Over the last several weeks I’ve been gathering up items around our house to put out for a yard sale. Into the hodge-podge of books we’ll sell, I added an old paperback cookbook that my mom no longer used and gave to me. As I had never used it myself in all these years, I thumbed through it and decided it wasn’t something I wanted to keep either. But what I found between the pages was something worth saving.
It was the bookmark my mom used to note a particular recipe she wanted to try sometime. Well, it wasn’t a true bookmark, but something used AS a bookmark. It was a letter from my brother Danny to my mom and dad, dated April 19, 1978. My guess is mom had received his letter and around that same time made use of it as a quick substitute bookmark.
Seeing as Danny died in a car accident one year later (May 2, 1979), I find it hard to believe she would have used ANY of his saved letters as bookmarks—those she would have placed in a special drawer, along with other small effects. No, I think she stuck his letter in the cookbook in 1978…and forgot completely about it. Obviously, she didn’t see it when she gave the cookbook to me. And I never noticed it, either, through the years.
Brown around the edges with age, the letter is one that Danny wrote in his final weeks of college. He was a geology major at Allegheny College, set to graduate, and getting ready to head to Carnegie-Mellon University for an MBA. He opens up the letter by saying how much he enjoyed being home in Ridgway the previous weekend, and thanks my parents for a new shirt they’d bought him. Then he describes the work he’s doing on his senior comprehensive report. He mentions a professor who is peeved with him for procrastinating a bit on the project. As well, he’s trying to locate someone to type it for as cheap a rate as possible (the college charges 75 cents per page, and he says that was too much to spend). Finally, Danny writes about the possibility of finding a summer job at Mellon Bank, which would pay enough for him to live in the city and be an asset for him as he begins grad work at CMU.
The postscript is dear: “Somehow, do you think you can send me some envelopes—I’m all out.” In that age before email, cell phones, and texting, a family went through a lot of stationery!
It was strange reading that letter. It was a window into Danny’s life at the end of his college career. As I read his words, I could picture him so clearly. It was as if he were alive, right here and now. In the letter he is looking forward, considering his future. And, of course, unaware of what would happen: That MBA program at CMU was tougher than he anticipated. As bright as he was (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), and as hard as he worked (no procrastination at grad school!), Danny could not keep up with all those students more brilliant than he. Struggling to maintain a “C” in all his courses, he finally dropped out after the first semester. In early 1979, he found a job combining his geology and business interests, got an apartment, and, once again seemed poised for a great future. But he died in a car accident on a warm May evening near Ebensburg, PA.
I myself still have a few letters Danny wrote me. One was penned the day he died, but never sent to me. He wrote it on office memo paper, the kind in triplicate with carbon paper in between. It was found on his office desk by my parents when they collected his belongings after his death. In the memo he said how excited he was to attend my upcoming college commencement, and how proud he was of me. I treasure these words, and am so grateful my parents discovered the memo and gave it to me.
Isn’t it amazing how a simple object or thing or moment—a letter or photo, an article of clothing, a snippet of music, a certain smell—doesn’t simply propel us back to an earlier time, but for brief space in our NOW allows us to see a loved one as clearly in our mind as if they were standing right before us? That’s what I was experiencing as I read the letter-turned-bookmark.
Naturally, it can also make us incredibly sad, as we realize that loved one is no longer with us. Yet that mystical moment with the letter, the photo, the piece of clothing, the sound, the smell—this is a moment for which we often hunger. I was eager to read Danny’s letter. As I did so, I felt connected to my brother again, after an absence of 38 years.
I’m so glad I thumbed through the paperback cookbook and accidentally found this would-be bookmark. I will take this “bookmark” and give it to my mom when I next visit her. I hope she will treasure the long-forgotten letter, savor Danny’s words, remember her son, and feel a sense of connection after a long absence.