pursue a journalism degree while battling my terrible grammar and spelling habits. In the spring of 1976, encouraged by my creative writing and journalism professors, I was one of three juniors—out of hundreds state-wide who applied—chosen for a coveted summer internship with a small, but influential, New England newspaper owned and run by the Reston Family of The New York Times. Terrified I actually got the job, I wrote home that I was worried I wasn’t up to the task and had bitten off more than I could chew. A week later, I received this letter of support from my father in my college mailbox:
I know you attributed getting the internship with The Vineyard Gazette to sheer luck, but I rather think it is a case of tenacity combined with talent. This is a prestigious honor. You write that both of your fellow reporters are Ivy-Leaguers. Don’t let that intimidate you. Talent is as talent does. I know you work hard. Take your dictionary and don’t forget to use it. You have a year of good writing under your belt at college, you had very good writing classes in high school, plus all those wonderful letters home from Europe which count as good practice, too. You are one of the editors of your college newspaper, which is nothing to sniff at. You have always been a prolific and enthusiastic reader. Remember that. Learn all you can from the Reston family, and their guests who will come to speak to the young staff throughout the summer as you told me—Art Buchwald, William Styron, Peter Benchley, and so on, plus your senior editors. They are there to teach you. Go in early, stay late. Keep your eyes on the prize. I believe in you.
With all my love,
P.S. Your spelling is getting better!
After graduating in 1978, receiving and re-reading those letters and notes to and from Dad kept me writing when no newspaper in New York City would hire me as a full-time staff reporter—when a “writing job” meant an editorial assistant position typing product information for the back of the book in a bridal magazine. When I gave up the dream of full-time reporting, I moved to Vermont and become a News Bureau Director for a ski area, pumping out press releases about snow-making and ski conditions. Later, when I had to turn down a plum reporting job at a regional New England daily because the pay was too low (Dad advised against it), “writing” meant moving back to New York and taking a job with a large public relations firm so I could pay my own rent and my grocery bills. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I was writing, my father said, and he was right.
My dreams of becoming that real writer I had envisioned seemed to be drifting further away, when in actuality, as Dad said, each job I took was honing another skill to take me closer to where I would one day want to be.
In the meantime, I could be creative by writing letters to him. I could tell stories about my daily goings-on, and he was a captive audience.
Reading through some of the correspondence we exchanged (Dad photocopied letters I sent to him and Mom, which I now have), I saw the course of my life and the turn of events that led me on the path toward that master’s degree in 2016. Some of them were small twists, and I wrote to Dad looking for guidance. Some of them were huge missteps where Dad gave opinions even when I didn’t ask for them.
I must tell you I think you are marrying the wrong man. I know you love Nantucket, and the house there with the wonderful view you write so often about, but you should by no means confuse the place with purpose. We understand at age thirty-two you would like to be settled, but don’t be impulsive. Your mother and I think you are settling for less than you deserve, and you have certainly moved away to a place that will make it difficult to look for freelance public relations clients for your new business.
We are very concerned about this prenuptial agreement, the entire concept of which seems selfish of him and a terrible breach of trust between two people who are supposedly in love. The issue of his not wanting children concerns us greatly. I know you think you will change his mind, but you will not.
I suggest you talk to him again about doing away with the prenuptial. If he insists on it, Mom and I think you should move back into your apartment full-time in New York and really think this through. I am willing to help you financially until you are on firm ground with the idea of your new company, but if you insist on going through with the wedding, I cannot give you my support.
We implore you to give this union some serious thought. You have expressed much negative emotion about it during the past several months, and Mom and I are very worried you are making a mistake. Please give this matter serious thought with your head, and not your heart.
Six weeks before that idyllic Nantucket wedding would have taken place, and two months after I had received Dad’s letter, still fully convinced he was wrong about my fiancé and I was right about the potential marriage, the groom walked away.
I limped back to New York City and, with Dad’s support, launched a successful public relations and events planning business out of my tiny, shared apartment. Although I didn’t know it then, it was an important stepping stone on my path as a freelance writer. He loaned me the money to buy my first word processor. I paid him back within the year.
One of the most telling letters I found of the writing style I absorbed from him and settled into was received eighteen months after we moved back into the family farm where I was raised, and twenty years prior to my MFA.
