Why We Write: “I Found My Father This Father’s Day Week”
Editor’s Note: When we facilitate Veterans Writing Project creative workshops for veterans and their family members, we tell participating veterans and family members that it’s okay to write for publication, to put your writing in a shoebox for your children and grandchildren, or to shred it.
For Father’s Day, the daughter of a veteran of World War II shares the meaning and connection she found in reading letters written by her father, who served in the US Army XX Corps in Europe.
by Andrea Billups
I found my father this Father’s Day week.
Even as he passed away in 2001, his soul, his spirit, his heart were encased in a box of paper ephemera that I’d carted state to state for nearly a decade. He spoke out from the past as I opened letters and discovered old photos—a man in full, whom I’d never known.
My father was deeply curious, but not a formally educated man. He was not emotionally available or articulate to the outer world. He was fifty-three when I was born. By the time I was ten he was retiring and by the time I graduated college, he was an old man. He lived until he was ninety, with a sense of humor, a love of baseball and a desire to see me do more and be more than he ever could.
But this week, as I organized my history that I’d stored haphazardly in a cardboard box, my father was staring back at me, sending me to an unexpectedly emotional place—where I dreamed of asking him a million questions about his life, I found his twenty-something self, a formal portrait of him in a suit, looking dapper and elegant, a jawline and bone structure that were cinematic. Where was it taken? What did he want from the world? Did he realize he was a glamorous hunk? Did he dream then, of having children, like me?
And then there were his letters. Browned thin paper, carefully folded, filled with a curling cursive and words that I might never have expected would come out of my oft-stoic dad. He wrote beautifully, emotionally to his mother and sister, my grandmother and aunt, during his time serving in World War II. Letters from Germany and Austria filled with loving assurances that he was fine, the landscape was beautiful and he would be home soon to take care of the homestead.
His heart sang out through his words—his hopes and dreams of the future, his resolution that he was doing the right thing in serving his country, but man, did he miss home. “My dearest and loving mother, how I miss you and my sister, too….Do not worry about me. The war here is almost over and I will return soon to take care of you all and our home…. ” It was intense and passionate, this writing, a clue to my own career trajectory as journalist and writer, that I had never seen.
Writing, it was clear from his words, was in my genes. People had always asked why I loved what I did as a career, and perhaps this was a clue. My father had a voice that I never heard. And now, as I sat in a new home, wiping away tears, on some level I was delighted to read his words, see his crafted penmanship, but hurt that I could not and did not acknowledge all of his specialness, his greater depth, while he lived.
I did not really know this man—the eloquent gentleman—who was talking through those letters,. My dad, to my mind, was blue-collar, world-weary, life-tired, disappointed and oft-cautionary—nothing like the jaunty GI with the tipped hat, with his grinning Army buddies. I’d never seen him use what seemed like a superb vocabulary when he signed cards to me that read simply: “Your little daddy loves you honey.” That sign off was pure, words I now treasure, even as its simplicity belied his use of language three decades hence, when he was seeing the world, finding out who he was and longing for the people he loved in his faraway West Virginia mountain home.
I did not know his heart. Not like this. And now I was meeting someone new. A man connected to his family, a man who had lost his father before he was ten, who clung to his mother as touchstone, and who protected his sister with great ferocity.
He wrote well. He loved hard.
I could say that…about myself on a good day. I love writing and words and lifetime, I’ve given more love than I have received. I feel sure of it. And I am…I know, on this Father’s Day, his daughter.
I miss him. I missed out on some his best stuff. But we are connected. Ever so—me and my handsome, hopeful and writerly little daddy.
Journalist and author Andrea Billups teaches full-time in the School of Journalism and Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University. She works as an editorial consultant to businesses and non-profits and as a professional ghostwriter and coach for writers. She is co-author of the book A Slaying in the Suburbs, with Steve Miller, and co-founder of the handbag and accessories company Be Brilliant Bags. She is a native of West Virginia and a member of the Journalism Hall of Fame at Marshall University.