Dear Mr. E.:
It’s funny how the standard greeting is ‘Dear’, isn’t it? Matters not if you’re addressing Mandela or Hitler, your grandmother or the slimy jerk who swindled you from your life’s inheritance, you start with ‘Dear’.
Let’s be clear. On one, very crucial level, you don’t deserve ‘Dear’. And it may be too early in this letter, or even in my life, to acknowledge your basic humanity. But, because of you, I have trained myself to look for the humanity of almost every person, no matter how horrible. And so I will with you.
So, then. Dear Mr. E.:
First and foremost, I have to say that you ruined me for Chuck Berry. In my mind’s eye, that’s exactly who you look like, a malevolent guitar man from the Delta, dark tobacco colored face, creased like tobacco too, conked hair, large sideburns, smelling like I once thought all men smelled like, strong soap and new sweat and beer and tobacco and drugstore aftershave. Not a bad smell, not at all. I still like it on a man; I like it, I recoil from it, then I like it again.
I remember snippets of your voice. Not the voice itself, but its cadence, deep and low and slow, like sweet and loving Grandpa Luttrie’s, the sound of the South. Chuck Berry was always happy, singing about Maybelline’s not being true. You, much more melancholy, small sad doleful smiles, bent back, stooped shoulders.
I would later call men whose energy echoed yours those to whom life had not been kind. I pitied those men; I wanted to help them, make them smile more brightly, help them raise their shoulders and their heads. In fact, I married one.
But it’s much too soon to tell about me. I want to know about you. Who were you then? What was missing in life, or in you, that made you do what you did?
Was it just only me—God, I hope so, though I fear I was but one of many—was it just only me that you sought out?
Ok, so maybe I will tell you more of me. I, like you, am a salesman. I sell very different stuff, to be sure, peace, faith, activism, relational heroism, reconciliation, agape, philios, hesed, reliability, surrender, amends– but I am a salesman nonetheless. I, like you, am like those salesmen in car dealerships, where you go in just to look, and the next thing you know you’re driving a car you never truly wanted for a lot more than you wanted to spend, with a payment that will last a lifetime. Those skills are rare, I am sure you will agree. Whether used for good or for ill, they are rare indeed.
So what’s the problem, then? I can see you saying, or at least thinking, if they didn’t want the car, why’d they come onto the lot? So okay, touché. Why did they come on the lot? Why did I go to you?
One thing you enhanced in me, Dear Mr. E., was an appreciation of words. I am a walking thesaurus. One word I think of often is ‘coerce’—command, convince, invite, encourage, threaten, compel. Another word is ‘consent’—agree, assent, surrender, obey, submit.
Since your backyard and your bougainvillea became visible to my mind’s eye thirteen years ago, and since I let my own die, choking it and starving it, till only a few sickly leaves remain where once there was lushness, willing it to die, but never truly knowing why, since my mind’s eye remembered the bright pink flowers.
Since I drove to your house as if on autopilot and stared at the ordinary façade, and knew exactly where to turn my head to see the trellis.
Since I bought the first pair of boots to stomp the earth and be badass Anabaptist, to feel a sense of naked power, even though I have been faithful in my determination to always use that power for service, never for ill.
Since I remembered that across the tracks there was a cemetery of silent, dead witnesses to your deeds.
Since I tried to end my life.
Since I took it back from the brink eight years ago, in bits and pieces and shards.
Since I truly understood why my comically distended belly would never ever bear fruit.
Since I live in a unlocked house, because safety is a cruel myth.
Since all this and more, I have thought about those words, where your responsibility starts…and maybe melds with mine—cooperation, collusion, collaboration—and finally, where the responsibility, blame, accountability, reckoning, curse lastly rests: with me.
And it did rest with me, wholly for a quarter century. Even now, remnants of that yoke remain on my shoulders, shards imbedded in my skin long after I shucked off the weight of both your body and your toxic legacy.
Some of the shards, I actually welcome. Lodged deep within me is a profound compassion, empathy, concern for those whose shoulders bow.
I do not thank you for the affliction, nor the scars; as my sister would say, don’t get it twisted. What I am grateful for is my creativity, that I have hopefully been able to sculpt some small beauty from the grotesque. I am grateful that the barrenness of my womb has led me to fill it with love and concern for every child I have ever seen and will ever see. That is why my belly is big, I think.
I am godmother, auntie, nana, big sister, protector, warrior, peacemaker, receptacle to the world.