Yesterday was a beautiful day here in Redding, as I’m sure it was on the farm in New Jersey. I am doing taxes but took a break to write to you. The forsythia is out; the daffodils are beautiful. The trillium is blooming down in the rock garden flanking the driveway and near the front door where I transplanted some from a walk Mom and I took last spring. I always mean to give you a couple for your shade garden when you come up. Remind me next spring—a good time to transplant them. They like wet feet, so look for a spot now. How are those ferns doing we found in the woods in Redding last fall? Have they propagated? They should be doing nicely if you planted them as I instructed. You and I had a nice mulch pile started. Did you turn it this past winter? Do it again, now. That should help everything.
Don’t forget to dig it in a little with a stiff rake. Just don’t spread it onto the top. I realize your many perennial beds and house foundation plantings are a big project for you, but they are in, and you must help bring them along or all will be wasted work and money. Have you had any luck finding reasonably priced help? I think your sister Liz and husband Dean pay too much for their landscaper, and as much as you’d like to use him because Liz lives so close to the farm and it’s easy to share him, keep looking. I will be down in a week or so to help get you started and prune those cedars. Don’t forget to keep the garden journal I gave you up to date.
Is Michael still considering a vegetable garden? I noticed a few asparagus peeking through ours, and the apple trees are about to bloom. Our vegetable garden is well planted: onions, lettuces, beets, strawberries, spinach, beans, garlic, rhubarb, peppers, zucchini, squash. The raspberry rows look good, too. I’m still using our neighbor Ruth Stout’s methods of hay mulching, which mom thinks looks messy but works so well.
I shall write again, and Mom, of course, will call. We are proud of you two, for taking on that centuries old place and for wanting to raise your Lizzie there, as you were. It’s lovely to think she is the fifth generation on Cedar Ridge Farm! Sometimes we think we talked you into too much. Just remember what I said: don’t strive for perfection with the house and barns, save that for your writing.
When I finished reading the letter, I rose from the concrete basement floor and headed upstairs to my desk. I thought I remembered starting a letter to him before he died, but I wasn’t positive. I went to look through my file drawer where I, indeed, found the partially written one. He died in October, and it was written to him the previous spring.
Sipping my coffee while I am thinking about you, I searched out my windows but could only see the tiniest tips of new growth, mostly from ephemeral bulbs, scattered here and there where the snow had melted from the bouts of rain we had last week. They are on schedule but struggling. A few purple crocuses and some snowdrops put up the good fight in February but have now disappeared into a gooey heap on the grass, which is still spotted with snow here and there on the north side of the silver maples.
A few day-lily leaves had begun to sprout but got pounded by the snow fall you missed in Conn. (lucky you guys) two weeks ago—their tips are pale and white with frost bite, like tiny little fingers without gloves. I can’t wait until the trillium push up though in the fern bed.
Always my favorite, those stalwart little things, and I hope I see them before the rabbits nibble them to nothing.
I find less and less bearded Iris shoots in the perennial bed these days, and I hope I don’t lose them all. I can’t believe they have been here since Oma’s days. That’s seventy-five years of diligence from those bulbs. Amazing to think your great-grandmother was a gardener, and today, experts say bulbs should only last three years. Like everything else from that generation, these have outlived the odds, and I am so grateful each spring to see them come back. Or maybe they just have that Sollmann persistence.
The letter wasn’t finished. I don’t know why. Maybe my dyslexia got in the way and I simply forgot, moving on to something else more immediate. But I can imagine finishing it now with:
I love you, Dad, see you next week.
P.S. I found the trillium before the rabbits got to it.
I would have put it into an envelope and walked to my mailbox at the end of our gravel drive. I’d open the heavy, dark-green, metal door and prop the envelope inside, then pull the red metal flag up to alert our mailman a letter is waiting for pickup.
I imagine Dad receiving it, wherever he is now, and eagerly pulling out his box of Crane’s stationery and a felt-tip pen, mindfully drafting his reply.
Ryder S. Ziebarth graduated in 2016 with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. A past associate editor at The Tiferet Journal, Ryder was also the Interview Columnist for Proximity Magazine’s TRUE blog. Her work has appeared in N Magazine, NPR-radio’s Cultivating Place, Conversations on Natural History and the Human Impulse to Garden, The New York Times, Punctuate, Hippocampus, The Brevity Blog, Tiferet, Assay, plus other blogs, websites, and news outlets. She is the fourth generation to live on her family’s 18th century property in North Central New Jersey.