[One of my favorite pieces of short writing is this post, scribbled in about five minutes in 2006. I've posted it occasionally since then and would like to revisit it now.]
When I think about my secret, most genuine and heroic self, the me I really want to be, I’m an Iowa farm girl, sixteen years old, and the year is 1943. I live in a small farmhouse miles away from nowhere, and there are corn fields that take up so much visual space that it is absolutely claustrophobic sometimes. There’s also a deep blue sky that goes on forever; there’s a battered red pickup truck that kicks up gravel and dust behind it on the rare event that somebody takes it out on the long lonesome roads. There’s nothing much to do but catch glimpses of the war coverage, maybe complain listlessly about the heat, and maybe once in a while walk way down the road to a friend’s house. Her brother’s Over There. Mine is too. He flies B-17 Bombers, the Flying Fortress he calls it in his letters home. I don’t know it at the time, but my brother will be one of the Americans who liberates Italy in the early fall of 1943. He’s already a hero in my eyes, I don’t need to know what he does over there.
And there are other letters. There are letters from a boy who is one of my brother’s friends. I grew up with him around me, though the age difference made sure that he wasn’t actually interested in anything I said or thought. He’s over there too, but he’s not a pilot like my brother. He’s a soldier. And he sends me letters because he doesn’t have any sisters, and his mother died last year and his father – his father’s nearly mad with grief, though nobody talks about it in my house. My dad occasionally makes the thirteen mile drive out to his farm to see how the old man is doing, but when he comes back, he shoos me out of the room and exchanges quiet words with my mother. So my brother’s friend writes me letters. Over the past two years, the letters have become a secret from my parents. I sneak them from the post office like little bits of gold, hiding them in my gloves, which my mom insists I wear, even though it’s hot and they get grey with sweat.
I feel protective of the letters because of the way that they make me feel. I live for these letters. They’re always filthy from passing through many hands when they find me in central Iowa, but the stamps, exotic bright birds, never fail to startle to me and make me feel that he picked that stamp specifically for me. The stamps are beautiful, much more beautiful than one of those stamps that have the old fashioned baby carriage on them. He knows I love birds, I must have told him I did a hundred times in the letters. I keep track of the birds around my house, even the squirrels and the snakes. There isn’t much to do out here, as I’ve mentioned.
In late 1944, my brother comes home. My brother is a man now. I don’t even recognize him. He’s tall and tan, and he has my father’s eyes. My mother and the ladies from town bake him pies and cakes and serve him huge meals of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. My mother is prone to emotional outbursts. She looks at him and tears well up in her eyes, and then she places her hands on his broad chest as if to confirm he’s really there, and she says in a soft, awed voice, “You’re home.”
Even after my brother is home, letters from his friend arrive, addressed to me. He writes from some place I never heard of called Dachau and he says that after he gets home he’s never leaving. “I want to fix up dad’s old farm,” he writes, “and forget this place. But I don’t think I can.”
My mother is outside preparing the soil for her autumn perennials. It is too hot to do much, so I lay in the grass, sheilding my eyes from the blazing sun, while my mother works. I ask my mother if she wants some water, it’s so hot out here, I don’t think the summer is ever going to end… She says yes so I get up and amble back toward the house.
I come in through the backdoor to the kitchen and then I stop very abruptly. On the other side of the room, sitting with my brother and my father, he stands up, polite as a Bible salesman.
I do not think. I do not know. I act on some long denied impulse, foreign and wild. I run across the livingroom and throw my arms around his neck and I press my lips to his. I don’t care that my father is there or my brother, I don’t care that my mother needs water, I don’t even care that he smells like gasoline and cotton and distances too great to ever fully close. Gratitude and pure sparkling joy race through me, right there in my Iowa living room, kissing my childhood friend who went away to war, and came back. And he’s kissing me too. And I’m crying and holding him so tight, so afraid of letting him go. Behind me, coming in through the backdoor, my mother gasps and says, “My Lord! It’s you!” And she starts to cry.
When I think about this, it is enough. I do not think that I would miss the things I have now in my modern life. Given the context of the time, and my own personality, I would be just fine to marry the guy and have three children, and live forever in Iowa.