Guest Column

The Long Road Home
A letter from the past is a reminder that love never fails

A few months ago, the mailman delivered a package to my apartment in Los Angeles. It was from someone I hadn't heard from in 40 years: my seventh-grade English teacher back in North Hampton, N.H.: Wayne I. Elliot '50.

I drew out a letter. Mr. Elliot had always been generous and kind--not just to me, but to everyone in town--and he obviously still was. He also still lived on Woodland Road, was still active with the Boy Scouts, was still married to Betty. My mother had run into him at Market Basket and told him about my memoir. The book is about addiction as spiritual thirst, and more specifically about my 20-year run as a falling-down, black-out drunk. Which is why it seemed extra courtly of Mr. Elliot to write, "I just wanted you to know how very proud I am of you for writing the book. It must have taken a great deal of courage."

It was a warm, newsy letter, but the envelope contained more. There was an autobiography I'd written in 8th grade--already I was telling my story. There was a copy of the graduation program from the North Hampton Elementary School, Class of '66. There was a copy of my valedictorian speech, "Ahead."

I couldn't believe he'd saved the stuff all these years! Last, there was a typewritten letter from Mr. Elliot to me, dated Aug. 16, 1966. "How does one write to one of his very top students as she stands upon the threshold of her high school career?" it began. "You have brought a great deal of honor to not only yourself but to your family and school as well," it continued. "You never once let down for me . . . You're a wonderful girl."

Aug. 16th, which meant he'd written it on his summer vacation. Aug. 16th, when we'd graduated in June, when he would have been preparing for the next crop of students.

Aug. 16th, 1966. You're a wonderful girl. Six months later I would have my first drink--and for a long, long time, I would let everyone down and I would not bring honor to anything.

It was one of the basic questions with which St. Augustine wrestled in his Confessions, the prototype for spiritual memoir. If God was good, he asked, who or what created evil? It's easy to see the evil in others, especially in this age of terrorism and genocide and global war, but nobody knew better than St. Augustine the evil that can arise in our own hearts. Where, but in ourselves, will evil ever begin to be healed?

It's only because it'd begun to heal in mine that I wanted more than anything to write my book. I wanted to thank--if not by name, in spirit--the other people who'd believed in me: my father, Allen, a bricklayer who is buried in North Hampton, my mother, Janet, who still lives in Stratham. My seven brothers and sisters, many of whom also still reside in the Seacoast area. The friends, teammates and many of the teachers at North Hampton Elementary School, Winnacunnet High and UNH (where Mr. Elliot, too, studied).

I read the letter again. I thought of how Mr. Elliot had always encouraged my writing. And how, no matter how bad things got, I had never lost my love of words or my desire to write. They had endured through two decades of drinking, the painful business of getting sober, a move to the West Coast, a stint as a lawyer, a marriage. And now, all those long, sometimes seemingly wasted years--the tortuous journey that, if you look closely enough, constitutes any life--were coming to fruition: not because I'd written a book, but because I was grateful for every last minute of it.

So while I had forgotten Mr. Elliot's letter, all that time the small-town values it represented had invisibly buoyed me up. The values of people who stay in one place and greet each other at the supermarket. Whose work is important to them and who look after the children. Who are humble enough, and kind enough, and generous enough, to let the other person know that he or she matters. Who know that everything depends on knowing we are loved.

Heather King '77, a commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered," is the author of Parched and the upcoming Pulse: Heart of Jesus, both memoirs.

blog comments powered by Disqus