1 of 2
Russell Van Leer
Twila Van Leer starts on the daunting job of reading the letters she wrote to her mother over a period of some 20 years.

Right off, a little explanation about that headline. When my parents married, they agreed they would never name a child after either of them. Then my older brother, Don, was born on Dad's 26th birthday and what could they do? He became Donald Melvin Jr. (Twenty-six years later, Don's first baby, a boy, was born on his birthday. Three generations exactly 26 years apart. What are the odds? And by the way, they named him David, not Don.)

A couple of years after Don came along, when I put in an appearance as the first girl, I barely escaped "Barbara" when they decided it would only be right to name me after mother. So, I became Twila Jean. As things fell out, it just naturally became the habit to call me Jean to avoid complications.

Then I went to kindergarten and the first day came home confused to tell Mother that "My teacher doesn't know who I am. She thinks I'm Twila." And the pattern was set. For some 84 years, so far, I have been Jean at home and Twila every place else.

Whew! As if it mattered. Now down to the real business of this column: In 1976, my mother gave me a present. Last week, I opened it. Very poorly wrapped, I must say.

Actually, it was a slew of letters in an old plastic Skaggs Alpha Beta Store bag. When was the last time you saw one of those stores in this locale? The bag kind of disintegrated when I tipped it upside down to pour the contents of that blessed gift out on my dining room table. Dozens, possibly about 200 letters, dated (when I remembered to date my letters) between 1958 and 1976. I haven't counted them yet.

They contain the story of the whole midsection of my life, the years when I was up to my elbows in kids. And the ones that came from mother's end, the tales of my sibs as they matured and went about the business of marrying and having families of their own.

I know what you are thinking: "What kind of idiot has a treasure of this magnitude sitting in a plastic bag on a shelf in the garage?" Well, that's just the kind of idiot I am, the kind that moves such a bag to at least a half-dozen addresses and keeps it intact through several decades of living without ever having opened it. I have always been going to do it, you know. I was going to do it on that magical "someday" when I am going to do all the things I have procrastinated doing while waiting for that perfect day. It's going to be a very busy day if it ever actually comes.

I had very little memory of all the things I wrote to my Utah family while living in other states, but I did hope to be able to find the letters Mom and I exchanged (in verse) on the subject of skeletons and shellatons. Lo and behold, the first letter I picked from the pile had one of the installments of that debate. I kid you not. It took me back several decades in a hurry.

Mom started it. She sent me a letter explaining that if you really want to make a splash in this world, you shed all the outer excesses of flesh and strip down to the bones. Well, you can see that I couldn't let this heresy continue. I immediately sent her a return explaining that if you really want to be noticed, you would get rid of all those bones and become a "shellaton." Her reply (in part):

"Were I in shape that you describe,

"I'm certain sure I would have died.

"My mouth would rest on back of neck

"My brain likewise a total wreck.

"My stomach useless too, I'd find,

"Just resting there on my behind. (etc. etc.)"

A year-long exchange followed until finally Mom said it was time to bury the subject. I couldn't resist the last word:

"Burial is just one step

"In God's eternal scheme of things.

"Suppose, on stepping from your grave,

"You get in line for harp and wings.

"I fear the goodly old St. Pete

"Who guards the pearly gates

"Would glance askance at one who comes

"Without a hair on bony pate.

"'Issue pure white robes to her,

"'Who's just a pile of noisy bones

"'And put her in our heavenly choir?

"'I'd quit this job first,' St. Pete groans.

"I fear there's nothing here to salvage,

"Maybe she was good, but, well

"There is nothing I can do

"But to send her down to H----."

Oh, my goodness. I remember that nonsense so well. That was the nature of my by-post, duly stamped relationship with my mom. The only other impression I had as I picked up a letter at random was to feel ashamed of being such a weenie. It was full of complaints about being tired, being overworked, not having enough financial resources to take care of needs, dealing with a broken-down car and other whiny minutia that made up my life. (A word in my defense: I had or acquired through marriage and adoption 12 children during those years.)

During the next few weeks, expect to find me up to my eyebrows in old letters, reading them, reminiscing and trying to decide, now that they have gained some priority, what to do with them. The Skaggs bag is not an option any more.