To this day I remember my mum’s letters. It all started in December 1941. Every night she sat at the big table in the kitchen and wrote to my brother Johnny, who had been drafted that summer. We had not heard from him since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
I didn’t understand why my mum kept writing Johnny when he never wrote back.
“Wait and see – we’ll get a letter from him one day,” she claimed. Mum said that there was a direct link from the brain to the written word that was just as strong as the light God has granted us. She trusted that this light would find Johnny.
I don’t know if she said that to calm herself, dad or all of us down. But I do know that it helped us stick together, and one day a letter really did arrive. Johnny was alive on an island in the Pacific.
I had always been amused by the fact that mum signed her letters, “Cecilia Capuzzi”, and I teased her about that. “Why don’t you just write ‘Mum’?” I said.
I hadn’t been aware that she always thought of herself as Cecilia Capuzzi. Not as Mum. I began seeing her in a new light, this small delicate woman, who even in high-heeled shoes was barely one and a half metres tall.
She never wore make-up or jewelry except for a wedding ring of gold. Her hair was fine, sleek and black and always put up in a knot in the neck. She wouldn’t hear of getting a haircut or a perm. Her small silver-rimmed pince-nez only left her nose when she went to bed.
Whenever mum had finished a letter, she gave it to dad for him to post it. Then she put the water on to boil, and we sat down at the table and talked about the good old days when our Italian-American family had been a family of ten – mum, dad and eight children. Five boys and three girls. It is hard to understand that they had all moved away from home to work, enroll in the army, or get married. All except me.
Around next spring mum had got two more sons to write to. Every evening she wrote three different letters which she gave to me and dad afterwards so we could add our greetings.
Little by little the rumour about mum’s letters spread. One day a small woman knocked at our door. Her voice trembled as she asked: “Is it true you write letters?”
“I write to my sons.”
“And you can read too?” whispered the woman.
The woman opened her bag and pulled out a pile of air mail letters. “Read… please read them aloud to me.”
The letters were from the woman’s son who was a soldier in Europe, a red-haired boy who mum remembered having seen sitting with his brothers on the stairs in front of our house. Mum read the letters one by one and translated them from English to Italian. The woman’s eyes welled up with tears. “Now I have to write to him,” she said. But how was she going to do it?
“Make some coffee, Octavia,” mum yelled to me in the living room while she took the woman with her into the kitchen and seated her at the table. She took the fountain pen, ink and air mail notepaper and began to write. When she had finished, she read the letter aloud to the woman.
“How did you know that was exactly what I wanted to say?”
“I often sit and look at my boys’ letters, just like you, without a clue about what to write.”
A few days later the woman returned with a friend, then another one and yet another one — they all had sons who fought in the war, and they all needed letters. Mum had become the correspondent in our part of town. Sometimes she would write letters all day long.
Mum always insisted that people signed their own letters, and the small woman with the grey hair asked mum to teach her how to do it. “I so much want to be able to write my own name so that my son can see it.” Then mum held the woman’s hand in hers and moved her hand over the paper again and again until she was able to do it without her help.
After that day, when mum had written a letter for the woman, she signed it herself, and her face brightened up in a smile.
One day she came to us, and mum instantly knew what had happened. All hope had disappeared from her eyes. They stood hand in hand for a long time without saying a word. Then mum said: “We better go to church. There are certain things in life so great that we cannot comprehend them.” When mum came back home, she couldn’t get the red-haired boy out of her mind.
After the war was over, mum put away the pen and paper. “Finito,” she said. But she was wrong. The women who had come to her for help in writing to their sons now came to her with letters from their relatives in Italy. They also came to ask her for her help in getting American citizenship.
On one occasion mum admitted that she had always had a secret dream of writing a novel. Why didn’t she? I asked.
“All people in this world are here with one particular purpose,” she said. “Apparently, mine is to write letters.” She tried to explain why it absorbed her so:
“A letter unites people like nothing else. It can make them cry, it can make them laugh. There is no caress more lovely and warm than a love letter, because it makes the world seem very small, and both sender and receiver become like kings in their own kingdoms. My dear, a letter is life itself!”
Today all mum’s letters are lost. But those who got them still talk about her and cherish the memory of her letters in their hearts.