The Coiled Shell of Their Lives

Needing them still, I come
when I can, this time to the sea
where we share a room: their double bed,
my single. Morning fog paints the pale
scene even paler. Lace curtains breathing,
the chenille spread folded back,
my father’s feet white sails furled
at the edge of blue pajamas.
Every child’s dream, a parent
in each hand, though this child is fifty.
Their bodies fit easily, with room
to spare. When did they grow
so small? Grow so small—
as if it were possible to swell
backwards into an earlier self.


One more year, I ask the silence.
Last night to launch myself
into sleep I counted their breaths, the tidal
rise and fall I now put my ear to,
the coiled shell of their lives.
~Rebecca McClanahan from “Watching my Parents Sleeping Beside an Open Window Near the Sea” from Deep Light: New and Selected Poems.

My parents have been gone now for some time, my father over 25 years, my mother now over 10 years. Their dying was a long process of counted breaths and pauses. I witnessed their bodies curling into themselves, shrinking smaller, worn down by illness and age.

I still miss them, reminded of them by the events of my own life, still wanting them to take me by the hand as I navigate my own daily path.

After mom’s death, those possessions not distributed to family members have remained packed up and stored in our barn buildings. I know it is well past time to deal with their stuff as I become keenly aware of my own greying and aging.

Untouched in the bookshelf of our bedroom is a sealed box of over 500 letters written by my mother and father between 1941 and 1945. I know the letters began as they were getting to know each other at college, then going from “pinned” to “engaged” and continue for three and a half more years after a hurried wedding Christmas Eve 1942. By mid January 1943 my newly minted Marine officer father shipped out to spend the next three years of his life on the Pacific Ocean, fighting on the battlefields of Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, not to return again to the states until late summer of 1945. My mother wrote her letters from a rural eastern Washington community, living in a “teachers’ cottage” with other war wives who taught school while waiting for their husbands to return home – or not.

It has taken me a decade to find the courage and time to devote to reading these letters they treasured and never threw away. Yesterday I sorted them unopened by postmark date into some semblance of order and sat down to start at the very beginning, which, of course, is my beginning as well. Only sixty letters in, I open each one with some trepidation and a lump in my throat about what I might find written there. I worry I may find things I don’t want to know. I hope I find things that I desperately need to know.

Most of all I want to understand the two people who became my parents within the coiled shell of their forty years together, though broken by a painful divorce which lasted a decade. Having lived through that awful time with them, I want to understand the origin of a love which mended their cracked shell, glueing them back together for five more years before my father died.

As I read their words over the next few weeks, I hope I too can cross a bridge back to them both.

6 thoughts on “The Coiled Shell of Their Lives

  1. Your parents story (and of course your story) somewhat mirrors my in-laws. We too have a footlocker full of letters exchanged during the Korean War. They are insightful, intimate and tearful snapshots of their love and the circumstances of war that kept them apart. When my father-in-law returned he met his daughter who later became my wife. Now, 46 years of marriage later I realize how blessed I became when they collided into a fruitful marriage and adventure of over 60 years together. Both of them are gone now but cherished by the legacy of family they left behind.
    Glenn Perica

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How lovely that you have all those letters, Emily. May they bring you joy, even if they don’t always tell you what you wish to know. I have only one letter that passed between my parents, which I found clearing out their house when Mum went into a home and Dad was moving out, too upset to stay or to do the clearing himself. But this letter was a beauty, written by my Dad in 1948, two years after I was born, and Mum was in hospital with my new-born brother. This letter details all the things he was doing with his 2 year old daughter, and moved me to tears. No wonder we always had a close relationship. It also expresses just how much he loved her, and that love continued until 2012, when she died. So thank you, Emily, for bringing them back to mind,

    Liked by 1 person

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